For one week in May, the sixth annual edition of the Terracotta Festival saw a selection of films from the Far East brought to audiences in central London. The main strand was devoted to 13 of the latest ‘must-see’ releases from across Asia, while there was also a spotlight on cinema in the Philippines, and of course the infamous Terror-Cotta Horror All-Nighter, which took place at the equally notorious Prince Charles Cinema. Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from the festival.
The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)
Following the success of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s superb Penance (2012) comes The Snow White Murder Case, the latest adaptation of a Kanae Minato bestseller. When a beautiful, popular employee at the Snow White soap company is found stabbed to death, with her corpse set on fire, local TV station worker Akahoshi (Gô Ayano) begins using social media to carry out his own investigation into the crime. As he homes in on one of the victim’s co-workers, Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue), a shy woman who has since disappeared, the amateur sleuth uncovers a series of suggestive events from her past, while TV news begins picking up the bait he’s left on his blog. Like Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case explores the circumstances surrounding the crime and its aftermath, as the combination of lies, half-truths, malicious gossip and outright hatred – fuelled by Akahoshi’s ambition – convicts the missing woman before she’s even been located by the police. Less cynical and grim than Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case is a dryly humorous film that works well as both a complex and compelling murder mystery, and as an indictment of the damage that gossip and malice can cause when combined with increasingly intrusive media networks and social media. It might not be as effective as Confessions or Penance, but it’s another respectable Kanae Minato adaptation.
Watch the trailer for The Snow White Murder Case:
Lesson of Evil (Takashi Miike, 2012)
Takashi Miike’s Lesson of Evil (a.k.a. Lesson of the Evil) has attracted comparisons with Confessions, mainly because it deals with violence in a school setting. Unlike Nakashima’s film, Lesson of Evil is a black comedy, and an extremely violent one too.
Lesson of Evil is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 29 September 2014 by Third Window Films. Special features include a two-hour-long making of and a new UK trailer.
Instead of exploring the causes or effects of violence, Miike lets us watch as teacher Seiji Hasumi – a handsome, manipulative sociopath – sees his plans and schemes go increasingly awry, forcing him to resort to ever more violent and excessive ways of dealing with the problem. Hideaki Itô makes for a convincing, even likeable monster, and the skilled Miike throws in a few bizarre touches (including some distinctly Cronenberg-esque elements) that recall his earlier films. Unfortunately, at 130 minutes, Lesson of Evil is also far too long, taking more than 90 minutes to get to its blood-drenched conclusion, losing much of the impetus built up in the first hour. The film’s final acts are certainly memorable, but would have worked better in a drastically reduced running time. Although it’s already played at a few festivals, the extreme levels of violence inflicted upon children (by a teacher, no less) will probably make Lesson of Evil a hard sell in some territories.
Watch the trailer for Lesson of Evil:
The Face Reader (Jae-rim Han, 2013)
The latest in a steady stream of sumptuous, well-mounted South Korean period dramas, The Face Reader stars Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder) as Nae-kyung, a dissolute wretch from a disgraced family, who possesses one valuable skill: as a ‘face reader’, he can assess a person’s character from their facial features. He’s extremely good at it, which attracts the attention of a local brothel keeper who holds ‘face reading’ consultations alongside her more traditional services. After Nae-kyung correctly identifies a murderer, his fame grows even further, and before long local politicians and bureaucrats are using his abilities to weed out lazy or corrupt officials from their departments. Soon, Nae-kyung becomes a well-known figure at court, but hasn’t completely understood just how dangerous his new status could be. As always, Kang-ho Song gives an easy, believable performance as the well-meaning but foolish character stumbling further out of his depth with every step. Production values are incredible and the whole film is a meticulous, attractive recreation of 15th-century Korea, boosted by another excellent score from Lee Byung-woo (A Tale of Two Sisters, Untold Scandal).
Watch the trailer for The Face Reader:
TikTik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012)
Playing out like a Pinoy version of Dog Soldiers, this energetic Philippine horror film stars Dingdong Dantes as cocky young man Makoy. When his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sonia (Lovi Poe) returns to her distant home village after a fight, Makoy follows to try and patch things up. An impromptu banquet goes awry when the inhabitants of the next village turn up, only they’re actually aswang, a kind of shape-changing demon very similar to werewolves. Trapped in their cluttered house, Makoy and the family try and fight off the aswang, while taking care of Sonia, who goes into labour at a most inconvenient time. Shot on limited sets and augmented by extensive green-screen work, TikTik is a surprisingly good-looking film, given a budget considerably smaller than similar Hollywood movies. Director Erik Matti keeps things moving consistently and makes good use of split-screen effects, but relies mainly on an engaging cast and decent dialogue. While it’s not particularly original, TikTik is well made and memorable enough to please horror fans worldwide.
Screening at: Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF), UK
Dates: 27 March – 6 April 2014
Also screening at: ICA, London
Dates: 18-23 April 2014
At the height of its powers, the Japanese film industry produced over 500 hundreds films a year. As such, it is not uncommon for films, or entire filmographies of particular directors, to go overlooked or undetected for many years. This is certainly the case for director Yoshitarô Nomura (1919-2005), a name that is largely unheralded in international film criticism. However, decades after his most seminal contributions to Japanese cinema, Nomura is receiving his first ever international retrospective at this year’s Bradford International Film Festival.
Considered to be a pioneer of Japanese film noir, Yoshitarô Nomura may very well be one of Japanese cinema’s best kept secrets. Including over 80 films, his long career began at the height of Japan’s cinematic golden age, and his genre-centric filmmaking was widely popular with Japanese audiences in its day. He was best known for his film adaptations of stories by revered crime/mystery author Seichô Matsumoto, who, at his commercial peak during the late 1950s, was Japan’s highest paid writer. Politically left-leaning, Matsumoto’s downbeat novels were emblematic of the post-war pessimism experienced by the Japanese people in the turbulent years following atomic destruction, foreign occupation and waning nationalism. Bradford’s retrospective collects the five best examples of Nomura’s Matsumoto adaptations, including Stakeout (aka The Chase, Harikomi, 1958), Zero Focus (Zero no shôten, 1961), The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, 1970), The Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, 1974) and The Demon (Kichiku, 1978).
What is immediately apparent is that although Nomura’s films have never garnered much interest in the West, they demonstrate a clear interest in Western film conventions, particularly 40s and 50s American noir. This influence is perhaps best represented in Zero Focus, a strange and exhilarating fusion of duplicitous, Hitchcockian intrigue and post-war Japanese social commentary.
