12.00pm: The Big Country
Some years we spend almost entire weekends in the company of Clyde Jeavons, who programmes the Treasures From The Archive section of the LFF. Not this year, though: a sad consequence of my having less time than usual for films, and having to be more picky about choosing ones that I'm less likely to see elsewhere. But this one leapt out of the programme: the chance to see an old-school fifties Western in a cinema. Jeavons apologies in his introduction that there are only a couple of hundred of us rattling around inside the nine hundred seater Odeon West End 2, "but I needed this screen". He's right: it's the biggest screen available to the LFF, and it's lovely to see The Big Country stretched across it rather than cropped and squashed on a telly.
It's the story of former sea captain James Mackay (Gregory Peck), who's moved over to the West with his fancy suit and his book learnin' to get hitched to his fiancee Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker). Within a day of arrival he finds himself caught up in the middle of a turf war between the Terrills and the neighbouring Hannasseys over a stretch of water known as The Big Muddy. Mackay quickly raises hackles on both sides by refusing to rise to the provocations of the Hannasseys, leading people - including the Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) to assume he's a coward. In fact, Mackay has his own plans to try and resolve the conflict peacefully, as is his nature. Well, that might work.
William Wyler's 1958 film is probably best known today for Jerome Moross' iconic score - that opening rush of strings and brass still gives you a genuine thrill, even after the damage that MC Tunes caused to it a couple of decades ago. But there's so much more to enjoy here than just the music - in fact, there are several dramatic silences throughout the film, lasting longer than any director would dare to hold them for nowadays. Visually, Wyler uses the large canvas beautifully: there are epic landscapes, lovingly rendered silhouettes, and some astonishing compositions using the foreground and background simultaneously. His cast inevitably do him proud, although it has to be said that the baddies come off best: leading Hannassey brother Chuck Connors has his redneck charm turned up to eleven (I wonder if Josh 'Sawyer' Holloway of Lost is a fan?), while Burl Ives' patriarch of the family earns his Best Supporting Actor Oscar with his glorious delivery of some terrific dialogue. ("You want me, Pa?" asks Connors at one point, to which Ives replies "Before you was born, I did...")
"The Big Country has a notable pacifist message, but you should still be able to enjoy it," says Jeavons in his introduction. He's right: Mackay's doctrine of non-violence isn't depicted in a preachy way, but it's made very clear that every act of violence in the film ultimately doesn't solve anything. And besides, even a film about pacifism can have magnificent action sequences, notably some wholly gratuitous but thrilling horseplay by the Hannassey brothers early on. See it on telly if you must, but if you ever see another chance to catch The Big Country on a big screen, then do it.
4.15pm: Big Bang Love, Juvenile A
And while we're on the subject of big films...
A new movie by Takashi Miike is always welcome. Not that they're necessarily all brilliant - in fact, to be honest, his last appearance at the LFF with Izo was a bit of a stinker. But you're always guaranteed to see something you've never seen before. And although in the UK his name seems to be permanently associated with Yakuza flicks, he rarely covers the same ground twice - pretty impressive for a director who, according to the IMDB, has made 70 films so far.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A is an exploration of masculinity set in a prison. So, violence and bumsex galore, then? Well, yes and no. Two young men are brought into a prison on the same day on unconnected murder convictions. Ariyoshi Jun (Ryuhei Matsuda) is a terrifyingly pretty waiter at a gay bar, who stabbed a punter for eight hours continuously: Katzuki Shiro (Masanobu Ando) is a crazed hothead who carries a cloud of prison officers around with him, as they keep pulling him off the latest prisoner he's chosen to beat up. The film starts with the final moments of Ariyoshi and Katzuki's relationship: then it flashes back to their initial meeting, and gradually shows us how they got from here to there.
The mystery plot at the centre of the film is a little thin, and only really holds interest because screenwriter Masa Nakamura has carefully fragmented it into layered repeated flashbacks (each one telling us a little more about events we've already seen), and drops subtle hints that some of this may only be happening in Ariyoshi's head. But plot isn't really Miike's concern here (even less than usual): what's more important is that this is the most visually stunning film he's ever made. Aside from a couple of surreal sequences showing us what's outside the prison, for the most part the story is confined inside it: and those prison sequences recall nothing so much as the work of Derek Jarman in the way they build up an entire world from a sparse set and a couple of perfectly placed lights. The sets feature bold slabs of colour that pick out the few details required from within the darkness, a device that draws you into the action beautifully. Yes, there's all the (explicit) violence and (repressed) bumsex you could want from a prison movie, but it's set within one of the most ravishing-looking films you're likely to see anywhere.
6.30pm: Invisible Waves
Kyoji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese chef living in Macau and working in Hong Kong. For reasons best left vague here, he needs to get out of Hong Kong sharpish, and Invisible Waves is the story of his journey. The first half of the film covers his nightmarish ferry passage from Hong Kong to Phuket, where the only good thing that happens to him is his meeting up with Noi (Gang Hye-Jung). The second half of the film covers his adventures once he arrives in Thailand. In both sections, he's the victim of a seemingly endless stretch of bad luck: but gradually it becomes apparent that some of his misfortunes have nothing to do with chance.
Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, star Tadanobu Asano and cinematographer Christopher Doyle all previously worked on the LFF 2003 hit Last Life In The Universe, a movie that I quite liked but The Belated Birthday Girl loved to pieces. Invisible Waves is a watchable follow-up, but doesn't quite hit the heights of their earlier film. For the most part, it plays well as a slow-paced downbeat comedy, almost Finnish in the way it lingers on the tiny annoyances that blight Kyoji's passage to Thailand, and throws in surreal gags that come out of nowhere. And Chris Doyle is as inventive as ever in his shooting: continually finding unexpected filming angles, and pointing up the contrasts between the utter drabness of the cruise ship, the drizzle of Hong Kong and Macau, and the brightness of Phuket (which makes you wonder if Ratanaruang is taking backhanders from the Thai Tourist Board).
