Reviewed today: Kamui, London Moves Me, Mother, Underground.
12.45pm: Mother (official site)
This may sound a little familiar, but bear with me. Somewhere in Asia, there’s a twenty-something bloke that still lives with his mother. He gets into trouble owing to a general inability to keep it in his trousers, and his mum has to do anything she can to try and bail him out again.
What’s the difference between At The End Of Daybreak, which we saw yesterday, and Mother? Primarily, it’s Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. Which is quite nice for me, because I always think of him as one of my Festival discoveries. I’m ashamed to admit that the only reason I saw his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000 was because I was amused by the idea of a Korean comedy on the subject of dog murder. What I actually got was a lot more subtle and sophisticated than that. Bong delivered in spades on the promise of that debut three years later with Memories Of Murder, a true-crime story that demonstrated the thing he does better than anyone else – switch between drama and comedy at lightning speed. You know, the trick that Quentin Tarantino keeps boasting about in interviews even though he’s too fat and slow these days to really pull it off.
Some Western audiences found Bong’s genre-straddling a little too much to take in his 2006 monster movie The Host, which flip-flopped between zany family comedy and bleak satirical horror. But hopefully, Mother will get him back in favour with them again. It’s closest in tone to Memories Of Murder, working primarily in a heavy dramatic register but frequently using bursts of unexpected comedy to point up the drama even more. This can only work if you have a cast capable of playing those sudden switches without the tone going to pot, and it has two excellent performances at its centre. Hye-Ja Kim is the rock-solid centre of the film as the mother of the title, but Won Bin is possibly even more impressive as the son Do-Joon, who has to maintain our sympathy without overplaying the disability that keeps him tied to his mother’s apron strings.
What keeps it all together is the beautifully constructed script by Bong and Eun-kyo Park. It throws in all manner of digressions and side characters – a police interrogation method involving apples, a sleazy lawyer who makes Lionel Hutz look like Clarence Darrow – but they all tie together in a seamless fashion by the end. Even the bits that look like slightly iffy storytelling at the start turn out to have an unexpected significance later on. In a Festival that’s been a little short on truly great films so far, I think we’ve finally got one.
4.00pm: Kamui (official site)
Kamui sold out very quickly indeed (no mean feat for a foreign language afternoon matinee), but by getting to the box office 45 minutes before the start of the film we were able to snaffle a couple of the last few tickets made available. So that’s a strike rate of two out of two for us in the returns queue this year. I suspect we may not be so lucky queueing for films that, you know, the general public might have an interest in, but we can investigate that in a couple of days.
Why exactly is a foreign language afternoon matinee sold out, anyway? Well, the £7 tickets have to be considered a factor: all of the matinees I’ve attended this week have been pretty full (with the curious exception of all the ones at the ICA). But in the case of Kamui, I suspect Tony Rayns’ programme quote – “probably the best ninja movie ever made” – helped get quite a few bums on seats. God knows, the ninja movie has been a massively degraded genre ever since the DTV horrors of the 1980s, so it’s about time we had a half-decent one for once.
This one’s the story of Kamui (Kenichi Matsuyama), a fugitive ninja who has renounced his violent past, and so only gets to kill the ninjas who are constantly chasing after him. During one of those chases, he comes across the rebel fisherman Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi), who we first meet hacking the leg off a nobleman’s horse. (Amusingly, the last subtitle in this print is a huge ‘no animals were harmed’ disclaimer that apparently only Western audiences need to see.) Kamui sees in Hanbei an opportunity to settle down once and for all: but Hanbei’s wife and daughter will mess up that plan in very different ways, and that nobleman is still fairly pissed off about his horse.
Kamui is directed by Japanese veteran Yoichi Sai, last seen around these parts with 2005’s Blood And Bones. That earlier film was a weighty family melodrama, so it’s a surprise to see how much fun Kamui is by comparison. Based on a manga (and plotted in a way that suggests they’re looking to build a franchise), it uses outrageous wirework enhanced by equally outrageous CGI, constructing a universe where people routinely leap a couple of hundred feet into the air or bend their enemies completely in half with a single kick. This isn’t aiming for gritty realism at all: it’s unashamedly a movie that takes great delight in the depiction of wholly unrealistic acts of violence, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen one of those.