The story starts with newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) telling us, via voice-over narration, that her husband of a single week, Kenichi (K244ji Nambara), a successful ad agency executive, has been promoted to the company’s head office in Tokyo, but needs to travel cross-country to his former branch to tie up loose ends. However, after boarding the train to Kanazawa, he is never seen again. Concerned, Teiko heads to Kanazawa in search of him, with only a couple of photos and a lead at Kenichi’s old office to go on. As she makes her enquiries, Teiko realises just how little she knew about her husband as the remnants of a secret double life come to the fore. Digging deeper into Kenichi’s past, Teiko soon meets a woman who may have had reason to murder him.
Zero Focus revels in several standard noir conceits. The film is framed around Kuga’s matter-of-fact voice-over, but also relies on nefarious characters, dual identities, quick plotting and shock revelations. There’s even a bottle of poisoned whiskey doing the rounds – bumping off characters who know too much. But rather than merely emulating his American muses, in particular Alfred Hitchcock and Rebecca (1940), Nomura blends these propensities with a slightly skewered rendition of presentational Japanese filmmaking. As is the case with many films from this era, Takashi Kawamata’s cinematography features plenty of immaculate compositions. However, something looks and feels different here; stripped down and strangely mechanical. Zero Focus is not gritty exactly – it’s too pristine for that – but a certain rough efficiency prevails. This is partly due to geography, with Nomura largely eschewing the cinematic comfort zone of modern Tokyo and keeping much of the action in small, rural and, as yet, relatively undeveloped towns along Japan’s west coast, creating a more down-to-earth quality that belies Kawamata’s professional framing.
Watch the original Japanese trailer for Zero Focus:
Indeed, Zero Focus has a number of things to say about the modernisation process the country was undergoing at the time. The film seems to subtly criticise the centuries-old social tradition of miai, where the family of an individual tries to match them with a prospective marital partner, prefaced with a brief period of courtship to see if they nominally get along (a suggested marriage rather than arranged). It’s through this process that Teiko and Kenichi are wed, and the story relies on Teiko’s naïveté about her husband for the mystery of his double life to function, which may not have been the case if their relationship had been built over a longer, more organic period. In the background of its murder/suicide plot, Zero Focus seems to suggest that if Japan were to truly modernise, maybe it needed to abandon such long-held, old-fashioned values.
Such progressive thinking carries over into the film’s structure, which is laid out in two distinct sections. The first consists of relentless investigation, as Teiko dutifully seeks out the next person to question. The second depicts an extended cliff-top confrontation, where we learn what really happened to Kenichi. The first act is the winding up that precipitates the grand unspooling of the finale, where light-footed flashbacks flesh out and tie together the multiple story strands, coupled with differing assumptions of events in a way similar to both Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). And yet, Zero Focus is so nimble, so brazenly twisty, that it’s all too easy to get lost in its heaps of convolution. The film moves briskly through each scene, which doesn’t leave much room for the building and releasing of tension. On the flip side, there is something equally refreshing in its single-mindedness and tightly constructed sequences. Dense it may be, but Zero Focus is an interesting minor success nonetheless.
And if Zero Focus is characterised by deft poise, The Castle of Sand is its inverse cousin: a sprawling police procedural that is consistently identified by Japanese critics as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time. Based on a popular mystery serialisation Matsumoto wrote for daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, later published as the novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, The Castle of Sand sees two detectives – a veteran (Tetsurô Tamba) and a rookie (Kensaku Morita) – try to solve the murder of an elderly man found bludgeoned to death in a train yard.
Like Zero Focus, scant clues point to the countryside, which Tamba’s Detective Imanishi traverses via train – an increasingly key component to Matsumoto’s stories – and bus in the sweltering Japanese summer heat. Imanishi begins to track down characters from the victim’s past, who was a retired police officer well liked and deeply respected in the community he presided over. But just as Imanishi’s investigation starts to run out of steam, he begins to establish a connection between the deceased, Miki (Ken Ogata), and Eiryo Waga (Gô Katô), a famous classical composer with a buried secret.
Watch a trailer for The Castle of Sand:
Unfurling over nearly two and a half hours, The Castle of Sand front-loads its narrative with Imanishi’s investigation: following up leads, interviewing persons of interest, establishing motives, hitting dead ends, re-evaluating the evidence, finding new leads and so on. It’s very matter-of-fact and borders on being humdrum, executed in a plain, linear fashion that lacks the energy of, say, Zero Focus.
However, the film makes a noticeable gear change when Imanishi finally presents his findings, and the identity of the person he suspects is the murderer, to his department. All the loose ends from previous scenes start to tie together as he posits his hypothesis, which features an extended explanation to establish the connection between the murderer and the murdered. Imanishi’s presentation is intercut with scenes from a classical concert performed by Waga and his orchestra, which provides the backing soundtrack to a series of flashbacks concerning the murderer’s motivation – a childhood fraught with hardship and discrimination. These expositional scenes, where Ogata features as the still-alive police officer Miki, play out sans dialogue and, as such, are evocative of silent movie storytelling, with the sweeping symphony of Waga’s concert as musical accompaniment. It is at this point where The Castle of Sand reveals its hand, shifting from a mundane investigation to an engrossing character study enriched with pathos and complex emotional depth.
Nomura’s exploration of pathos and emotional complexity arguably reached its zenith with The Demon, perhaps the most downbeat and pessimistic of his Matsumoto adaptations. Based on one of the writer’s short stories, which in turn was inspired by a real-life incident, The Demon sees Nomura working again with Ken Ogata, who plays the put-upon owner of a failing printing business that he runs with his wife (Shima Iwashita). However, the story starts with Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa), the long-time mistress of Ogata’s Sokichi and mother of his three secret love children – Riichi (Hiroki Iwase), aged 6; Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), aged 3; and baby Shoichi (Jun Ishii).
When Sokichi is unable to continue with his maintenance payments, Kikuyo snaps, corralling the kids onto the next train to confront him and break the news about his secret family to his wife. Upon finding out that he has no more money to pay her, Kikuyo takes off, leaving the children in Sokichi’s care. Sokichi tries to take on the burden of having three new mouths to feed. His understandably peeved wife, however, is not so inclined, and becomes increasingly hostile towards the children. What follows is a difficult yet strangely engrossing watch, as Sokichi tries to shirk this new responsibility he can’t afford to take on. With no sign of his mistress, who has well and truly disappeared, Sokichi is manipulated by his belligerent wife to conceive ways of disposing of the children (after all, there’s no concrete evidence proving that they are indeed his). But his growing attachment to them makes this easier said than done.
