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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An Oriental Marathon

I promised to write about some of the new films viewed at this year's London Film Festival, so here comes the first installment.  For some reason best known to ourselves, we chose to view four Far Eastern movies (actually one Korean and three Japanese) back to back on two consecutive afternoons.  Since each of them clocked in at two hours plus and since none of them proved to be indelibly memorable, this became something of a hard slog.  Or rather, enjoyable in part mixed with 'enough of this' in another part.  So here goes:

Doomsday Book: This was the Korean entry and sounded intriguing from its blurb in the Festival programme -- a three-parter examining the potential end of the world or the death throes of humanity. It began life some years back as two short films by well-known directors Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung, but then sat on the shelf when funds ran out.  Eventually they collaborated to complete the trilogy in its current form -- and while all three films have intriguing concepts, they don't really come together as an intrinsic whole. The first "Brave New World" was something that could have slotted well into FrightFest, a somewhat nauseating riff on zombies taking over the world.  A studious young man is left at home when his family goes on holiday with a list of household tasks to perform in their absence, including recycling the waste and getting rid of the kitchen slop bucket. We then see how all this effluvia works its way into processed foods, turning the population into a ravishing horde of half-dead flesheaters. Double yuk! The second part "Heavenly Creature" is somewhat more cerebral.  In the near future when robots are commonplace, a Buddhist monastery discovers that their creature, purchased to look after the mundane tasks, has apparently achieved Nirvana and become Buddha incarnate. Their quandary is whether this is a defect in its design or a holy miracle, and the technician sent in to investigate has a secret of his own.  The final part "Happy Birthday" is deeply silly.  A young girl steals her billiard-mad uncle's favourite ball and tries to order a new one on the internet; somehow this turns into some kind of galactic mistake as a ten-kilometre wide 8-ball wings its way to earth, threatening to destroy civilisation.  The family retreat to their provision-packed survival shelter on the girl's birthday, to emerge some ten years later to a changed world.

The Samurai That Night: I don't quite know what I was expecting of this Japanese film, the 'Samurai' in the title having caught my attention, but that was something of a red herring, as the film barely resembled the samurai dramas of old.  Instead we have the rather inept manager of a small ironworks, who dreams of avenging his wife who was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver some five years previously -- that's when he's not involved in listening to her last answerphone message over and over again while stuffing his face slurping pots of ready-made custard. The loutish Kijima has served time for this crime, but is now back on the streets while our unlikely hero sends notes threatening his life on the anniversary of his wife's death. This first film from stage actor and director Maasaki Akahori barely held my attention, and while nicely enough made did not flesh out sufficiently to fill its two hour slot.

For Love's Sake: I always make a point of seeking out each new film from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, although I have found his eclectic approach to filmmaking a mixed bag.  Some of his output has been wildly and weirdly entertaining, while other forays, particularly his take on the spaghetti western starring Quentin Tarantino, have been massive disappointments. Here he adds a pop musical to his bow, setting a Shakespearian tale of doomed romance to the Japanese pop songs of the early '70s when the film is set.  Based on a manga and with an anime preface and tailpiece, the story follows rich-girl Ai who recognises street-punk Makoto as the boy that once saved her during a skiing accident.  She recognises him by the distinctive scar on his forehead; others taunt him that it makes him look like a well-known comic fighter, forcing him to respond all the time with his fists flying.  She wants to redeem him and he wants to be left alone.  She convinces her parents to pay for him to attend her wealthy prep-school where he lasts about five seconds before flattening one of the teachers.  He then is dispatched to a rough trade school full of young gangsters.  The girl-boss is purportedly one gorgon called Gumko (because she constantly chews gum), but in truth the real boss is more deadly.  Miike mixes some extremely delightlful musical interludes -- and all of the cast sing well -- with some brutally prolonged fistfights, where Makoto flattens all comers, be they male, female, old, or young.  While the film starts off entertainingly enough, it does begin to drag in its second half when the fights begin to outnumber the kitschy music, but as a genre-bending piece of bravado, it is largely another success for the mad Miike.

Helter Skelter: This film's director Mika Ninagawa is one of Japan's best-known photographers and this is her second feature after the masterly "Sakuran" released five years ago. She obviously has a photographer's eye (pace: Chris Doyle) and the movie is a visual feast of colour, costume, and set decoration.  Unfortunately these eye-pleasing thrills are wrapped around a somewhat uninvolving tale of top model Lilico, the product of cosmetic modification.  As her manager says, 'All that is hers are her eyeballs, her ears, her fingernails, and her pussy'.  She is worshipped by thousands of wannabes, but fears the up-and-coming competition embodied by a natural beauty.  She abuses and humiliates her all-too-eager assistant, even making love to the former's boyfriend while she watches, and plots to destroy her would-be boyfriend's new fiancee. Meanwhile detectives are trying to build a case against the rogue plastic surgeon who made her and others like her, but who has ensured that continual treatment is necessary to avoid the inherent rot that continually manifests itself. Again based on a manga, this flashy film soon wears out its welcome and contrives to have multiple endings, each of which would have served as a final coda to the action, especially since it is virtually impossible to empathise with its unsympathetic heroine.

Finally for today, and as a change of pace, let me tell you about the next film that we watched, the restoration of a 1920 picture from Norway "Gipsy Anne", regarded as the first indigenous feature from that country.  While of some historical interest, this rustic melodrama of the crossed love between a gypsy foundling, a landed childhood friend, and an older suitor was somewhat dreary and not particularly well-made. Despite starring the famed actress Aasta Nielsen in an early role, she looked far too old for the hard-done-by heroine. The plot contrivance of burning down the farmhouse that her 'love' was building for his rich intended, letting her poor muggins admirer take the blame for her transgression and being sent to gaol, and then going off to America (where all are equal - ho ho) with him on his ultimate release was just too much of a potboiler to swallow. Yet I understand that the movie was a big hit locally on its release -- probably because there was no other local product with which to compare it.

More to come next week...

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