But even for what amounts to a shaggy dog story, this meanders far too much. With three countries involved in its making, the film turns into the Asian equivalent of a Europudding, with most of the actors suffering from having to deliver their lines in English as the only common language (Asano's usual charisma takes a particularly bad knock from this). And there's a final revenge coda, lasting around half an hour or so, which doesn't really add anything to the mix at all: it just gives some already tied-up loose ends one more knot that they didn't need. Invisible Waves is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn't really deliver on the promise of Last Life, and that's a shame.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - It's probably fair to say that Penny Woolcock's film The Principles Of Lust (which I saw at the 2003 LFF) is without doubt the most dire lowlife feature length piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. However two of her previous offerings (which I caught a long time back on Channel 4), Tina Goes Shopping and the sequel Tina Takes A Break, were highly amusing and original takes on an underclass community in a Leeds housing estate. Well in Mischief Night Tina is back, with her three sprogs (all by different fathers) getting older and more bothersome by the day. Mischief Night itself being some sort of Northern (or Yorkshire) take on Halloween.
Now I have to pause there for a minute and say that this is a very very difficult film to review, and still end up getting the tone of said review right. For starters, its remit is far broader in scope than covering one night of the year where the kids can run riot (yea like they don't do that every night). As such this is a film about the (for so long) Labour luvvie myth about what constitutes multicultural Britain. Because towns like Beeston in Leeds (where this is set, and Kelly 'Tina' Hollis actually lives) are about as racially integrated (between the White and Asian communities) as The Falls Road in Belfast, or the Jewish settlements on the Palestinian border. This as we all know is a hot topic of debate in the news at the moment, as politicians are starting to grasp the fact that what works in cosmopolitan Central London doesn't apply elsewhere. Similarly, like the previous two Tina films, this is about an underclass White (and in this film Asian as well) society, who have been left behind by New Labour and their New Deals, and instead operate their own economy based on benefits, thieving, and dealing in drugs.
Depressed now aren't you? Well don't be, because this is one of the funniest movies you will see in a long time (pissing on pretend crap like Trainspotting), which comes at you at a 100mph, and just never lets up. It also features one of the most impressive cast of child actors (all non stage school apparently) that one is likely to come across.
If I have one minor quibble, it is that Woolcock in an attempt to humanise the Asian/Muslim community (for those of you who don't work with them in the day job), and who we all know are currently being demonised by the media, goes a little too far the other way with the feelgood humour. This might be from something pointlessly silly like the woman in the veil trying to work out how to eat the ice cream she has just bought, to trivialising the fanatacism of the local Iman. After all as Kelly Hollis (Tina) pointed out in the post film Q&A, the London 7/7 bombers came from Beeston, and that she was "crapping herself" (her words I assure you) over what the local repercussions would be for race relations in the area. But yet again I am struggling to get the tone right here because essentially this is not a film about Whites v Asians, something which Tina's potential boyfriend Ramon Tikaram (in a good tradition of love and hate) points out to her, as he lists all the various inter ethnic hatreds that are ongoing within the Asian communities.
Anyway one key character in all the three Tina films is that of the local (White) drugs baron Don, who is Tina's father in the trilogy, and (which I didn't know until tonight) Kelly Hollis's father in real life. Well let's put it like this, he is a little bit of a scary character, who for all I know may have spent his entire life researching this role. Thus when the Q&A started and he leaped up insisting that Kelly/Tina told him that she still loves him, well it kind of psyched the rest of the audience, who were very reticent in their questioning lest he (perhaps) took it the wrong way.
So to sum up I, for once, don't feel confident in the way I have reviewed this, or have given the real measure of what this is all about. Maybe because there is so much happening here, it is hard to take it all in on one sitting. What I will say though is that this is a magnificent achievement by Penny Woolcock, and as far as British films go I would rate this alongside Kes and A Room For Romeo Brass.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A
The Belated Birthday Girl - As a Miike cheerleader, I am really pleased to be able to say how much I loved this film. It captured me right from the beautiful and heavily stylised opening, and kept me with it all the way through to its moving finish.
The film begins with the death of Katzuki, one of the young inmates of a juvenile prison, and the confession by another inmate, Ariyoshi, and follows the investigation into this death and the connection between these two young prisoners. The story is a simple tale of damaged youth, prison love, and death, and if told in a straightforward linear fashion would barely sustain a short. But Miike chooses here to cut back and forth in time, revealing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in repeated scenes, each repetition showing something new, either giving us a different angle, or taking the story on a little further than before. Over the course of the film we come to know more about these young men, about their pasts, about their relationship in the prison, about their characters, as well as the outcome of the investigation. And the visuals are striking: the most beautifully shot Miike film I can recall (from cinematographer Masahito Kaneko, whose first film this would seem to be, according to IMDb), and, in fact, one of the most beautiful films I've seen for quite some time.
Katzuki and Ariyoshi are sensitively played by Ando Masanobue and Matsuda Ryuhei, while there are also strong supporting performances from the likes of Ryo Ishibashi as the warden, and Endo Kenischi and Renji Ishibashi as the investigators. The line between fantasy and reality is often blurred, but the narrative and character all come through strongly, with the structure used adding to, rather than detracting from, the interest in the story. The way the camera lovingly caresses the young actors' bodies, the symbolic use of blood, light, and the mysterious tattoos sometimes seen on Katzuki, the stylisation of the prison, the elements of fantasy, all go towards making this a visually rewarding film, and one which, yet again, goes to highlight the enormous and wide-ranging talent of Miike. For those who fear that his best is all in the past, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A should help allay those fears.