With its domestic tension and controversial subject matter that flirts heavily with child abuse, The Demon is certainly one of the toughest of Nomura’s films to stomach. But if there is only one thing that makes this fiendish and unsavoury tale palatable, even compassionate, it lies with Ogata’s fearless and mesmerising lead performance. While he doesn’t elicit sympathy exactly, Ogata does manage to convey a very real sense of conflict, hurt and desperation, with Iwashita’s wife character perhaps being more broadly ‘evil’ and antagonistic. Either could qualify as the ‘demon’ of the film’s title, and one could argue that Kikuyo, the mistress, is also not totally blameless. Playing the murder victim in The Castle of Sand, Ogata is, in his own way, playing a victim once again, torn between a lingering, unconditional paternal love and the cold reality of his wife and financial situation.
There’s the children to consider as well; all of whom perform admirably in the face of such terrible treatment (Iwase is a particular highlight as the precocious Riichi), with Nomura’s confident direction ensuring that the interplay between Ogata and his estranged kids is taut, unpredictable yet sensitive, and sometimes deceptively moving. The Demon, then, manages that rare trick in cinema of making you care about an absolute scoundrel. Ogata ended up winning the Best Actor prize for his efforts at the 2nd Japanese Academy Awards, securing a prestigious career playing unusual and/or challenging roles in films such as Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-bushi kô, 1983), where he won Best Actor again, and Paul Schrader’s multi-segmented Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).
This modest sample of Nomura’s career strongly suggests a body of work that’s not afraid to retain its edges and venture places that threaten to render it unpopular. Hopefully, we will see more of his films released soon as a result of his rediscovery. To this end, the power of the film retrospective should not go underestimated. If it wasn’t for the retrospective curated by the late Donald Ritchie for the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, the films of Yasujir244 Ozu would have likely been confined to the position of niche curiosity, reserved only for the most dedicated of world cinema aficionados. Although it’s unlikely Nomura will ever receive the same admiration as Ozu, the fact that his work is finally having its moment in the sun at an international festival is cause enough for celebration.
The Raindance Film Festival has a history of screening independent Asian cinema, and this year was no exception, with 13 films showing in the Way Out East strand, including the world premiere of Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. Below, Sarah Cronin takes a look at some of the highlights.
The Kirishima Thing (Daihachi Yoshida, 2012)
A polished, intelligent and entertaining film, Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards. Taking place over a period of five days, a series of events is revealed from different points of view in this compelling high school drama. The title relates to star pupil and athlete Kirishima, who mysteriously quits the volleyball team and disappears from school, leaving behind a trail of teen angst. He won’t answer his girlfriend’s texts; his best friends, who skip the virtually compulsive after-school activities to hang out playing basketball, are left in the dark; while his replacement on the volleyball team is bullied for not being Kirishima’s equal out on the court.
With its obvious focus on cliques, the films has well-known elements of the American teen drama: there are the attractive, popular kids; the shy, nerdy outsiders (in this case, they’ve all joined the cinema club, sneakily making a zombie film), and the rebels. There’s the popular, pretty girl who secretly wants to join the cinema club but knows she never will, and there are the familiar heartbreaking crushes, and the devastating disappointments of adolescence. But despite these familiar tropes, the film still feels refreshing. Yoshida shines a light on the pressure inflicted on Japanese teens, with the after-school clubs seen as necessary for future success. Ultimately, that’s why Kirishima’s disappearance is so disturbing to his fellow students; it’s like the near-equivalent of suicide.
Sake-Bomb (Junya Sakino, 2013)
There are some genuine laugh-out loud moments in Sake-Bomb (admittedly mostly in the first 30 minutes), an entertainingly diverting film about the insecurities of growing up Asian-American in California, packaged in the form of a road movie of sorts. Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is unemployed, obnoxious, arrogant, and spends most of his time trying to develop a following for his YouTube channel, where he posts endless videos ripping apart Asian stereotypes. Justifiably dumped by his girlfriend, he has nothing else to do when his small-town cousin, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), arrives from Japan on an ill-fated quest to find the love of his life, his former English teacher, who suddenly returned to California without an explanation. As they travel north to San Francisco, a series of encounters with a dizzy cast of characters reveal Sebastian’s spiteful cynicism, which thaws when he meets Joslyn, a cool, equally misanthropic writer always up for fun. But it’s Naoto, charming and likeable, if hopelessly naïve, who eventually makes Sebastian confront the bitterness that he feels as an outsider.
Sake-Bomb is a charming, if slight, film that appears more interesting for its subtext rather than how it’s put together. Sebastian’s rants about the under-representation of Asian-Americans, for example, is spot on, and it’s refreshing to see Japanese-born director Junya Sakino trying to do something to redress that balance in a comedic, painfully honest way.
Watch the trailer for Sake-Bomb :
Court of Zeus (Gen Takahashi, 2013)
Director Gen Takahashi’s follow-up to Confessions of a Dog, shares the same ethos as its predecessor: a concern for the corruption that eats away at any notion of fairness in the Japanese legal system. In turn, Takahashi’s films expose the wider problems with the society at large: deference towards elders, the obsession with saving face, and the treatment of women.
Read Sarah Cronin’s interview with director Gen Takahashi here.
But where Confessions of a Dog was a riveting film with elements from both the action and thriller genres, Court of Zeus is a far less successful courtroom drama, about a newly appointed, work-obsessed judge, Kano, and his young, neglected fiancé, Megumi, who is arrested for murder after an altercation with her lover. While it is disturbing to learn that most cases in Japan are decided before the protagonists ever enter the courtroom, and the film tellingly reveals the misogyny that taints women’s domestic lives (once engaged, it’s impossible for her to work, and even her choice to take a floral arranging course has to be approved by her future husband), stylistically the film just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The cinematography is clunky in places and feels rather dated, and there are just too many awkward set-ups that lead to an unrealistic conclusion. Still an interesting watch, but sadly something of a disappointment in view of Takahashi’s promising previous work.
Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady initially seems like a middle-of-the-road, coming-of-age story about two high school girls who develop an unlikely friendship. The plain, painfully shy Misa, called ‘Pooh’ by her taunting classmates, clearly has no other friends than a goldfish and pet parrot to keep her company. But suddenly she finds herself adopted by the pretty, cutesy Izumi, and the two soon become best friends.
Although the film gets off to a slow start, making one wonder what direction it is heading in, and how it can remain so tightly focused on its two main characters, it soon becomes clear that this film is far more complex than it first seems. There are a few clues, like the disappearance of a fellow student, that are revealed in the first few minutes of the film, but in the end even the twists might not be what they first seem. Instead, Shady gradually builds into a disturbing, multi-layered drama, with impressive performances from its young leads.
Now in its 5th year, the Terracotta Far East Film Festival once again offered an exciting celebration of Asian cinema. Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin report on their festival highlights.
Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
This year’s Terracotta Festival opened with a very special treat, Stanley Kwan’s 1988 sumptuous, melancholy ghost story Rouge, in homage to its two late great leads, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Mui plays Fleur, a beguilingly beautiful hostess in a Hong Kong ‘flower house’ (brothel). When one night, dressed as a man and brilliantly sassy and insolent, Fleur performs a song for young heir Chan (Cheung) and his companions, it is love at first sight. But when his family objects to their union, they decide to commit suicide. Fifty years later, Fleur reappears in modern Hong Kong and tries to place a missing person ad in a paper to find Chan, who never showed up in the netherworld. Helped by the newspaper’s owner and his girlfriend, she forlornly wanders around a soulless Hong Kong, where the gorgeous theatres of the past have been replaced by ugly underpasses, trying to discover what happened to Chan. Visually exquisite, the film contrasts the splendour, elegant rituals and repressive social conventions of the past with the harsh, sordid reality of a mediocre, but less confining present, through the depiction of both the city and the characters’ lives. A superb and poignant film, it truly deserved to be seen on the big screen. VS
The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, 2012)
Within the fictional Japanese prefecture of Nagashima, an earthquake causes a nuclear meltdown at a local power plant. As a consequence the population of this small provincial district are forced to uproot. Local farmer Yusuhiko and his wife Chieko refuse to leave the contaminated area, while their son and his pregnant wife struggle to start a new life in a neighbouring town, having to face ineffectual authorities and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, a young couple, Mitsuri and Yoko, wander the devastated wasteland that was once Yoko’s hometown, desperately in search of her parents.
The Land of Hope will be released on Blu-ray + DVD in the UK on 26 August 2013 by Third Window Films.
From horror oddities such as Exte: Hair Extension(2007), where various victims are attacked by their hairstyles, and the epic story of love, religion and panty-shot photography that is Love Exposure (2009), to the brutal dystopia of Himizu (2011), Japanese director Sion Sono has gained a formidable reputation for having an exceptionally unique approach to filmmaking. The Land of Hope is a slight departure from his usual extremes, without being completely bereft of his surreal sense of humour and the occasional excursion into overtly symbolic imagery. Throughout this poignant domestic drama, Sono succeeds in achieving a restrained and proficient balance between naturalism and the visually poetic as he tackles head on a monumental disaster and its tragic repercussions. The only problem with the film is his overbearing use of classical music, which often feels cheap and unnecessary. But skillfully avoiding spectacle, the director’s heartfelt authenticity is unquestionable, making this his most accessible and personal film to date. RM
Watch the trailer for The Land of Hope:
Cold War (Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk, 2012)
Hong Kong prides itself on being one of the safest cities in Asia, but over the course of one night, it’s about to become one of the deadliest. When a planted bomb tears the centre of the city apart, it’s initially assumed to be a terrorist attack – that is until an Emergency Unit vehicle carrying five police officers mysteriously disappears without a trace. A merciless gang of hijackers are claiming to be the culprits and demanding a hefty ransom. The race is on to hunt down the suspects and save the hostages. But it’s a perilous mission that not only poses a threat to the citizens of Hong Kong, but also begins to tear away at the hierarchical fabric of the police department.
First-time directors Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk give it everything they’ve got with Cold War, determined to prove themselves as main contenders in the Asian cinema stakes, from the majestically cinematic aerial shots of the opening scenes to the gracefully composed but nerve-shredding action sequences. Their tactics have certainly paid off, with Cold War receiving nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film, director, screenplay, cinematography and editing. But, unfortunately, an otherwise lucid plot loses momentum during the last half-an-hour as the film tries to establish itself as a franchise. Nevertheless, this is Hong Kong action cinema at its most slick and visceral, re-establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. RM
The Berlin File (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2013)
When an illegal arms deal in a Berlin hotel escalates into violent chaos, a surveillance team expose one of the escaped survivors as a North Korean ‘ghost agent’ (Ha Jung-woo), whose involvement remains unclear. Following on his trail, South Korean intelligence operative Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) is determined to discover the agent’s true identity and prerogative. An intense investigation gradually unveils an international conspiracy involving Middle Eastern terrorists, the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, a deadly assassin, a shady ambassador and a female translator.
Although Ryoo Seung-wan’s espionage thriller lacks the dark menace of the Len Deighton, John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum adaptations that it’s unashamedly attempting to emulate, the film has enough of its own inventive energy and stylistic verve to stand its ground. The plot is ridiculously convoluted with an abundance of clichés involving poisoned ballpoint pens, murders on speeding trains, men in trench coats meeting in parks, self-destructing messages and blatantly obvious passwords.
But among its themes of loyalty and betrayal, the film’s greatest strength is Seung-wan’s complete respect and dutiful devotion to the spy genre and action cinema. Despite its flaws, The Berlin File races along at a relentless pace, with some truly astounding and dynamic action sequences meticulously choreographed by Jung Doo-hong. There’s also an eerie sense of melancholy generated from some very believable human relationships, in between the explosions and car chases. The Berlin File is an uneven but extremely thrilling and entertaining experience. RM
Festival report by Virginie Sélavy and Robert Makin
Original title:11-25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tachi
Cast: Arata, Shinobu Terajima, Hideo Nakaizumi
‘If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death. No death may be called futile.’ – Yukio Mishima
In 11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate, one of his last completed films, the late Kôji Wakamatsu turned his attention to the final years of Japanese writer, critic and nationalist Yukio Mishima, who espoused traditional values based on the Bushido code. On 25 November 1970, Mishima, along with four members of his own private army – the Tatenokai – went to the Self Defence Forces headquarters in Tokyo, tied up the commander and took to the balcony to call upon the assembled military outside to overthrow their society and restore the powers of the Emperor. When he was jeered, he returned inside to commit suicide, leaving behind a set of controversial writings, including short stories, plays and novels, and a mystery that echoes to this day.
