Reviewed today: Columbus, Have A Nice Day, Suspiria, Wrath Of Silence.
12.45pm: Have A Nice Day [trailer]
There's been an article from Screen Daily doing the rounds this week, in which Charles Gant analyses the changes Clare Stewart has made to the LFF since she took over in 2012. One thing they discuss, inevitably, is the move to the Laugh Thrill Chunder Etc system of programme categorisation she brought over from her time at the Sydney Film Festival. It's interesting to note that this hasn't just affected the layout of the programme we see, but also how films are selected for it - to quote the piece, 'the festival now has a complicated programming structure, utilising a set of advisers representing regions with another set attached to the themed strands. “So each film effectively has to have a vertical champion and a horizontal champion,” [Stewart] explains.' I wonder if this means that the individuals on the programming staff who used to look after specific countries or genres - like, say, Jayne Pilling used to with animation - now find it harder to make their voices heard.
To be honest, I don't even know if Jayne Pilling still programmes animation at the LFF any more, because this year the programme has dropped its usual one page list of staff in favour of a two-line 'thanks, everyone' message at the bottom of the index. (It looks like she might have moved on to take charge of the British Animation Awards.) Since Stewart's rejig, it's hard to tell what the festival's policy on animated film is any more, particularly with the loss of the annual roundup programmes of British and international shorts. Nevertheless, someone appears to be looking after it, as we've got one animated film slotted in for each of the next three days.
We start off with Liu Jian's portrait of modern China. In an unnamed city, a crime takes place - Xiao Zhan steals a bag of cash from a building site worker, with the aim of using it to fix his girlfriend's botched plastic surgery. The crime boss that the money was supposed to be delivered to finds out, and sends out a hitman to retrieve it. Meanwhile, the owners of a restaurant Xiao visits have got wind of what's in his bag. Also meanwhile, so have a couple of his cash-strapped relatives. Also also meanwhile, Xiao is being careless and leaving far too many clues regarding his whereabouts at an Internet cafe. That's a lot of characters, but it's only a matter of time before they start bumping into each other. Bumping quite hard, in some cases.
There are quite a few relatively short features in this year's festival - this one, for example, is just 75 minutes long. Even then, there are a couple of sequences of obvious padding used to drag it out to that length: extended credit sequences at both ends, and some live-action footage of the sea dropped in during one of the slower sections. Despite that, there's so much twisty plot crammed into the remaining space that I was convinced that the film was much longer, and was going to overrun wildly. It's partly a throwback to all those multi-stranded narratives we were swamped with in the wake of Pulp Fiction, and partly an entertaining satire of Chinese attitudes to capitalism. Everyone in the story is out to grab as much as they can, and uses that as a replacement for the old concept of gaining or losing face - even a random minor character responds to being punched in the face with "How dare you! Do you know how much my car cost?"
It's an interesting film to see on the big screen, because it's made using an animation style we'd more commonly associate with the small screen (streaming site Mubi are listed as the distributors in the UK). It's scratchy and cheap-looking, using a combination of rough linework and detailed backgrounds, with movement kept to a bare minimum: the frequent scenes of vehicles moving across the screen are hilarious, as they're obviously just being clicked and dragged from one side to the other with no other attempt at depicting movement. But once you get used to the style, it turns out to fit the material very nicely indeed, meshing with the naturalistic voice work to tell the story in just the right way.
2.45pm: Wrath Of Silence [trailer]
In the years after I came back from my first visit to China in 1993, I became obsessed with the way the country was depicted in films. It struck me that the vast majority of Chinese films we saw over here were historical costume pieces, and I fell hungrily on the few that made it over to the UK that depicted life as it was currently lived. These days, however, you can't move for movies about contemporary China, showing how old Chinese traditions collide against the newer ideas coming out of the West, and how the people there cope with it, or not.
Wrath Of Silence is the second one of those we're seeing today, this time in live action. Song Yang plays Zhang Baomin, a miner who's fallen out with his colleagues because of his stubbornness and his violent tendencies. When his reluctance to sell out to the mining company leads to a big fight with nasty consequences, he's forced to leave and take up work in another town. While he's there, news gets to Zhang that his young son has gone missing. Is someone out there seeking revenge?
The LFF writeup for Wrath namechecks Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin as a comparison point, which worried me because I found the latter film just too grim for comfort. But writer/director Yukun Xin doesn't make that mistake: Wrath is a hugely entertaining thriller in its own right, while refusing to pull any punches in terms of its social comment about how capitalism corrupts everything. There's some terrific storytelling skill throughout - for example, we've been with Zhang Baomin for about 20 minutes before we find out that the character is a mute. It isn't an issue in the story before then: after that, it's milked as a source of drama and suspense in every way possible.
It's not a completely subtle film - the fight scenes are as full-throttle as anything coming out of Hong Kong, and Jiang Wu is once again having huge fun playing the bad guy. But the main thing that impresses about this film is the stuff that it chooses not to show, putting its trust in the audience to work things out for themselves. There's a reveal that's almost magical, as an object that's been sitting in plain sight is shown from another angle, and suddenly adds a new dimension to the story. Touches like that all combine to make the story as tense as hell, and reluctant to let you go even at the end.
6.00pm: Columbus [official site]
That's Columbus, Indiana, not Columbus, Ohio, for those of you assuming we were seeing a film about BrewDog's American brewery. (On a related topic, it's nice to see that the newly refurbished bars in the Vue West End now offer Punk IPA on tap. We may get around to taking a pint of it into a film before this festival's over.)
Columbus tells the story of one long term resident and one visitor. The visitor is Jin (John Cho), who's come over from Korea to care for his dying father. Well, to visit him, at least. The resident is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who's graduated high school but isn't really sure what she wants to do next: for now, she's living with her mum and killing time in a librarian job. The two meet during a fag break - I should note that this is one of the few films I've seen in recent years that doesn't end with a disclaimer claiming no payments were taken for the promotion of tobacco products - and start talking. And keep on talking for some time after that.
If you wanted to make a parody of American independent cinema, Columbus would be it: a film in which two people from different age groups talk to each other about architecture for 100 minutes and don't have sex. The city of Columbus is famous for its modernist architecture - Jin's father is a professor who was in town to give a talk about it when he fell ill, while Casey has a more amateur interest in the subject - so this becomes the point of contact between the two of them. Other topics are discussed, mainly their relationships with their parents: but for the most part this is full-on architecture porn, with Casey taking Jin around the city to show off her favourite buildings.
Columbus is the debut feature from Kogonada, one of those guys on the internet who creates video essays from clips of old movies. This may explain why it sometimes feels like a study on the indie movie, rather than a valid one in its own right. There are some nice ideas in the dialogue, for example when Casey's librarian colleague Rory Culkin does an entertaining riff on the perceived shortening of young people's attention spans. But they always feel like ideas presented in dialogue, and not like dialogue. Still, it just about hangs together as a film thanks to the lovely work of its two leads. Richardson provides the solid emotional core required by this combination of mini-lectures and Modernist slideshow, with good support from John Cho in the older man role. Although, holy shit, is Harold from Harold and Kumar playing older man roles now?
9.00pm: Suspiria [trailer]
Have A Nice Day, the film we started with today, plays its end titles over a cheesy electropop number called My Eighties. The Belated Birthday Girl was complaining afterwards about how the tune was now stuck in her head. I was secretly amused by that, as I knew we'd be seeing Suspiria seven hours later. Sure enough, by 11pm she was walking around the streets of central London singing 'doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, doo doo DOO doo doo doo doo.' If they paid royalties on earworms, Goblin would be the richest band in the world after 40 years of having this effect on people.
Suspiria is the second 40th anniversary restoration we've seen this festival: and as The BBG notes, it's surprisingly lacking in gratuitous nudity when you compare it against Jabberwocky's brief flashes of boob. Actually, never mind surprising, it's positively miraculous, given that this is a 1970s Italian film set in a ballet school full of badly-dubbed pouting nymphettes. But this is a Dario Argento film, and he's more interested in another type of penetration: the one involving ballet students being stabbed to death by an unknown maniac, a situation which obviously worries new student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper).
People either know Suspiria or they don't: and if they do, they suspect that they'd probably need to see it in better circumstances for it to make sense. I've only ever watched it on a mono VHS tape cropped to 4:3, and I realised pretty quickly it had to be bigger and louder. Here at Picturehouse Central, it's showing as a 4K digital projection remastered to the original lurid colour specifications, projected onto their biggest screen and played at stadium rock volume.
It still doesn't make any sense, mind you: but if you treat it as a hundred-minute ride on an ideologically unsound ghost train, it's a great Friday night out. I mean, yes, I was at university when Dressed To Kill came out, so I've had all the talks about how watching women being stalked and murdered in films is a bad thing. But in this film, everything's so stylised that it becomes completely divorced from reality: the ridiculously red blood, the constant atmosphere of hysteria and the deafening racket of Goblin's score stop you from considering this as anything other than an attack on the viewer, rather than on the woman in the movie. There's nothing that you could consider these days as scary, and a few of the setpieces were obviously conceived as black comedy from the off: notably the agonising suspense of a woman trying to escape from a locked room through a tiny window, and how Argento chooses to resolve that.
Suspiria is the film equivalent of whichever heavy metal album you consider to be your personal guilty pleasure: this restoration turns it up to eleven. Just don't blame me for whatever music you find yourself humming afterwards.