Spank's LFF Diary, Monday 22/10/2007
Spank's LFF Diary, Wednesday 24/10/2007

Spank's LFF Diary, Tuesday 23/10/2007

Reviewed today: Catching The Big Fish, Heartbeat Detector, The Matsugane Potshot Affair, No Mercy For The Rude.

No Mercy For The Rude6.30pm: No Mercy For The Rude

Christ. Not another movie about an Asian hitman with lots of style, no conversation and a warped moral code? Well, yes. But at least Park Chul-Lee's directorial debut manages to wring some changes out of the usual bag of cliches. The man we only get to know as Killa (Shin Ha-Kyun) does indeed look mightily cool in his leather jacket and shades, but his knife technique is just clumsy enough to make him curiously endearing. The reason why he doesn't talk to anyone turns out to be medical in nature: in fact, he's saving all the money he makes as an assassin to pay for an operation in Japan that will restore his speech. And because he feels a little guilty about the nature of his chosen career, he justifies it to himself by only taking jobs that require him to kill utter bastards. Or, at the very least, rude people.

We've been getting a lot of hard-assed South Korean thrillers here over the past few years, so it's nice to see one that has a bit of a sense of humour about itself. Part of that comes from the contrast with the mundane life Killa has outside of his work, which seems to involve only hanging out with other assassins. For this to work as a story, he needs that life to be disrupted, and that disruption comes from two areas. Without meaning to, he suddenly has a surrogate family moving in with him: bar girl She (Yoon Ji-Hye), and an unrelated irritating street kid. And inevitably, just as his personal life starts to get some shape to it, an earlier hit job comes back to haunt him.

It's surprising just how much fun No Mercy For The Rude is. It was responsible for the first few out-loud laughs I've had so far this Festival: unusually for a hitman caper, none of those laughs were related to the actual business of killing people. The seriousness of Killa's demeanour plays off nicely against the goofy comedy of a lot of the first half of the film. But it goes towards making the characters incredibly sympathetic, so that when things start to get serious towards the end, it all means something. Nevertheless, even in the film's darker moments, Park can throw in a bizarre aside like the cops torturing a prisoner with the noise of a nail scraping against metal. No sign of a British distributor as yet, but I suspect this one has Tartan Video Asia Extreme tattooed all over its back under its leather jacket.

David Lynch on stage at NFT1. (They wouldn't let us take pictures of Donovan's set, sorry.)9.00pm: Catching The Big Fish (official site)

Well, this was always going to be a weird one. David Lynch: the director of modern classics such as Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and You'll Get Diarrhea. Donovan: the legendary sixties troubadour, who I last saw in 1990 looking bemused as he opened for the Happy Mondays at Wembley Arena. Both of them together, on the same stage, in an event organised by the David Lynch Foundation to promote awareness of Transcendental Meditation. With hippies and hipsters both queueing at the box office for returns, the audience for Catching The Big Fish is a perfect freakstorm. Part of the attraction of this event is that nobody knows quite what to expect: but in the end, it's a fairly standard game of two halves, Brian.

The first half is just Lynch, standing on stage taking questions from the audience on any subject they can think of. There's initially some reluctance from the audience to participate (unusually for an LFF event, they have to come to the mikes at the side of the stage), and Lynch has a terrifying rabbit-caught-in-headlights look on his face while waiting for the first question: but once it gets going, he's talkative and amusing. That old Mel Brooks line about Lynch being 'Jimmy Stewart from Mars' sums up his personality quite nicely. He's got a very good line on the people who find his films difficult to understand: "in a film there are concrete elements and abstract elements, and the abstract elements can produce a reaction that's hard to describe in words. So you spend all your time crafting these elements in cinema, only for people to try and translate them back into words again..." But at the same time, he's happy to field questions on matters as trivial as his choice of hair product. ("Today, I'm using a L'Oreal spray from Israel.")

Nevertheless, we all know why we're here really, and it's surprising that we have to wait until the second question for someone to ask "David, what is the meaning of life?" Lynch's answer starts with the idea of totality and the interconnectedness of all things, and so from there we move onto his pet topic of the use of Transcendental Meditation as a creative tool. You know how some artists get really irritated when you ask them "so, where do you get all your ideas from?" Well, Lynch appears to be one of the few who's created a lecture tour around the answer to that question. You can tell by the way he gets really animated at this point, throwing out concepts and buzzphrases at an alarming rate: TM takes you within yourself to tap infinite levels of creativity, gives you access to limitless bliss rather than the limited happiness of external interaction, and lets you connect with "the big engine that runs the universes."