Pamela Jahn took part in a group interview with Kôôji Wakamatsu after the premiere of his film on Mishima at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, to find out more about Wakamatsu’s take on Mishima and the reasons behind his actions.
Question: What was your motivation for making the film?
Answer: I first thought about it when I was shooting United Red Army. There is one scene where the Red Army marches during a very strong blizzard and it was actually a real blizzard that we were facing at that time when making the film. The Red Army was a formation of left-wing extremists. But I knew that there were also right-wing activists, young people who wanted to change the society just as much, even at the cost of their own lives, like Mishima, who formed his private militia – the Tatenokai, or ‘Shield Society’. I felt that portraying only one side of the whole spectrum wouldn’t be sufficient and that I should depict both extremes and I decided to make a separate film about the Tatenokai. First it was just an innocent joke. I’d tell my actors on the set of United Red Army that my next project would be on the extreme right for a change. But I knew that making these films in a row would be rather hard on me, so in the middle, as a sort of easy play, I shot Caterpillar . Both films turned out to get a very good audience and attendance that provided enough money for 11:25, and also two other films, Petrel Hotel Blue and The Millennial Rapture.
Your last visit to Cannes was just over 40 years ago when Sex Jack was shown at the festival in 1971. How does it feel to be back here after so many years with yet another film that is highly politically charged?
It doesn’t have any special meaning or significance. The only special thing back then was that on the way back I went to Palestine to film a documentary [together with Masao Adachi], and because of that, I was labelled as terrorist and declared a persona non grata in the United States, Russia and other countries. And the Japanese government also questioned me quite severely 15 or 16 times. It that sense, it was quite a memorable visit.
Arata Iura, who plays Mishima in the film, is very well known in Japan. You don’t usually cast stars like him.
He also had a part in United Red Army and I thought he was very good in it. I got to know him as an extremely hard worker and somebody who’s able to deliver great performances with consistency. I’m the type of person who feels strong gratitude and obligation towards those who give me something. Arata was very well known already, but he agreed to do the job on my terms and follow my method. I asked him to come alone, without any manager or personal assistant. On my set I use no make-up artists, script girls or secretaries – he had to accept that. I had several people in mind for Mishima’s part, but I finally gave it to Arata. Looking at the film only reassures me that I made the right choice. I never cast stars to attract a bigger audience. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s someone as famous as Arata or an amateur. As long as you have a heart, you can act. If cinema was only about attracting audiences with star power, I wouldn’t be making films anymore.
Both films, 11:25 and United Red Army, show a deep sense of comradeship that is essential to the development of any revolutionary movement but also more generally speaking in Japanese culture.
To put it very simply, the Japanese culture is not individualistic. The focus is not on the individual but on the community. Whatever we do, we always consider our neighbours, family and friends. For example, if you’re making dinner and it turns out really delicious, it is natural to offer it to your neighbours, to share. These cultural differences between Japan and Europe or the United States may be rooted in religious concepts of Christianity and Buddhism and, therefore, some behaviours or rituals might be harder to comprehend for a viewer from outside of our culture.
The only female figure in this otherwise male-dominated film is Mishima’s wife. She’s spoken of rarely, appears in one scene and barely has one line. How do you see her character in the film?
I believe that the very consciousness of her existence was necessary for the film. During the research stage, when reading through all the materials and documents available, I found many proofs of her role and influence in the Tatenokai, even though she acted behind the scene. But for example, every time they went to a training camp, she would come along and give pep talks to the trainees. Also in the household, her presence was natural. In Japan, the wife’s position is behind her man, in the background. It would have been difficult to bring Mishima’s wife into the spotlight because she would never have stepped out. She’d support him silently, like she did. Again, that’s a cultural thing that be might more difficult to understand for Westerners.
Your name is inevitably associated with the pink film genre (pinku eiga) that first appeared in Japan in the early 1960s, but actually soon after it became popular you stopped making that kind of films.
I was the first director of pink cinema, and everybody else followed me and copied what I came up with. But their imitations were focused only on showing naked women, sex scenes and so forth. Soon after, pink cinema went down the drain and became the mainstream. There were so many pink films around that I didn’t feel it was interesting for me to continue that path. If you compare pink cinema from the time when I was active in that genre and contemporary pinku eiga, they are entirely different. All the directors who made pink films back then have disappeared with the exception of Mr Takita, who became very successful. His film Departures is known around the world. To others, pinku eiga was just an easy way to make money. They’re too scared to be anti-establishment. For me, making a film means to throw a stone at the establishment, and what happened to pink cinema is that it became conformist entertainment.
You are not only an influence on, but a mentor to, young Japanese filmmakers like Banmei Takahashi, for example. Is helping the new generation of filmmakers important to you?
It is true that many young filmmakers started their professional career on my set or thanks to my recommendation. But it was they who came to work for me in the first instance. Of course, I can help them, I can give some assistance or mental support. But the truth is, they are my competitors, or in other words, they are my enemies. But by creating my own enemies I become more enthusiastic. If one of them makes a really good film, that only makes me more passionate about it and drives my own motivation to be better. I think that the young directors in Japan today whom I mentored are my best, most inspiring competitors. In the mainstream I don’t see anyone I’d consider as such.
You are a very precise author, whose art is so particular, that sometimes it might come across as hermetic.
I think in Japan, and anywhere else in the world, there are many mysterious things. My work might sometimes seem difficult, but I am just doing what I do and I am just turning these mysteries in society, which are sometimes hard to understand, into images, into films. Each person is different, in terms of their looks but especially in terms of their thinking – there are no identical human beings. Take this bottle of water on the table in front of you, for example. It might seem just ordinary clear water to you, but there may be someone else who doesn’t perceive it in the same way, who might think it’s red. It’s not us longing to be each other’s clones, it’s the authorities, who try to make everyone as identical as possible.
You are an internationally acclaimed director but your position in Japan is still difficult, especially in terms of financing your projects.