The cast are all perfectly fine: Kenichi Matsuyama is one of those interchangeable pretty boys that Japanese cinema is routinely constructed out of nowadays, and he’s given good support all round. But really, it’s the energy of the direction and the outrageousness of the plot that makes this a joy to watch. After all, this is a ninja movie that suddenly introduces a band of shark-fishing pirates into its story two-thirds of the way through. Ninjas and pirates in the same movie: is there any way you could improve on that? Well, yes, there is, and they’ve thought of that too. Hooray!
7.30pm: Underground (clip, but with different music)
After last night’s archive blowout in front of a 4,000-strong audience at Trafalgar Square (additional reporting by the Lagster below), tonight sees the first ever Archive Gala at the LFF. Good thing, too. As Amanda Nevill says in her intro, the preservation and presentation of classic old movies has always been a major part of the Festival, and it’s nice that they’ve been given their own glitzy event to celebrate. No red carpet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tonight, though, because pretty much everybody involved with this film is now dead.
Following on from last night’s transport theme, Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent is partly set on the London Underground: specifically Waterloo Station, where porter Bill (Brian Aherne) works. That’s where he meets and falls for shopgirl Nell (Elissa Landi), much to the irritation of electrician Bert (Cyril McLaglen). When Bill and Nell announce their engagement, Bert comes up with an evil plan to drive the two apart.
Dramatically, this isn’t terribly sophisticated stuff, as you’d imagine: according to the programme notes, McLaglen was cast as the villain because of his ‘particularly good frown’, while his co-conspirator Kate (Norah Baring) can be marked down as a potential bunny boiler more or less from her establishing shot. But it’s a much smarter movie than you’d expect from the period. Asquith’s opening montage of sight gags on a tube carriage contains a selection of activities and personality types that still hold true today. He’s also sparing with the intertitles, to sometimes witty effect: the scene where Bill chats up Nell for the first time consists of thirty seconds of uncaptioned talk followed by a single title card, “- Saturday?”
There’s actually quite a bit of humour drawn from the balance between the visuals and the titles: on two occasions, we watch as characters tell people about scenes we’ve already seen in the movie, completely in mime. But Asquith’s images are more than just simple jokes. There’s a sharpness to the editing that shows he’d noticed what people like Eisenstein had been doing around the same period: the impressionistic blur of a bag falling down an escalator, or the use of repeated footage in a fight scene. And the climax of the movie, a chase from Lots Road Power Station back to Waterloo, is a genuinely thrilling piece of work even today.
It’s helped by the music, of course. Tonight, regular pianist Neil Brand is backed up by his mates from the Prima Vista Social Club, a four piece band I’ve seen him work with before on one of Paul Merton’s silent film concerts. Again, it’s astonishing to realise that Brand is improvising to the images, and the band is basically following him wherever he goes: although in this case there must have been at least an element of preparation beforehand, as there are a couple of bits of music directly synchronised to musicians on screen. Whatever: it’s an astonishing achievement, and like the restoration work done on the picture it all helps to draw you into the world of a film made 81 years ago. No wonder that whenever Neil Brand takes a bow at the end of one of these things, he always points to the screen as if it had been collaborating with him on stage: because, really, it has.
Notes From Spank's Pals
London Moves Me
Old Lag - This was a new London Film Festival experience for me, although the festival brochure suggests that it has happened before.
It was a big screening event taking place in Trafalgar Square almost as soon as it got dark. Not having been before I did wonder: would it be too cold? Would I have to stand for the full 90 minutes? Would it be too crowded?
In the event it was an excellent experience. Was able to move into a crowd of sitting people and get a stretched out pitch. It was not too cold or crowded.
What was the film? Well it was a number of short films covered by the title London Moves Me. These were shorts from the BFI National Archive and London's Screen Archives. They were about travel in London, films from a cycle ride in Hyde Park in 1896 to a cycle ride in Belsize park in 1959 via a Barging trip on the Regent's Canal, complete with horse in 1924 - an interesting route which I cycled this summer. It is interesting that so many of the architectural features in many of these films are still standing, so it is possible to recognise buildings in many of these shorts.
For the early films there was the traditional live piano accompaniment, although I would have preferred a modern narrative explaining what we were seeing. Later films had black and white story boards in curly writing explaining the scenes. The most interesting films were those in colour from the unusual date of 1925 by Claude Friese Greene, a technology way ahead of its time. Additionally, the air balloon R101's trip over London. The later shorts had sound, the most moving of which was that of two women running a canteen van during a night of the blitz in the second world war.
A great evening out with rare footage, though I wonder what the cost was for the BFI of setting it all up in the square.