Reviewed today: Adoration, I Am Alive, RR, Under The Tree, Uprise, The Warlords.
1.45pm: Under The Tree
Frequently, when you're choosing films to see at the LFF, you're relying on the previous form of directors - in some cases, directors whose films you've only ever seen at the Festival. I've mentioned the problems with this approach before: you end up watching the new movie by someone whose work you can remember catching before, only to find out too late that you didn't like them much then, and like them even less now. (See South Of The Clouds as an example.)
Which makes the LFF diary I've been keeping since 1998 very useful indeed (providing I remember to use it). So, for example, when the new film from the director of 2006's Opera Jawa is announced, I can go back and see what I said about it: "by the climax, you can't think of it as having mere pretensions to opera: it's working on a large enough emotional scale to be the real thing." I obviously felt at the time that Garin Nugroho was a director to be followed, so I leapt at the chance to see his new film this year. And, of course, I now have to report that it's bewilderingly terrible.
Opera Jawa was a heavily stylised adaptation of an ancient Indonesian myth: but Under The Tree is a more contemporary piece, nevertheless drawing on some ancient traditions. It's set in Bali, and follows the adventures of three women, all of whom have family problems of some sort or other. Maharani (Marcella Zalianty) is searching for her natural mother amongst a community of dancers: Dewi (Ayu Laksmi) is worried about her pregnancy after getting the results of some tests: and Nian (Nadia Saphira) is a spoilt airhead teen looking for a father figure, now that her real father is doing time in jail.
Nugroho cuts between these three stories in the most narratively awkward way possible, and throws in lots of other minor characters on top, until it becomes literally impossible to know what's going on by the end. The stylish settings of Opera Jawa - which were pieces of installation art in their own right - are replaced by endless documentary-style sequences of Balinese rural life, which have some visual interest but do absolutely nothing to move the story forward. A straight National Geographic-style document of life in Bali would be more intriguing, and probably wouldn't feel as patronising as the use of ancient traditions here to bulk up a thin collection of stories.
It was fun to hear about The Cineaste's experience at James Benning's RR yesterday, particularly the walkouts it was getting. I can sort of understand what was happening there. People read in the programme about a film featuring shots of trains crossing the American landscape, and they imagine it'll be the US equivalent of one of those little old men who used to tour provincial cinemas with tins full of films they'd shot of classic locomotives on the platform at Crewe. Unfortunately, James Benning isn't aiming at an audience of trainspotters - well, not that sort, anyway - but it's easy to see how the railway theme would attract viewers who wouldn't have given his previous appearances at the LFF the time of day. (Including both The Cineaste and The Belated Birthday Girl, I'm amused to report.)
It was Suze (and don't worry, he should be joining us at the end of this week) who first introduced me to Benning's work in 2002 with The California Trilogy, which I subsequently followed up with Ten Skies in 2005. Benning is an experimental director with a very formalised approach: the main question he asks in his films is "what are you looking at?", which presumably explains why he gets into so many fights. When you watch a Benning film, it normally consists of a series of long static shots, which you're left to examine at your leisure and work out where the interesting bit is. It's a particular challenge in the case of something like Ten Skies, where you get to watch shots of clouds for ten minutes at a time. Effectively, as I found out back then, you've got to learn how to watch the film as you go.
Unlike the earlier movies I've seen, where every shot was held for the same pre-determined duration of time, the shot length in RR is determined by the action: how long it takes a train to travel from one end of the frame to the other. There are 43 of them in total, predominantly freight trains, and some of them can take several minutes to make that journey. So as the film progresses, you're looking closely at the shots, making comparisons, pulling out details that grab your attention. There are trains filmed from so far away they look like toys, and others shot so close you can hear individual carriages passing over the rails. They cross horizontally across the frame, or zoom past the camera to a vanishing point on the horizon. And once in a while you get a train that doesn't exactly conform to Benning's self-imposed shot rules, which presumably is the moment that The Cineaste referred to yesterday that was his personal equivalent of the shower scene in Psycho in terms of surprise.
RR (aside from having the best end credit roll of any film I'm likely to see at this year's Festival) is an enjoyable enough watch in terms of experimental cinema, but didn't blow my head off the way that some of Benning's earlier films have. And unfortunately, it's down to the trains: they're such a key structural element of each shot that you end up focussing on them to the exclusion of everything else in the frame. Part of the appeal of Benning's other movies is that the shot length gives you time to let your eye wander across them, looking for something other viewers might have missed: here, you watch the train come into frame and leave it again, and you know that everyone else in the room is looking at exactly the same thing. It's not until the beautifully composed final shot that you get to really consider the train line as a structural element within its surroundings. Those of you who are seeing this as the Fisher-Price My First Benning are advised to check out some of the other stuff in his back catalogue for some real excitement (i.e. the sort of excitement that involves much less happening).
9.00pm: The Warlords (official site)
Here's my story of the one time I was in the same room as Jet Li, back in 1996 before you'd ever heard of him. My days as a Hong Kong cinema fanboy started in the late 80s with triple bills and all-nighters at the Scala cinema, and were fuelled even more by screenings of newer HK films at the LFF. It was at the 1991 festival that I first saw Once Upon A Time In China, the film that introduced me to Jet Li. Over the years, Li's movies continued to appear here at festivals and on imported videos, and by 1996 he had a big enough cult following in the UK to justify a triple bill at the Prince Charles topped off with a personal appearance. A year or two after that, he'd made his first American movie appearance in Lethal Weapon 4, and he went ballistic from there.