The government does not recognise my films because in a way they rebuild the part of Japanese history they’d like to hide. My work is most problematic especially for the Cultural Agency. They hold the budget to subsidise filmmaking in Japan but they wouldn’t give any of it to me, even though I requested it many times. They’d rather fund films with far less value instead of mine, mainly because I am very straightforward and open with bureaucrats and I tell them what I think about them. But in any case, you couldn’t make a film about the United Red Army or Mishima with money from the government. They wouldn’t give a single yen for a film like that.
How do you feel about Mishima’s suicide?
People in Japan have been wondering about Mishima’s suicide for long after his death. The reactions in the public have been quite ambiguous. People talk about it according to their own imagination and equally I made the film based on my understanding and interpretation of the events. I think that Mishima had chosen the venue and time of his own death quite carefully – he died at 45. The date, the 25th of November, was also the date when one of his close friends from the University of Tokyo committed suicide. That friend was involved in a financial fraud; he couldn’t get out of it and felt so cornered and hopeless that he decided to take his own life by hanging himself.
Could you relate to his decision?
At that time, when it happened, I thought it was just stupid. I also had my reservations about his idea of creating an army of ‘toy soldiers’. I thought that Mishima, who was an accomplished writer and well-established citizen, eventually went insane. But as time passed and I went through many documents, including his writings about planning that event, my opinion started to change. I also sometimes drink sake with one of the surviving members of the Tatenokai and slowly my view changed: I came to think that actually he is a phenomenon in his own right. There are other films about him and about the Red Army, but the names have been changed. I refuse to do that, in my films I use their real names. People around me warned me that I’d be assassinated by the right-wing if I did that and I said, ‘Well, if they want to do that, that’s fine.’ But I met some of the people and I read a lot of material and I believe that I am showing both sides, the right and the left extremes of the spectrum, and that it’s a fair view on both sides. I am telling them both that they were trying to do something good, that they meant good for society, and that they shouldn’t be ashamed or live in hiding. And after I made those films, they actually thanked me for what I did. They came to see the films, they even helped selling tickets, and I think it’s because my intention is genuine.
Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.
Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS
The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS
An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.
The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS
For Love’s Sake
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS
I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.
Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.
Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC
The Samurai That Night
Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.
This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS
DJ and broadcaster Zoë Baxter has a keen interest in East Asian culture, from cuisine to film, arts and music. Zoë collects vinyl with a specialist interest in East Asian folk, 1960s ‘Asia Beat’, reggae and rhythm & blues. In 2005, Zoë began making programmes for arts radio station Resonance FM and has just concluded her 6th series of Lucky Cat. Other strings to her bow include talks on wu xia cinema, writing for BBC China and hosting numerous themed club nights. The third Friday of every month Zoë can be found DJing at Mango Landin bar in Brixton. On March 29, she will be DJing at China Inside Out, a day-long programme of debates, readings, film screenings, food and music aiming at better understanding the freedom to write and read in China. On March 30, she will be presenting a one-off radio show on Resonance FM previewing the Terracotta Film Festival. Below, she picks her favourite films.
1. The Gang’s All Here (1943)
This film is a Technicolor joy to behold. I grew up obsessed with the cinema of the 1940s and 50s – everything from lavish MGM musicals to wisecracking Warner Brothers gangster films. Busby Berkeley was an optical innovator: the choreographed overhead shots of girls’ legs moving in syncopated unison were a speciality. This film doesn’t have too much of a story line, but who needs one when Carmen Miranda does a number that features a 100-foot-high banana hat?
2. Hairspray (1988)
I saw this film as a teenager. It is the only time I’ve ever gone to the cinema twice to see a film. I was also into the clothes and music of the 50s and early 60s. When this movie came out I was in heaven – amazing soundtrack, dance routines, bright kitsch colours shot in John Waters’s inimitable style with a sharp script and fantastic character actors. I have the soundtrack on LP and often play ‘Madison Time’ by the Ray Bryant Combo when I DJ. In fact, I have collected a few different versions of the Madison. R&B legend Ruth Brown cameos as Motormouth Maybelle, who owns the record store. I want to be in this movie, in that record store in particular. It has echoes of 50s films such as The Girl Can’t Help It, which I absolutely love too. I haven’t seen the remake and I don’t intend to. Even on a plane.
3. Rockers (1978)
If you love reggae then this is the film for you. Yes, Jimmy Cliff is brilliant in The Harder They Come and that is a fine film too, but I saw Rockers first and was so elated to see so many reggae stars on screen. The lead is played by musician Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace and he bumps into Big Youth, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs and others along the way. The soundtrack is exceptional and encapsulates that 70s roots rock reggae sound. Burning Spear’s ‘Fade Away’ is a favourite. Other Jamaican films of interest: Country Man, Smile Orange, Dancehall Queen and documentary Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae.
4. Drunken Master (1978)
The first martial arts film to make an impact on me. I remember watching this at various friends’ houses on dodgy VHS with the sound down and drum’ n’ bass or reggae blaring over the top. Here you have the synthesis of great action, a brilliant up-and-coming director (Yuen Wo Ping) and two charismatic leads – Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen Hsiao-Tien (as the drunken master Sam Seed – Yuen Wo Ping’s real-life dad!). This is one of the Jackie Chan greats – excellent and very cheeky comedic kung fu style. This film features the ultimate training montage sequence, balancing bowls of rice wine on different parts of the body while Sam Seed takes it easy, smoking in a hammock. The Beggar Su (Drunken Master) character first appeared in the 1966 Shaw Brothers classic Come Drink with Me and most recently was seen in Yuen Wo Ping’s film True Legend (aka The Legend of Beggar Su).
5. Talk to Her (2002)
I am a big fan of Pedro Almodóvar. I think he understands women and they are always strong and believable characters in his films. This film has two main interwoven story lines, and it features a homage to silent film and surrealism with a short sequence of a tiny man entering a huge vagina! A lot of the films I like are very colourful, perhaps harking back to my fondness of golden Hollywood and the Technicolor spectacle. Almodóvar always has a fantastic use of colour in his films and also an emotional drama that feels genuine. After I saw this film I was very deeply moved and I remember wandering around London gazing up at the moon just contemplating life for an hour or so.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said about this film? Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece (we’ll see what The Grandmaster holds in store when it opens later this year). Every shot in this movie could be a still and the music is wonderfully atmospheric. Such a powerful film of understated emotion and yearning, oh the heartbreaking yearning! The two leads are quite extraordinary – Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk. Apparently, there was not much of a script and the film took a year to shoot with lots of improvisation. Legendary Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan also has a cameo role as the landlady and neighbour Mrs Suen. Oh and I would kill for Maggie Cheung’s cheongsam collection in this film.
