1.00pm: Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai
First of all, a quick apology to Paul15 from the Talking Film bulletin boards: we met up before this movie for a quick pint and to find out what we look like in real life, but got separated inside the cinema before I had a proper chance to say goodbye. Blame the hordes of unemployed hipsters who always crowd the cinema for LFF Jim Jarmusch matinees. Hope you enjoyed it, anyway. Maybe see you at Brokedown Palace?
You probably picked up the details from yesterday's Guardian Interview with the director, but here they are again. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a ruthlessly professional assassin with his own personal code of ethics, derived from constant reading of samurai philosophy. He's attached himself to mob boss Louie (John Tormey) as a retainer, performing hits for him as and when required for a single payment once a year. When one such hit is complicated by the presence of gangster's daughter Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), the call goes out for Ghost Dog to get whacked himself. Easier said than done.
23 hours after seeing Jarmusch talking on stage, a lot of what he said makes sense upon seeing this film. Most notable is his insistence that his films are driven by character rather than plot: certainly Ghost Dog is particularly untroubled by much of a story, but it doesn't seem to be a problem at all. Jarmusch takes all the cliches of the mobster/hitman genres, subverts some of them (a hilarious conversation between Mafia guys about Ghost Dog's name culminates in one of them expressing his love of Public Enemy - not the movie, the band), and improves on others (a truly inspired hit in a gangster's bathroom springs to mind). Forest Whitaker exudes just the right air of stillness and menace in the lead, bolstered by a host of familiar faces in the Mafia roles.
And Jarmusch's sense of style certainly hasn't eluded him here. Certain visual motifs recur throughout the movie in a fashion reminiscent of Peter Greenaway: the pigeons Ghost Dog lives with, the TVs that show cartoons and nothing else, the frequent references to Japanese literature. His regular theme of a foreigner trying to cope in a strange land surfaces here in the friendship between Ghost Dog and ice-cream man Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé): the two always communicate perfectly despite neither being able to speak the other's language. And there's a brilliantly brooding hip-hop score from the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. It's an overworked adjective when dealing with Jim Jarmusch, but sod it, it's got to be said: Ghost Dog is just so damn cool.
4.00pm: Flowers Of Shanghai
Despite being a Taiwanese/Japanese co-production, Flowers Of Shanghai - as should be obvious from the title - is set in China, during the 1880s to be precise. The 'flower houses' were brothels frequented by men from the civil service, although based on the evidence given here, they seemed to spend more time on scissors-paper-stone based drinking games than on actual shagging. The film follows the stories of a number of the 'flower girls' - their friendships and fallings out, the desire of some of them to find a single customer and settle down with him, the jealousy that breaks out when a girl hogs one of the regulars for herself.
Flowers Of Shanghai suffers from the stereotypical curse of the Art Movie: it's ravishingly beautiful but emotionally dead. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien has worked with director of photography Lee Ping-bin to produce one of the most gorgeous-looking movies I've seen in years. Curiously, it steals its best trick from Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise: every scene is shot in a single take with fades to black between, the camera drifting slowly across the sumptuously lit sets as the stories are played out. Combined with the relentlessly repetitive music by Yoshiro Hanno, this makes for a breathtakingly hypnotic atmosphere, as if the whole movie is being watched through an opium haze.
Unfortunately, you spend so much time admiring all these technical details that it's impossible to get involved with the lives of the characters. Some fine performers from Hong Kong cinema are present in the cast, notably Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Michelle Reis: but they're just treated as added decoration in the visual scheme of things, and despite their best efforts it's hard to care what happens. More of a mid-afternoon cure for Festival stress than a wholly satisfying movie, I'm afraid.
6.30pm: The Protagonists
I don't know if the LFF has a quota system or what, but every year there's one movie in the programme - and only one - which carries a warning that it contains "scenes that some viewers may find disturbing". When you're trying to select films from a list of 200 or so that you've never heard of, it's always a consideration worth bearing in mind. Thus three years ago I ended up seeing a little-known Spanish comedy-thriller called Nobody Will Speak Of Us When We Are Dead, which rattled along enjoyably enough until a bit at the end involving Victoria Abril's kneecaps and a corkscrew. And last year we had Lars von Trier's The Idiots, which you know about already.
This year the warning comes attached to Luca Guadagnino's The Protagonists: but despite the prurient interest, it only played to a half-full cinema. It's a documentary, sort of, based on the 1994 murder of a London waiter by a pair of teenage boys with an SAS fixation. They'd never met him before: they'd come up to King's Cross to find a pimp or drug dealer to kill, merely to see if it could be done, and when they couldn't find one they just grabbed the first person they found. Gaudagnino, living in Italy, was fascinated by the sheer coldness displayed by the killers, and when he found out that actress Tilda Swinton had a similar obsession with the case, the two of them decided to work together on this film.
Swinton acts as the on-screen narrator throughout. She shows us the locations where the events took place, interviews the investigators and surviving family, and works with a group of Italian actors in a reconstruction of the events of the fatal night. What sets this apart from a normal crime documentary is Guadagnino's insistence on showing the strings: the camera crew are frequently in shot throughout the interviews, we watch the cast and crew chatting and fooling around between takes, and we get to see the whole rehearsal process for the reconstruction.
