Reviewed today: Feast Of Villains, The Informant!, Like You Know It All, Woman Without Piano.
2.00pm: Like You Know It All (official site)
An arthouse movie partly set at a film festival? My God, that’s brilliant. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? You’ve got a guaranteed audience, because no film festival programmer would be able to resist it, like DJs can’t resist playing records with the word ‘radio’ in the title. All you have to do is just make sure that your central film director character isn’t a total dick, or else the festival programmers might get the wrong idea about you. Which may explain why Hong Sang-Soo isn’t introducing this film personally at the LFF.
Like You Know It All only uses its film festival setting for 50% of the running time. In the first half, film director Ku (Kim Tae-Woo) is a jury member at a festival, while the second half jumps forward a few weeks to Ku giving a guest lecture at a college. The two stories have certain similarities: in both cases Ku meets up with someone from his past, and gets involved in late-night drinking sessions – which invariably end up with him in some sort of trouble.
I’ve seen a few Hong Sang-Soo films at the LFF over the years, enough to be able to spot a few of his regularly recurring themes and techniques in this one. Like Tale Of Cinema, there’s an interesting structure where two stories reflect and comment on each other. Like Night And Day, the individual scenes are mostly told in a single unbroken take with frequent use of unexpected zooms. And like Woman Is The Future Of Man, there’s a certain amount of tricksiness involved in what we’re told of the story and what we’re not.
What’s new is the way in which the tone of the film subtly changes as it progresses. The early stages are highly reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as the indignities suffered by Ku seem massively out of proportion to his actions. People are incredibly rude to him all the time – when he tells a punter that he sees his role on the festival jury as giving publicity to films that get buried in the marketplace, he gets the response “oh, you mean like yours?” Alarm bells start ringing for the viewer when, following a night out with a former colleague, Ku unexpectedly receives a note threatening him with violence if they ever meet again.
It gradually transpires that Hong isn’t telling us the full story. There are some subtle ellipses in the narrative, and they seem to roughly coincide with those late-night drinking sessions. Some of the gaps are filled in later on, while others are left for us to work out for ourselves: but the overall effect is to change the movie from a cringey comedy of manners to an elegy for missed chances in life. That makes it four Hong Sang-Soo films I’ve seen at the LFF now, and I’m starting to enjoy the way they all play around with cinema conventions in intriguingly different ways.
6.45pm: Feast Of Villains
Here’s a thought that occurred to me, on a day that I saw two Asian movies back to back: where’s Tony Rayns? Rayns is the LFF’s programme adviser for East Asian cinema, so he’s directly responsible for my seeing four Hong Sang-Soo films in the last five years. This festival alone, he’s made selections from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, and written programme synopses for all of them. It used to be the case that he’d introduce as many of the screenings as he could, using his unparalleled knowledge of East Asian cinema to put them into context. But I don’t think I’ve seen him on an LFF stage for five years or so now. Where’s he got to? The Belated Birthday Girl has a theory that he’s currently in Tokyo, where they have a film festival that clashes with the first week of London’s. If he’s out there and reading this, could he try and organise some British screenings for Minoru Kawasaki’s films? The UK needs to see Neko Ramen Taisho, I believe.
Anyway, Feast Of Villains is one of Rayns’ selections from China. I’ve mentioned in the past how frustrating it is that nearly all the Chinese films released in the UK are historical pieces, and that film festivals are the only way we get to see contemporary depictions of the country. Part of that’s probably down to the way that cinema in China has a heavy degree of governmental control: so it’s down to low-budget independent productions to come in under the wire and tell the stories that the government might not want the rest of the world to hear.
Feast Of Villains definitely counts as one of those. It follows Fugui (Zhou Cheng), a young man with a sick father: and if you thought Americans had problems paying their hospital bills, it appears to be even worse for the Chinese. Fugui’s got a steady job working with a delivery firm, but it’s paying nowhere near well enough to meet his father’s rapidly rising bills. And when the job falls through owing to problems with his van, he’s forced to take drastic action to raise the cash. After all, you only really need one kidney, don’t you?
If Ken Loach made a film about illegal organ trafficking, it’d probably look something like this, although Loach would at least try to lighten the tone with one or two jokes during the early scenes. Pan Jianlin’s film still remains watchable despite that lack of humour, because it’s so relentlessly matter-of-fact about what happens – the day-to-day grind of Fugui’s working life, the petty problems that all add up to one big one, the inevitability that his money-making scheme won’t go the way he plans.
There’s eventually some grim comedy to be found in the final scenes of the film, where Fugui discovers that the criminal organisation he’s had to deal with is infinitely more efficient than the official bureaucracy he encounters afterwards. It’s a point quietly underlined in the film’s final seconds, when Pan explicitly tells you who the villains of the title have been. Feast is a film that would never be endorsed officially by China, but I’m incredibly glad there are channels that allow us to see it over here.