7. Wing Chun (1994)
Michelle Yeoh is a goddess and this movie belongs to her. I wish more people could see this film. It’s old-school kung fu, very loosely based on the story of Wing Chun, the woman who invented the fighting style of the same name. As well as kicking ass Michelle can also make a mean block of tofu. A bewildered-looking Donnie Yen stars as her rather dopey sweetheart and Shaw Brothers legend (star of wu xia classic Come Drink with Me) Cheng Pei Pei cameos as Michelle’s grand sifu. Michelle literally emasculates a man in this film – I love that.
8. Rouge (1988)
Stanley Kwan makes some beautiful movies and this is one of them. This film has become more poignant with time as sadly both leads died young. They were known as the king and queen of Cantopop and were both great actors too – Leslie Cheung committed suicide aged 46 in 2003, and a few months later Anita Mui Yim Fong died of cancer aged 30. Great friends in real life, in this film they play lovers in the 1930s who promise to devote themselves to each other for all eternity and form a suicide pact. The film picks up with Anita’s character wandering round a modern day Hong Kong as a ghost trying to find her love. See also Center Stage, starring Maggie Chueng Yuen: a biopic/documentary about legendary Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling Yu.
9. Ghost World (2001)
Steve Buscemi, record collecting and a cracking blues soundtrack – what’s not to love? Let’s just say I identified a lot with Enid – only swap an obsession with Bollywood films for Hong Kong ones.
10. Kamikaze Girls (2004)
If you’ve made it down to the bottom of this list you’ll know I like colourful films. This is a visual sweetie shop with two great strong female leads played by Kyoko Fuyada and Anna Tsuchiya. I love the depiction of intense adolescent friendships and subculture tribes. There really is a shop in Japan selling rococo-inspired bonnets and ruffle dresses called Baby The Stars Shine Bright – you can’t make this stuff up (or if you’re in Japan you don’t need to – it exists!). See also Memories of Matsuko and Confessions. Paco and the Magic Book is for die-hard Anna Tsuchiya/Tetsuya Nakashima fans only.
Also of note: My Neighbour Totoro, Infernal Affairs, A Matter of Life and Death, The Naked Kiss, The New Legend of Shaolin, Prodigal Son, Imitation of Life, Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain, Sanjuro and A Woman’s Face.
Short films were represented by two screenings at the London Korean Film Festival. Each showcased different works selected from Korea’s Mise en Scène festival, which celebrated its tenth edition this year and was originally set up by the filmmaking powerhouses Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) and Bong Joon-hoo (Mother) as a platform for the country’s shorts.
Both screenings opened with their star attraction, Night Fishing (2011), a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey and one made more so by the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an i-Phone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision.
It was an impossibly strong start and at the second screening, which I attended, the following shorts never quite matched its quality. That said, the standard was high and I especially enjoyed Kim Bo-ra’s The Recorder Exam and Lee Chang-hee’s Broken Night (both 2011), two wildly different films. The Recorder Exam is a beautifully small-scale, poignant film that follows a young girl’s preparation for a school music test. The film makes snatched references to the 1988 Seoul Olympics but the narrative focuses on the domestic story of an unhappy home life, a million miles away from grand, international ceremonies. In contrast to the slow and still approach of The Recorder Exam, Broken Night is a fast-paced nightmare of high-speed road accidents and shifting moral perspectives.
The sinister atmosphere was echoed in Yi Jeong-jin’s Ghost (2011), which followed a man hiding out in a derelict housing block following the murder and assault of a young girl. The film never made its message or the subject of its empathy clear so, while its creepiness was well executed, the story seemed to peter out, feeling like the start of a longer film rather than a completed short. I felt that the weakest of the selection was Kim Han-kyul’s Chatter (2011), a comedy focusing on a meal out between friends that quickly descends into a battle of gossip and ill-feeling as secrets and insults are exchanged. I found the humour to be a bit laboured (an effect further hampered by poorly translated subtitles) but I think this was a matter of personal taste; the ICA cinema was soon filled with laughter. Indeed, the audience seemed to be engaged throughout the screening and there were very positive murmurings as the selection came to an end. The chosen films provided an interesting chance to see material beyond Korea’s internationally screened feature films and it appeared that everyone at the ICA was very appreciative of that.
As with last year’s event, the 8th China Independent Film Festival was an exercise in under-promotion: a schedule that was only available in advance if you had the right email address, screenings in lecture rooms at the downtown campus of Nanjing University, and an opening ceremony at a moderately sized venue that provided sufficient seating for those in the know, but left curious latecomers standing in the aisles. This is not a method of organisation that is exclusive to CIFF, as any independent film festival operating in mainland China has to take such measures due to the inclusion of features that have not been approved by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). 2011 has been a particularly difficult year for such festivals, with the organisers of the Documentary Film Festival China being pressured to cancel the Beijing-based event (which would also have been in its eighth year) due to a tense political climate that coincided with the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and increased mainland internet restrictions. The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival went ahead in October, although not without disruption, as the venue had to be changed twice and police presence was reported at the launch event. Representatives of SARFT were in attendance at CIFF, but did not intervene at either screenings or workshop sessions, meaning that the festival ran smoothly compared to its equivalent in the capital. With political conflicts effectively sidestepped, CIFF was able to offer another interesting selection of features, documentaries and experimental shorts, with filmmakers present for post-screening discussions of their work. It could be said that the ‘real’ festival took place at the local branch of Sculpting in Time (a Chinese version of Starbucks that serves alcoholic beverages in addition to over-priced coffee), where the network of directors, distributors, academics and journalists was further expanded.
While the features emerging from China’s independent sector are undoubtedly political, they often avoid sweeping state-of-the-nation surveys in favour of social microcosms to show the effect of national shifts on the family unit or the individual. Zhang Ciyu’s haunting Pear (2010) is a chamber piece concerning a young married couple who are struggling to complete the construction of their new house on a mountain slope; the wife ends up working in a brothel in town to earn the necessary funds and the husband is left to hang around the waiting room of the establishment while she services her clients. Regardless of how much money she makes, the couple can never keep up with the rate of economic acceleration and the pears of the title – the wife’s favourite fruit, which are brought to her in a basket by her husband – are left to rot, much like their dreams of a prosperous future. The eponymous heroine of Song Chuan’s insightful and quietly heart-breaking Huan Huan (2010) is a young village woman who becomes the mistress of the local doctor; she struggles to find her place in the world despite, or because of, a near-constant bombardment of social messages (birth control regulations, labour force drives, state-controlled television news). The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.