The mixture between fantasy and reality is a quite unnerving one, and I assume that was the effect Guadagnino was trying to achieve. There are so many different levels of reality at work here it's sometimes hard to identify the truth: certainly by the time we get to the (deliberately?) stiffly dramatised and over-embellished recreation of the events leading up to the murder at the end, we're thoroughly convinced that a straight reconstruction isn't the way to tell this story. The film achieves this by taking a much more deconstructive approach in the earlier stages, using the case to make us reflect not only on what makes some people capable of cold-blooded murder, but how such events are portrayed in the media. This is helped a lot by Swinton's narrator character, who unusually becomes completely personally involved in the portrayal, at one stage posing in full gory makeup as the victim. "Is this how you imagined it?"
The health warning in the programme presumably refers to the re-enactment of the murder itself, but as we've seen the actors rehearsing this scene first, it kind of takes the edge off it. More disturbing is the fact that a murder case less than five years old is being used as the basis for a rather cold, intellectual art movie. The victim's wife (interviewed on screen) was told of the nature of the movie from the start, but still hasn't seen the finished product: I suspect she could be in for a hell of a shock when she sees it. An interesting experiment, but the results are morally queasy, and I'm not entirely convinced by the argument that the moral queasiness is the whole point of the film.
Ten years after the Bomb, Japan is in turmoil. (Again.) An anti-government group known as the Sect is causing urban unrest, using female child terrorists known as Little Red Riding Hoods to plant bombs and transport arms. Rather than getting the police or military involved, the government responds by setting up a third force known as CAPO to deal specifically with the Sect. Fuse, a CAPO soldier, is undergoing retraining following his hesitation in killing one of the Little Red Riding Hoods, a hesitation which resulted in the detonation of a bomb and the child's death. His feelings of guilt are eased a little when he strikes up a relationship with the dead girl's sister. It's doomed, of course, but not for the reasons you may expect.
Once again the LFF has included a Japanese anime cartoon in the Festival, and is struggling in the programme notes to find some sort of link to Katsuhiro Otomo, director of Akira and the godfather of the whole Japanimation genre. Jin-Roh is therefore advertised as being the directorial debut of the key animator on Akira, Hiroyuki Okiura. However, Okiura has had a long established animation career in his own right since 1983, when he worked on the briliantly titled TV show Soko Kihei Bottoms: he doesn't need the reflected glory of Otomo's name, particularly with a film as good as this.
For those of us more familiar with the slam-bang action generally associated with sci-fi anime, Jin-Roh comes as a bit of a surprise: apart from the explosive riot at the start and a big noisy shoot-out at the end, this is more of a character piece. The relationship between Fuse and the sister is carefully drawn, even if the frequent quotes from the story of Little Red Riding Hood are sometimes a little overdone. The animation is as enjoyable to look at as these things usually are, but you get a neat study on guilt and betrayal thrown in with the nuke-proof body armour, making for something with a bit more depth than your typical straight-to-video manga. It's probably doomed to no more than a video release in this country, but it's well worth a look even if you don't normally go for this sort of thing.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Ken - A truly weird mystery suspense thriller worthy of Hitchcock himself. Anne Parillaud is a wealthy heiress on an island honeymoon who suspects her husband (William Baldwin) of plotting her murder. Or is she the cold blooded assassin - whose new lover (and target) is also William Baldwin - that she dreams about? Or is the heiress merely the assassin's dream? Not a film to be watched while half asleep, as a lot of mental dexterity is required to keep up with the constant switching between the two lives.
Old Lag - An enormously dull film. As each of the characters was cinematically introduced walking down the street with a graphic giving their name and relationship, you could just tell they were dull people. The film proceeded at a stunningly dull pace, the dull plot plodding along through dully acted, dull lives and dull conversations portrayed with dull cinematography and dull lighting showing the dullest possible aspects of otherwise interesting Danish council estates. After being dulled into some unspeakable mood, for 10 minutes the dullness became unspeakably grim when A kicks his pregnant wife B, who later aborted, C (B's brother) has A beaten up and injected with AIDS infected blood bought for £100 and a packet of cigarettes, C is violently sick. A shoots C, shoots his own hand off, then shoots his own head off. The film slumps back into another 15 minutes of dullness. Staggered out feeling very grim. You could say things about the film and that it says things about life: dullness (a valid emotion in this fast world), people who are out of life, leading some unsympathetic edge-like existence, people who don't communicate, and who can't or won't manage, don't live through people. There are three worrying aspects to this film. It is the second in what must be a massively dull trilogy, which you might want to watch if you enjoy getting depressed. Adrian Wootton, Director of the London Film Festival, seems to rate the director and his product. The male characters, Spank, revolve around a video shop where two of them work and are definitely film buffs. The social outlet for them all is to dress up and watch movies at R's house. Ahem dear reader, I have very broad interests in life!
Crazy In Alabama
Lesley - A very strange, odd blend of genres. Kooky Melanie Griffith is on the run from Alabama to Hollywood, with her husband's head in a hatbox - she actually murdered him. This is mixed up with a civil rights tale. There's a hanky ending, and I suspect that there's going to be a big Saturday matinee-type audience for this sort of thing: hankies, soft hearts, emotion, all that sort of stuff. I found it very watchable, but I suspect that this film needs protecting from the critics.
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