Li was always one of those martial arts stars who inspired a lot of affection in his fans: something that was ignored in his English language work for years on end, as he was cast as a series of silent scowling killers. But at that triple bill in 1996, he displayed his charm to an audience who'd already seen his films countless times on video. Particularly the two Jamaican guys sitting behind me, who had an entire commentary for Fist Of Legend worked out between them. I have especially fond memories of the scene where the son of one of the film's baddies runs back to his dad after a severe kicking from Li. "My son! What has happened?" asks the father. And the Jamaican guys yell back "yer bwoy got BATTARED!"
Anyway. Us Hong Kong fanboys have been having a tough time of it since 1997, with film stars fleeing the country and movie production failing to reach the dizzy heights it was achieving prior to the Chinese handover. The Warlords, happily, is a bit of a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema. There's a (far too long) opening crawl setting up the history behind the events of the film: but all you really need to know is that it's the late 19th century, and rival clans are battling across China. General Pang (Jet Li) loses his entire army in a ferocious battle, and during his retreat meets up with a band of brigands led by Cao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). The three of them swear a blood oath to lead the brigands into battle and bring peace to China. Because blood oaths always work out well in these sorts of films, don't they? Particularly when we're already established that Pang has a bit of a thing for Er-Hu's wife, Mi Lan (Xu Jinglei). In fact, the whole blood oath business is just as successful as it was in the 1972 Chang Cheh classic Blood Brothers, which is based on the same story.
Stylish violence, hyped-up melodrama, intense bonding between men: these are the basic elements of classic Hong Kong action cinema, and director Peter Chan has a pretty good go at recreating them for the present day. There are a couple of splendidly-staged battle sequences (the work of legendary action director Ching Siu-Tung), which combine old-fashioned techniques with subtle digital effects to deliver the sort of did-I-just-see-that? moments that used to make these films such glorious entertainment. But at the same time, the dramatic elements of the story don't disappoint, with the three leads acting more or less to type: Lau the charismatic leader, Kaneshiro the charmer who gets to tell the story afterwards, and Li kicking arse (but getting to do more proper acting than in all his Hollywood films put together). It'd all be great if it wasn't for some curious leaps in the story which lead you to suspect this is an international cut reduced from a full-length domestic version - a version that, say, actually shows you the battle that the entire film leads up to, rather than throwing it away in a couple of lines of narration and a quick montage of slow-mo shots. But then again, us HK fanboys remember that happening a lot in the old days, too...
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - Straight out of the European school of very arty movie-making, this is an astonishing debut feature from director Sandro Aguilar. An enigmatic young man is visiting his ill father in hospital, and seems to recognise or know a pregnant woman who’s recovering from a serious road accident. But following the “plot” (which was very loose and occasionally vague, and unravelled at an extremely leisurely pace) was almost irrelevant, since style was the all-important master and king. So we had loads of long takes very close up, lots of dimly-lit scenes, almost no dialogue (and consequently equally minimal characterisation), and plenty of scenes where nothing happened, which might make a cynic think they were there for no obvious purpose.
This kind of film is very much an acquired taste, a taste I haven’t fully developed a burning liking for, but I have to take my hat off to Aguilar as a very talented young film-maker.
I Am Alive
The Belated Birthday Girl - Rocco (Massimo de Santis) is behind on his mortgage payments, and has only casual jobs to try to get any money together. So when a friend offers him the chance to make 1,000 Euros for one night's work, he really has to take it. When he finds out that the job entails watching over an old villa, and more specifically the dead body of a young woman there, overnight, he is somewhat disturbed, but he agrees. I Am Alive stays with Rocco on this night as his friend leaves him alone, and other people show up, and he learns more about the woman, her family, her life and her death, and reflects maybe on what is important in life.
Introducing the film, writer-director brothers Dino and Filippo Gentili told us that they wanted it to be an intriguing film, but also to strike the balance with some black humour, and on the whole I think it succeeds. There are some questions left unanswered at the end, and it's left open as to what happens next for some of the characters involved, but those are not to the film's detriment. The look of the film is is modern noir-ish, using subdued colours, and the performances are fine. I Am Alive is a decent directorial debut for the writer brothers, worth seeing if it gets any sort of post-festival life (it has not yet been released in Italy), and I will be interested to see further films from the Gentilis in future.
The Cineaste - I’ve been a fan of Atom Egoyan for ten years or more and it was a big plus having him on stage afterwards with Jonathan Romney chairing the Q & A.
The film looks at how the internet has revolutionised our broadcasting media – how any teenager can now broadcast stuff to a global audience from his bedroom for modest outlay – and the potentially far-reaching consequences this can have for those around us.
Specifically it looks at the story of Simon (in his mid-teens), who’s asked to produce a drama by his teacher at school. The drama however has an unnerving similarity to some disturbing events in Simon’s family history, and sometimes the boundary between the two was blurred and indistinct. To complicate matters Simon broadcasts his drama on the net, and this has wider implications.
There was plenty of dialogue analysing why people do things and the consequences of their actions. There were very impressive performances from Devon Block as Simon, and especially Arsinee Khanjian (who’s been a bit of a regular in Egoyan’s films) as his drama teacher. Egoyan steadily unfurls the relevant threads to the plot and weaves them all together with considerable flair (notwithstanding some rather implausible courses of action from the protagonists to make the plot go where he wants it to), and expanded on these themes in the Q & A afterwards. A mature, enjoyable, cerebral film.