If the nicely crafted No. 89 Shimen Road represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Chinese independent cinema – a universal narrative placed within a wider political context – then Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) and Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters (2010) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old Dog is a poetic portrait of Tibetan life in which the unauthorised sale of the titular animal by the owner’s son leads his father to retrieve the dog on the grounds that using an animal as a commodity is taboo in traditional Tibetan culture. It’s a thoughtful contemplation on the changing values of Tibet under state reform, with striking long shots of farmland divided by barbed wire and town streets that show slow but steady signs of economic progress. By contrast, The Cockfighters is aggressively commercial, a punchy rural thriller that follows the feud that develops between a youth from a wealthy family and a grassroots family man when the former loses his first cockfighting match to the latter. The narrative device of a destructive game of one-upmanship owes much to the genre cinema of South Korea, right down to the obligatory shaving scene before the climactic showdown, and The Cockfighters certainly makes a gripping bid for international box office viability. Developing links between China’s independent sector and alternative production in other Asian territories were adequately illustrated by Zhao Ye’s altogether gentler Last Chestnuts (2010), which was filmed in Nara, Japan, at the invitation of Naomi Kawase, director of The Mourning Forest (2007). A terminally ill Tokyo woman (Kaori Momoi) wanders the area, searching for her missing son, with only a couple of digital photos as clues to his whereabouts, and is assisted by helpful locals; Zhao conveys the time-sensitive desperation of the mother’s search, although the emotional impact is lessened by unnecessary meta-references to Kawase’s work in the same region.
The documentary line-up also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports. Wang Hao’s Seven Days in a Year (2011) documents the responsibilities of an internet-monitoring department in Chongqing, revealing how such restrictions are implemented by low-level state servants who spend the day browsing bulletin boards for negative comments and brainstorming SMS advertising strategies to encourage patriotic feeling. Beijing’s art scene was examined by Zeng Guo in two documentaries, 798 Station (2010) and The Cold Winter (2011). The former provides an account of how a thriving art zone comprised of galleries and studios has evolved from factory space, while the latter follows the unsuccessful efforts of artists to stop the demolition of the art districts that surround the central hub of 798 Station. The Cold Winter shows both the strengths and weaknesses of China’s artistic communities, with everyone committed to a certain ideal, but the movement compromised by a lack of agreement on how to practically realise it. However, as with the features, the most interesting documentaries were those that focused on the individual, exploring past and present Chinese society through daily routine or recounted memory. Wei Xiaobo’s The Days (2010) is a candid first-person account of the director’s cash-strapped lifestyle with his live-in girlfriend Xei Fang; they fight, make love and Wei undertakes various freelance assignments to pay the rent. Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.
Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of Huan Huan or Pear. This is not necessarily a problem, as coming-of-age dramas or revenge thrillers with a certain level of social-political context appeal to the international art-house crowd, who regularly watch films that exist on the fringes of the mainstream but still adhere to genre parameters. However, it is hoped that such potential crossover successes will not overshadow more marginal works like Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (2009), a minimalist romance between a bored young woman and a violent gangster that is told in just 31 long takes with no close-ups. Sun Spots polarised audience opinion – some found it to be a patience-tester, others were hypnotised by its deliberate rhythm – but nonetheless generated much discussion due to its formal qualities. On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.
Some three minutes of Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) have elapsed before the first entrance of Toru Takemitsu’s original score. The credits have rolled, the principal characters and the setting of the first act – Hiroshima, August 1945 – have been introduced. Within only 30 seconds of the creeping entrance of the violins, the blinding flash of white heat has burst upon the frame. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of the chief influences on Takemitsu’s music here is Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time.
Later, this music becomes the theme of the characters’ scarred memories of that day, as they alternately piece together and try to subdue their memories of the disaster. The strings drift in like a dark cloud. Languorous pedal notes provide a bed for waves of harsh Second Viennese School dissonances that crash intermittently upon shores of the tenderest harmony.
Takemitsu was a great lover of cinema who scored around a hundred films, including for such directors as Kurosawa (Dodes’ka-den, Ran), Ôshima (The Ceremony, Dear Summer Sister, Empire of Passion), and Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, The Face of Another). Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted at the age of 14, and his music was founded at a young age on a rejection of Japanese tradition. He developed instead an early interest in the possibility of electronically generated music (roughly contemporaneously with Pierre Schaeffer in France). It was only through an encounter with the music and ideas of John Cage in the 1950s that he came to look again at, and re-evaluate, the music of his own country.
His work first came to international attention after Igor Stravinsky chanced upon his Requiem for Strings in 1957 – at around the same time that he first started composing film scores. The Requiem had itself been written on the occasion of the death of film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had worked extensively with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. After Stravinsky’s enthusiastic championing, commissions soon followed from America. By the time of his involvement in the 1970 Osaka Expo, he was firmly established as one of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, but this seems to have scarcely slowed the pace of his cinematic work. In many respects, the funereal music of Black Rain signals a return to the rich swelling tones of the Requiem that first brought him to world attention.
Considering it is the work of a former associate of John Cage, it seems overly reductive to think of Black Rain‘s music as no more than what can be read from notes on a page. The Spartan use of Takemitsu’s score only serves to give it power. The silences that surround it bring us close to his notoriously difficult-to-define concept of ma, which, related to Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence, would be something like a waiting for sound to become silence, the void of empty space between notes. Throughout the film there is a lively sonorous bed of chirruping crickets and birds, and the fall of rain.
For former soldier Yuichi (played by Keisuke Ishida), the sound of a passing car engine is the trigger for a recurrent attack of post-traumatic stress syndrome. For other characters, the sound of their trauma is more internal, and that is the role taken by Takemitsu’s string music. The connection between the two, between the (diegetic, non-musical) sound that triggers Yuichi’s attacks and the (non-diegetic, musical) sound triggered by the memories of the other characters vividly brings to attention the relationship between these two sonic registers. The gap between the two, between the non-silence of the post-apocalypse and the dream-music of the falling bomb, might serve as a provisional definition of ma.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews