Tag Archives: Koji Wakamatsu

A Far from Silent Battlefront: Ecstasy of the Angels

Ecstasy of the Angels

Kôji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, like many films of the early 70s, opens with a song. In a darkened nightclub, while four conspirators plot their mission, Rie Yokoyama’s Friday sings an unidentified Japanese fôku song, accompanied by a plaintively plucked acoustic guitar. ‘I throw a tiny flame,’ she sings, ‘towards bright crimson blood / In any barren field / Burn the dawn / Burn the streets to the dawn’. Her distant-eyed delivery makes a curious counterpoint to the surreal, sometimes violent lyrics of the winsome, enka-esque melody and, as there is no further music for the next half an hour, the lines stick in your mind like an ear worm, becoming the unvoiced refrain of all the action that follows.

When the first bit of non-diegetic music does come in, it is every bit as violent as the intervening action. Clangorous piano chords burst in over a montage of newspaper headlines detailing the terrorist acts of the young revolutionary group. Drums skitter in freefall, as Yosuke Yamashita’s piano-playing veers from modal jazz to free atonality, switching dance partners from Alice Coltrane to Anton Webern.

Yamashita remains one of Japan’s most famous jazz musicians. He started playing with his elder brother’s swing band before he’d left school and by the 1960s he was spending every Friday at legendary Tokyo basement club Gin-Paris. One of his earliest teachers was Fumie Hoshino, a woman who played stride piano along to silent films in old cinemas, and Yamashita himself would go on to work on a number of films, from 60s pinku films by Wakamatsu and Noriko Natsumi to Shohei Imamura’s award-winning Dr Akagi. All the while carving out a distinctive live playing career as one of Japan’s most celebrated jazzers, with frequent comparisons to Cecil Taylor (his acknowledged idol) and one German critic – just a few years after the release of Ecstasy of the Angels – coining the phrase ‘kamikaze jazz’ to refer to his group’s wild musical antics.

Nowhere is the comparison to Taylor more apt than in the present film’s final scene. We are back in the same nightclub from the opening scene, but now one of the four conspirators is missing and the cool, collected spirit of their earlier meeting is long gone. At first we find Friday once more, singing the same song about a ‘silent battlefront’. But then, as if at the click of someone’s fingers, she and her accompanist disappear to be replaced by Yamashita’s trio, seen on screen for the first time. Akira Sakata’s soprano sax is squealing and honking like Ornette Coleman, Yamashita is pounding frenetically at the keyboard and Yuki Arasa’s section leader, Autumn, sat over at the table, is screaming hysterically as her empire crumbles around her.

Robert Barry

Interview with Koji Wakamatsu

11.25: The Day He Chose HIs Own Fate

Director: Kôji Wakamatsu

Writer: Masayuki Kakegawa

Original title: 11-25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tachi

Cast: Arata, Shinobu Terajima, Hideo Nakaizumi

Japan 2012

119 mins

‘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.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Koji Wakamatsu: From yakuza to pornographer

Red Crime

The following text from my book Behind the Pink Curtain (2008) forms the introduction to the chapters on Kôji Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi and the various other characters involved in Wakamatsu Pro. I should point out that this text was written over five years ago, before the premiere of Wakamatsu’s United Red Army (2007) at Tokyo Film Festival introduced a whole new generation of overseas viewers to the director’s startling and provocative work.

At the time, the films of Wakamatsu were little discussed in the West, particularly in the English language, and the context in which he operated virtually unknown. (There have been a number of retrospectives subsequently, particularly in France). Behind the Pink Curtain was my attempt to remedy this, and the whole project was largely inspired by my early encounters with the films of Wakamatsu, which have proved an enduring influence on me personally. He shall be sorely missed.

Kôji Wakamatsu is a difficult figure to place within the broad history of Japanese cinema. While his films screened at a number of festivals in mainland Europe in the late 60s and early 70s – which in itself is enough to distinguish him from his contemporaries in the eroduction world – the general climate and context in which they were made, along with those he produced for other directors through his company Wakamatsu Pro, was not one treated with much significance by many Western writers at the time. There were those in France, like No&#235l Burch and Max Tessier, who wrote seriously about those few Japanese erotic films that began to appear in Europe in the late 60s and 70s, and consequently it has been this country that has provided a home for two noteworthy retrospectives of Wakamatsu’s films with the director himself in attendance, at the 1998 L’Etrange Festival in Paris, and as part of a season entitled ‘Sex Is Politics’, in the town of Saint-Denis in 2006. But, clearly uncomfortable with the spectacle of sexual violence against women, English-language commentators seemed at a loss when it came to interpreting the new phenomenon of the 60s, either ignoring it or dismissing it out of hand. Few took time to engage with the films even on the level at which they were intended to be consumed. It’s a stance Donald Richie has maintained until this day, as is spelled out by this classic snub of Wakamatsu relayed in a 1990 entry from his journals, published in 2004: ‘He makes embarrassing soft-core psychodrama (or used to), and No&#235l Burch led the French into seeing great cinematic depths in Violated Angels. It occurs to no one that the reason for making it (nurses skinned alive) was noncinematic. So Kôji was treated as though his junk meant something.’

Junk or not, Wakamatsu’s films do mean something, or at the very least are representative of something. While in the Japanese film industry at large he may be better regarded more as a particularly canny producer than for the level of craftsmanship to be found in his films, even in the capacity of a director his early work is stylistically distinct enough to at least merit some consideration. At its best, it is direct and abrasive, seething with an infectious energy and electrifying zeitgeist, its stark power immediately appreciable, even if hidden deeper meanings prove maddeningly elusive. At the very least his films serve as socio-historical documents; not only visual testimonies to an era of new sexual frankness and a deep-rooted uncertainty in which oblivion seemed to lurk around the corner; the development of Wakamatsu’s oeuvre, along with that of his close friend and ally Masao Adachi, also runs parallel with the development of the student movement and the growth of the radical left wing. Those looking back at this turbulent period and trying to fathom just how extremist political groups like the Communist League Red Army Faction (Kyôsanshugisha d^ômei sekigun-ha) – hereafter referred simply as the Red Army Faction – and the closely related groups of the Japanese Red Army (JRA, or Nihon Sekigun) and the United Red Army (URA, or Rengo Sekigun) developed as they did might well find clues in titles like Sex Play (1969), Shinjuku Mad (1970), Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), and the infamous Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971).

It is immediately clear to the modern viewer that there is something very unique about these films that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill softcore. Wakamatsu himself denies that he ever really made pinku eiga, and indeed, it would be difficult to describe much of the output of Wakamatsu Pro, especially those films made by Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya, as representing the typical face of the genre. ‘All in all you can say that our films were underground films with a sexy touch. At least, that’s how we saw them,’ Wakamatsu later claimed. The eroduction world just provided a distribution system for him and his collaborators to exploit, and they therefore needed to tailor the content of the works, to some extent, to fit its requirements. The Kôji Wakamatsu titles best known today seem to bear this out, though this is also due to the director himself owning the rights to the majority of the hundred or so films in his back catalogue, allowing him to be selective about which titles today find themselves most regularly screened and accessible on DVD. Wakamatsu will also concede that there were many films he made in his heyday that are no longer readily available that were, in his own words, ‘not very interesting’. His filmography is full of titles, such as White Man-Made Beauty (1966), Black Narcissus of Lust (1967), and Kama Sutra: Love Technique (1970), that were more directly intended for the sex film market, and made mainly to earn money to finance more adventurous, experimental or personal projects. He also proved more adept than most when it came to selling his films to foreign distributors.

How successful really was Wakamatsu then? According to the director himself: ‘My films fared pretty well. Troublesome were the films of Masao Adachi. Since nobody wanted to buy them, we added my name on the billboard and advertised them as joint productions.’ However, according to Daisuke Asakura, the president of Kokuei – the company that produced some of his earliest works – Wakamatsu Pro’s films, ‘weren’t too popular… which is understandable because the scripts were written by people like Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya. But I think Waka was the first “name value” in the world of pink films… in a sense, he’s the one who led the world of pink film.’ There are other benchmarks of success apart from commercial performance, and in many ways Wakamatsu can be described as the most significant figure to emerge from the eroduction field. Not only has his name been cited as an influence by successive generations of pink directors, but he has also achieved a unique level of crossover success during the time Wakamatsu Pro was active, with his films accepted by critics and intellectuals from outside the seijin eiga world, including such pivotal figures from the creative avant-garde as Shûji Terayama, Jûrô Kara, Nagisa Ôshima and the ATG producer Kinshirô Kuzui.

So how exactly did this bumpkin from a poor uneducated farming background in the north of Japan make the leap from the low-budget sex film market to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, play a pivotal role in the most prominent foreign co-production of the day, and wind up tangentially involved in the pro-Palestinian cause?

Wakamatsu’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable when you take into account his humble roots. Born 1 April, 1936, in the small town of Wakuya in the rural Miyagi prefecture of the mountainous northern Tôhoku region, he was one of several sons of a farmer who specialised in horse breeding. His relationship with his father was turbulent, as it was with his teachers at school, and though naturally a bright student, he soon let his studies slip after discovering a channel for his energies playing baseball. After being thrown out of agricultural college due to a violent altercation with a fellow member of the judo club (who was later to become, somewhat ironically given Wakamatsu’s problematic relationship with figures of authority throughout his life, a police officer), at the age of seventeen he found himself, like so many of his generation, packing his bags and heading down to Tokyo in search of work.

Wakamatsu’s entry into the world of filmmaking was a convoluted process. After his initial arrival in the city, he worked in a variety of lowly positions, on construction sites, at a confectionery company making daifuku, and in a bar, before he somehow became involved in a local yakuza group. Soon, at the age of twenty-three, a brush with the law led to a six-month spell in Hachiôji prison. Wakamatsu emerged from the ordeal with an even deeper mistrust of authority and a resolve to tackle it in a more constructive fashion that wouldn’t end up with him behind bars for a second time. The most obvious solution was through fiction. After all, engaging in real-life crimes such as killing politicians, policemen and other such figures of repressive authority tends to land one in trouble; committing the same act as fantasy in prose or on film seemed a safer way of expressing feelings of dissatisfaction with the current state of society. Wakamatsu’s initial plan was to vent his spleen by writing a novel based on his life story so far, but not long into it he discovered that his early departure from the education system made this a trickier task than he’d first envisaged. Might his talents perhaps be better suited to a life in the movies?

It was then, and indeed still is now, a customary practice for film crews in Tokyo to ask permission from local yakuza groups rather than the police when it came to location shooting in a particular quarter. And so Wakamatsu’s first brush with the film world came through his old mafia connections, with him working as a scout in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, watching over the crew and standing nearby the shoot to indicate that they had mob approval. During this time he approached one of the television producers whom he was monitoring and asked to be taken on as an apprentice.

Within a very short time he was working as a director for Nihon TV, a route taken by many pink directors before embarking on their big-screen careers. As Wakamatsu tells it, his next step up the ladder was characteristically serendipitous. A huge row, after a last-minute order to change the script and all the cast members on a project he was then working on led to Wakamatsu attacking his producer with a chair and storming off set. Only briefly out of work, he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from an actors’ agent in a hurry to find a director for a new film project. What kind of film did they want made? ‘They gave me a free rein as long as it included some shots of women’s naked backs and some love scenes. At that time the label pinku eiga didn’t exist. The censorship exercised by Eirin was very severe, to the point where you couldn’t show pubic hair or women’s nipples: so you were obliged to film naked women from behind. I asked him if it was worth the bother, but he insisted.’ And so, in 1963, Wakamatsu came to direct his first theatrical work, entitled Sweet Trap.

Sweet Trap no longer exists in a viewable form. What appears to be his earliest film in existence, and his seventh as a director, (1964) tells the story of a podgy salesman named Mizushima (played by the actor Takuzô Kamiyama in his first and only leading role) who, when visiting the household of the Tsuchiya family, disturbs an assault on the lady of the house, Yûko (Daydream’s Kanako Michi), by her brother-in-law Toshio. Coming to her rescue, he nevertheless finds himself on the wrong side of the law when Yûko’s husband, an influential public prosecutor, frames him by giving false evidence in order to protect Toshio, his younger brother. When Mizushima is betrayed to the police by his girlfriend Akemi, who remains unconvinced of his innocence, he returns to visit Yûko and, after making love, the couple decide to flee together across the countryside, with the film climaxing in a memorable confrontation on the rim of a volcano crater. Playing far more conventionally than the director’s later, more enigmatic meditations on violence, subversive politics and sexual hysteria, if Red Crime can be linked to the new eroduction genre in any way, it is more by dint of its low-budget production circumstances than its actual content. With its lovers-on-the-run scenario reminiscent of Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), it in fact owes more to crime thriller conventions, and there are none of the overt addresses to contemporary political issues that would characterize his self-produced work.

Jasper Sharp

L’Etrange Festival 2012

Motor Psycho

L’Etrange Festival

6-16 September 2012

Paris, France

L’Etrange Festival website

Nicolas Guichard reports back on some of the highlights of the brilliant Parisian feast of oddness L’Etrange Festival.

The 18th edition of the Etrange Festival in Paris once more demonstrated the capacity of the event to showcase the joyous diversity of cinema current and past, from the fun atmosphere of the Zombie Night to the premiere of Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless, or the more serious atmosphere at Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (screened in religious silence). We are already looking forward to next year’s programme.

Knightriders (George A. Romero, 1981)
Presented as part of the Motorpsycho strand, Knightriders was Romero’s attempt to escape from zombie films. This bizarre work is notable mostly for its central premise (bikers who want to live like the Knights of the Round Table) and for the director’s insistence in injecting a political message into his films (here, a sort of anarchist utopianism). Despite the surrealism of some scenes, the political parable is weakened by longueurs in the script and a borderline kitsch aesthetic (in particular, the silly helmets and suits of armour).

Kustom Kar Kommandos (Kenneth Anger, 1965) + Motor Psycho (Russ Meyer, 1965)
Also part of the Motorpsycho strand, this was an appropriate double bill of two 1965 films that together offered a condensed image of pop culture and a chance to feel the excitement one always feels when noting the connections between experimental and exploitation films. In one corner, Kenneth Anger’s unfinished project Kustom Kar Kommandos, of which only the first part remains, is a sort of three-minute erotic pop allegory in which a young man polishes his car to the tune of the Paris Sisters’ ‘Dream Lover’. In the other, Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho is like a masculine version of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! , a garage film soundtracked by Bert Shefter and Paul Sawtell’s nervy track ‘The Three Weirdos’, in which three hoodlums on bikes terrorize an isolated Californian town.

11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate (Kôji Wakamatsu, 2012)
I was really looking forward to this film: Mishima’s futile and tragic end, filmed by the late delirious Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu. But during the screening, I started wondering whether there was another director by the same name. No trace of his customary hallucinatory style, only a linear film during which you can’t wait for Mishima to just end it. Wakamatsu’s usual political sharpness is present in the evocation of a country under American tutelage, and his analysis of the competitiveness between lefty activists and right-wing paramilitaries. But that wasn’t enough to rescue the film and, ultimately, I couldn’t help wondering if the filmmaker’s goal may have been to ridicule Mishima’s absurd gesture. If that’s the case, he succeeded.

The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
Screened as part of Jan Kounen’s Carte Blanche, this was the chance to see The Man with a Movie Camera on 35mm, projected on a big screen in the original conditions (no soundtrack). With its constructivist aesthetics, Vertov’s film is a pure visual pleasure, due to both its coherence and its freedom: the vertiginous thrills it offers come from the creation of a total filmic language that uses images of daily life while eschewing conventional realism.

Painless (Juan Carlos Medina, 2012)
One of the highlights of the festival was the premiere of Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina’s first feature film. With the exception of the odd mannerism, it undeniably is a superb aesthetic achievement. Just like the best Spanish or South Korean films of the past decade, it succeeds in combining elements of genre with poetic and dreamlike filmmaking. In this historical and psychological puzzle, Medina develops an allegorical thriller in which several strands (the fate of children insensitive to pain, the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the personal story of a neurosurgeon) join up to form a pattern that is both terrifying and harmonious: a sublime film in the philosophical sense of the term.

Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)
Adapted from Stuart Engstrand’s novel, this somewhat clumsy film noir nevertheless offers an interesting take on the femme fatale, with the character of Rosa Moline, a frustrated woman, half-Lady Macbeth, half-Madame Bovary, played by Bette Davis. Her Bovarian ambition to escape from the mediocrity of her provincial life is counterbalanced by her emotional dependence on her lover. Rosa is thus the femme fatale who falls victim to her own fatality: the impotence of her desire.

The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)
The Driver belongs to a category of film in which the main character is reduced to a function and becomes a perfect bachelor–machine: there is even a femme fatale played by Isabelle Adjani (perfect when she stays silent) to complete the system. Much indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai, The Driver re-appropriates the lessons Melville learnt from Hollywood, and inscribes his solitary character (in the most existential sense) within the codes of the most emblematic genre of American cinema: the Western. The bird’s chirping of Melville’s film is replaced in The Driver by a country song that serves both as a gimmick and a psychological signifier. The archetypal psychology of Western and crime film thus seems to match the samurai’s ethic: achieving virtuosity means renouncing life.

The international science-fiction festival Les Utopiales takes place from 7 to 12 November 2012 in Nantes, France, with a film programme curated by Etrange Festival programmer Frédéric Temps. This year’s theme is ‘Origins’ and the event is presided by astrophysician Roland Lehoucq with Neil Gaiman as its guest of honour. For more information, please visit the Utopiales website.

L’Etrange Festival 2011

The Unjust

L’Etrange Festival

2-11 September 2011, Forum des Images, Paris

L’Etrange Festival website

The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard

The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)

An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG

The Unjust is the closing film of the London Korean Film Festival on November 17. The festival runs from November 3 to 17 and includes a Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.

Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)

Surreal Dutch neo-noir Meat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry

Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)

In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG

Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)

Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB

Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)

This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).

Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG

Super (2010, dir James Gunn)

This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB

Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)

An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)

My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB

Beyond the Black Rainbow screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011.

Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)

Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB

Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)

In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB

Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)

Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB

The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)

The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB

The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)

Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB

Decapoda Shock

Courts Métrages

Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.

Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné &#224 vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.

Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.

The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.

The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB

Decapoda Shock screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011 and is curated by some of the people behind L’Etrange Festival. The programme includes scientific and literary talks, exhibitions, video games and films. The film selection includes premieres of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, screenings of Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Ren&#e Laloux’s Fantastic Planet + short films, documentaries and a conference on Satoshi Kon.

Nicolas Guichard and Robert Barry

Berlinale 2010: Dispatch 4


In her final dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on the Asian films in the programme, including new works by Zhang Yimou and Kôji Wakamatsu.

There is traditionally a strong Asian presence in the Forum section, and after last year’s inventive Korean features (including Baek Seung-bin’s debut feature Members of the Funeral) I was hoping for another batch of exciting films this year. Unfortunately, I missed the two Korean films on offer, but the most original of the four Japanese entries in the section was undoubtedly Sabu’s Kanik&#333sen. A witty, ferociously crafted screen adaptation of Takeji Kobayashi’s 1929 agitprop novel, the film mainly takes place on a battered cannery ship in imperialist Japan. The set is somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, and the film tells a similar story, focusing on a crew of downtrodden workers who eventually rise up against their tyrannical oppressors. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is known for fast-paced action-comedies and anarchic satire, Kanik&#333sen is informed by a pitch-black sense of humour that at times turns into slapstick; yet Sabu manages to make the novel’s fundamental and still relevant critique clear by keeping the right balance between theatrical elements, brutality and idiosyncratic ingenuity. Employing an anti-realist approach to the historical context, Kanik&#333sen is a bizarre and often claustrophobic cinematic experience where Brecht meets Chaplin on the high sea.

Diving into the abyss of modern Japanese society, Isao Yukisada’s Parade is an often comical but increasingly gloomy urban tale revolving around the phenomenon of people in their mid-20s who refuse to grow up and face life. At first, the narrative is driven merely by dialogue and the infrequent actions taking place in a household of four troubled Tokyo drifters, but it sparks up the moment a homeless teenage hustler suddenly takes over the couch in the living room. The film is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on one of the tenants and his or her private obsession, and the dark nature of the story is emphasised by the soundtrack and sublime twists that carefully hint at the film’s surprise ending. Although Parade lacks the drive, visual subtlety and thoughtfulness that made Yukisada’s 2001 teen drama Go such a compelling watch, just following these offbeat, gentle dreamers is a pleasure, and it made this somewhat overwrought film stand out as one of the wittier and more honest works on show in the Panorama section.

Excoriated as a ‘national disgrace’ in the Japanese press at the time, Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secrets Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) caused a stir when it premiered at the Berlinale in 1965, which ultimately helped push the pinku eiga pioneer to fame home and abroad. Forty-five years later, Wakamatsu’s eagerly awaited new feature Caterpillar – a loose follow-up to his 2007 monstrous docu-fiction drama United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) – was screening in competition, but although it confirms Wakamatsu’s credentials as one of Japan’s most fiercely independent directors/producers to date, the style and backdrop of his latest effort are quite different from his earlier work. Set in a rural village during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, Caterpillar tells the story of severely disabled war veteran Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) who returns home disfigured and dumb, and with no arms and legs, but highly decorated, with three medals paying tribute to his heroic deeds. For his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), however, he is less a ‘war god’ than a burden, as rude and demanding with her as he was before he was maimed, and while carrying out her duty as the docile peasant, sacrificing herself by caring for the glorified soldier and taking him out for public display, her meek patience is thinning rapidly and eventually turns into a desire for revenge. Caterpillar uses documentary war footage, radio propaganda and excessive, brutal imagery that hint at the violently, sexually and politically provocative spirit of Wakamatsu’s previous work, but the film is strongest in its meticulous depiction of the strained relationship between Kyozu and Shigeko. Overall, it makes a fitting addition to the 73-year-old director’s remarkable oeuvre, which now stands at 100 films.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)
Undeniably the most colourful entry in this year’s programme was Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – a remake of sorts of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple. Moving the action to northern China in the imperial age, the film follows Ni Dahong, the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, who pays a killer to murder both his unfaithful wife and her squeamish lover. It’s a shame that the banal slapstick and oddball jokes that Zhang decided to employ instead of the black humour of the original inevitably turn his ambitious venture into a comic farce as the plot rolls on, and it is only in the film’s showdown that he manages to get back on solid ground. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, including the wildly varied and exaggerated acting on display, but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nonetheless a visual treat throughout, from the luridly coloured landscapes and floral costumes to the film’s deft cinematography that are clear reminders of Zhang’s earlier work.

Golden Slumber (Goruden Suramba)
With no more major surprises to be expected after a week of enjoying an inspiring, yet patchy festival programme, my last choice turned out to be something of a lucky draw. Golden Slumber is essentially a Japanese indie man-on-the-run conspiracy thriller that follows the conventions of the genre, but the imagery of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is all his own. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver, is meeting up with his old college friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when the new prime minister is assassinated in a bomb attack during a procession through the streets of the Japanese city of Sendai, and, through some far-fetched coincidences, Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. Nakamura deftly hurls his unobtrusive hero from one hair’s breadth escape to another, filling in his background in comic-style fashion, and even though the story feels a bit longwinded in the middle, it lays the groundwork for the triumphant climax. A witty, refreshing genre treat, and arguably one of the most easily enjoyable films at the Berlinale this year.

Read Pamela Jahn’s first report , second report, and third report from the Berlinale.