It's all interesting stuff, because Lynch turns out to be a very engaging public speaker, and on this topic in particular he's obviously thought things through. It does get a little scary towards the end of his hour-long slot, though, as he starts suggesting ways in which practitioners of TM could actually affect the consciousness of people outside of their group. Apparently, all it would take is just 800 people in the UK to come together in a peace group to project a state of mind that could start moving the rest of the world towards peace - not just an absence of war, but an absence of negativity. Well, you can always read Lynch's new book if you buy into these ideas (be warned, the Amazon plot summary is currently magnificently wrong): but even if you don't, his talk is enjoyable as hell just on the level of performance art.

Lynch leaves the stage to be replaced by Donovan, and it's rather annoying that several members of the Lynch fanbase decide to leave at this point: absence of negativity is all well and good, but let's face it, some people are just arseholes. Donovan plays a half-hour set that's heavily skewed towards his sixties hits (Sunshine Superman, Colours, Season Of The Witch), with one rather fine new song thrown in to show he's still got the knack. Unlike Lynch, he doesn't lecture us of the benefits of TM, only to point out in his intro to Hurdy Gurdy Man that he wrote it during his first visit to the Maharishi, accompanied by "four Beatles and a Beach Boy." The youngsters in the audience don't seem to know the songs well enough to sing along, but the oldsters make sufficient racket during Mellow Yellow to make it a rather fun climax to the evening.

Lynch comes back during Donovan's final tune to sign off with the request "let suffering belong to no-one." You can't really argue with that, can you?



Notes From Spank's Pals

Heartbeat Detector (official site)

The Belated Birthday Girl - Simon (Mathieu Amalric) is a company psychologist working for a German chemical firm based in France. One day he is asked - discreetly - to look into the mental health of the CEO, who has been acting out of character lately. We are told in a narration by Simon that the company recently came out of a period of "restructuring", where the staff was cut from 2500 to 1200, and that as company psychologist he was heavily involved in drawing up criteria for deciding who to keep and who to let go. Was this "restructuring" in some way related to the change in mood and actions of the CEO? Simon's inquiries lead him to look into the company string quartet in which the CEO, his secretary and two others played some time earlier: what does this have to do with the CEO's current behaviour? And what does it all have to do with the wartime background of the fathers of the CEO and others?

Heartbeat Detector raises questions of the cold, mechanised nature of modern life, illustrating this further with artistically shot scenes of Simon's fractured love-life and trips to the local rave scene (these insertions adding into the total 143 minute running time), and does so with an over-inflated sense of its own significance. It pretentiously draws parallels between the faux scientific language used variously in redundancy programmes, the efforts to detect illegal immigrants crossing from France to the UK, and Nazi atrocities, and the parallels feel unearned. For me, its pretensions are the sort of thing I frequently associate with French cinema, and I lost patience with them. However, the film is beautifully made and well acted, and I'm sure others will find it deeply meaningful.



The Matsugane Potshot Affair (official site)

The Belated Birthday Girl - The film opens with a claim that the story which follows is based on fact, although with some fictionalising "as an occupational hazard". We then open with a scene with a woman lying motionless in the snow, discovered by a small child. We then change scene to the various members of the Suzuki family, in the mountain town of Matsugane, where the woman was found, particularly Kotaro, a local policeman called in to assist with the body, and his twin brother Hikari, who is trying to pack snow into a dent in his car. The town seems inhabited by a variety of odd-balls (the director, introducing the screening, said that "nobody in this film is normal"), with actions and behaviours which are clearly supposed to make us laugh. The main threads of the plot revolve around the woman found in the road and her partner, and why they have come to Matsugane (let's just say there is something not entirely legal about it), the Suzuki family members, and the woman who runs the local hair salon (who Kotaro and Hikari's father has moved in with) and her mentally disabled daughter.

As well as a general interest in things Japanese, and as well as having quite enjoyed the director's previous LFF outing Linda, Linda, Linda, I was also drawn to this film by the description in the LFF program, which made it sound like a blackly comic crime caper, possibly a Japanese Fargo. Neither the program notes nor Linda, Linda, Linda prepared me for what was, in fact, a film in highly dubious taste, with characters who were not so much "deliciously eccentric" as deeply disturbed: more Haneke than Coens. Maybe I'm just oversensitive, but I don't find the subject of the sexual exploitation of a mentally disabled teenager a suitable subject for comedy, certainly the way it was handled in this film. True, there were some other laughs, but as I was not feeling generous towards the film, it had to work hard for those. And when at one point Kotaro wants to put rat poison into the water system to kill off the mice which annoy him constantly at the police station, I was willing him to do it: maybe slaughter of the whole town would have been a fitting ending.

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