8.30pm: The Informant! (official site)
Save The Green Planet! Brand Upon The Brain! Tokyo! Let’s Finish!(!!) Okay, she may have liked the first one of those, but The BBG insists that she’s generally had a rough time with LFF films that feature exclamation marks in their titles. So when we managed to pick up a couple of late tickets for The Informant! (because of the relocation of the screening from the Vue to the Odeon West End), she was torn. On the one hand, it’s a Steven Soderbergh film, and we knew he’d be present at the screening (they’d rescheduled it specifically to get him there). But on the other hand, what about that exclamation mark?
Soderbergh’s film is yet another one of his co-productions with George Clooney, and both this and The Men Who Stare At Goats seem to suggest that Clooney’s fond of true stories that look utterly preposterous on paper. This one’s the story of Marc Whitaker (Matt Damon), a high-flying executive with agribusiness company ADM. When the FBI starts investigating a corporate blackmail attempt, Whitaker buttonholes Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and tells him about an even bigger scandal – a conspiracy between ADM and other companies to fix the price of corn products. The FBI has no alternative but to use Whitaker as their man on the inside, a prospect he possibly enjoys a little too much: “I’m Agent 0014, because I’m twice as smart as 007.”
That exclamation mark at the end of The Informant! turns out to be pretty important, because it sets the tone for the whole film, telling you that it’s either going to be a musical or a comedy. Before you ask, it’s the latter. (Soderbergh’s planning his musical already, don’t worry.) It’s shot in warm, cheerful tones, and has a supernaturally jolly score by Marvin Hamlisch. The key to the whole film is, as Soderbergh explained in the Q&A, that the look and sound depict how Whitaker sees himself – “it’s his soundtrack, it’s not for us.”
Soderbergh’s masterstroke is to keep that cheerful tone running all the way through, even though with the slightest change of emphasis the whole story could be considered as a tragedy of sorts. He needs an actor who can keep our sympathy as the narrative veers in unexpected directions, and Matt Damon does that perfectly, bumbling though his life with a carefree internal monologue continually bubbling away on the soundtrack. His charm is the rock-solid anchor keeping the audience hanging on in there, even while the story is doing everything possible to try and shake them off. Maybe exclamation marks aren’t so bad after all!
Notes From Spank's Pals
Woman Without Piano (trailer)
The Belated Birthday Girl - Rosa works freelance at home removing women's unwanted hair by electrolysis. Her husband drives a taxi, and we first meet her seeing him off to work, before returning home to do the housework and cook in between attending to her clients when they call. She goes to the post office to collect a parcel, but is unable to because her ID is expired. Her husband comes home, they watch television, and he goes to bed. And then Rosa dons a wig and goes out into the night. She ends up at a bus station, where she encounters a young Polish man, Radek - an almost Rain Man/Forrest Gump character, who likes to fix broken things, but makes more money as a labourer, because everyone just wants to throw things away when a part is broken these days - and they spend the night wandering the underlit and mostly empty streets around the bus station.
Director Javier Rebollo - whose film Lola won the FIPRESCI award at LFF 2006 - in the Q&A after the film started off by telling us that he is not an intellectual film-maker, and that his films are always interested in the visuals rather than the words, because otherwise they might as well be poems or plays. Woman Without Piano plays out with very little dialogue, concentrating on the visuals and the quiet, with background noises of footsteps being the main focus of the sound. There is some humour played in the almost emotionless characters and encounters, almost like a less funny Spanish Kaurismaki, but there is little emotion expressed and motivations are mostly left deliberately unilluminated. There are things we are told about Rosa, such as the constant ringing she has in her ears which the doctors can't explain, and in one scene she removes a painting in her house, and later tells Radek about this and why she did it, but it is left entirely up to the viewer to work out how significant any of this is.
The film is nicely shot, particularly in the scenes in the streets around the bus-station - which Rebollo told us were largely shot without permit and even with them putting out street lights to get the effects they wanted - and Czech actor Jan Budar's sympathetic performance as Radek brings some element with which to engage, but the pacing is consciously slow, and much is left deliberately unresolved within the film.
If a film which is too interested in the words might as well be a poem or a play, then one which isn't interested in them at all and is only interested in the visuals and the background sounds might as well be a piece of film art. For me personally I felt less engaged and less interested in resolving the matters left for the viewer as time passed. Whereas initially I wanted to know more about why Rosa had got up and left home that night, and what would happen with Radek, with no connection to Rosa or her life, and no dramatic urgency to any of what was happening, it became apparent the film was not going to deliver that to me, and I developed no urge to find it for myself. As someone who always views film more as entertainment than as art, this wasn't really one for me.