Reviewed today: I Wish, Louise Wimmer, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Stopped On Track, Wonderful London.
It's always fun to see places you know in films. Obviously there's a special pleasure to be had when they're the places where you live, and we'll get to that later on. But it's also enjoyable suddenly seeing somewhere you may just have visited once, and that happens several times over for me in I Wish. Because in 2004, we took a two-week trip by rail and air around the western side of the country, starting and ending in Fukuoka and passing through various cities along the way, including Kagoshima. And Hirokazu Kore-eda's new film isn't just set in those two cities - its main focus is on the high-speed train line connecting the two.
Back when The BBG and I visited, only a short section of that railway line was in operation: but this film is set on the opening day of the full Shinkansen route between the two cities. Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mum at the Kagoshima end, close to the ash-spewing volcano in Sakurajima. ("Why do people live here?", he asks. "I don't get it.") Meanwhile, his estranged dad and younger brother Ryu (Ohshiro Maeda) live at the Fukuoka end. What Koichi would like more than anything else is for the family to get back together again. And when he discovers the miracle-granting power that will be generated when the first Shinkansen trains pass each other on the new line, he comes up with a foolproof plan to make it happen.
Kore-eda has plenty of form when it comes to working with child actors, but he's also a director who's renowned for never making the same film twice. So this isn't the heart-rending tragedy of Nobody Knows, or the complex stew of family emotions that made up his masterpiece, Still Walking. Rather, this is a fable told from a child's viewpoint, driven by Koichi's determination and Ryu's unstoppable optimism. You realise early on that nothing really bad will happen to these kids: their plan to engineer a family reunion may or may not work, but they'll come out of the experience with an adventure to remember.
And the same applies for the audience: this is a wonderfully upbeat little charmer, with plenty of smart jokes and Kore-eda's usual warm approach to all his characters. The child actors are all terrific, not just the two brothers, but the small gangs of friends they've managed to separately accumulate during their separation. (I love the way that nobody ever notices that the younger Ryu is mostly hanging out with girls.) Sure, a lot of the humour is derived from contrived lines that make the kids sound wiser than their years, but when they're this good you can forgive the contrivance. For me, there's little that can top Koichi's discovery that his dad has released a CD on an indie label. "What's 'indie'?", he asks Ryu. "I think it means you need to work harder," comes the reply. I think that line alone makes this my favourite film of the festival so far.
6.30pm: Wonderful London [clip]
The BFI's Bryony Dixon is delighted that she's got an almost full house for a collection of silent non-fiction shorts, but she's not all that surprised: "whenever we put on a programme with 'London' in the title, you all come out." And why not? I'd always assumed that the London Film Festival had at least a partial unspoken remit to represent the city in its programming, both past and present. And this collection is a terrific example of the former. Made in 1924 by Harry Parkinson and Frank Miller, Wonderful London was a series of documentary shorts focussing on aspects of life in the capital. Dixon and her team have restored six of these shorts as best they can, and are premiering them here at this performance.
She claims that it's the first time some of these films have been presented in full in over eight decades: most of the time, they've only been used as sources for historical clips in TV shows. Having said that, one of the shorts is already familiar, and was even reviewed here two years ago. Barging Through London (linked to above) was part of the 2009 free show in Trafalgar Square, London Moves Me. It's the most wide-ranging film in the set, using a barge journey from Limehouse to Paddington Basin to show us what life looks like at both canal and street level along the way. As with all of these shorts, it's fascinating for a London resident to spot the similarities and differences in the landscape between then and now: what Dixon charmingly refers to as "being a tourist in your own city 87 years ago." Similarly, London Off The Track provides fascinating views of the backstreets of the city, with odd landmarks such as the Olde Cheshire Cheese appearing virtually unchanged from today.
But it's not just the visuals that are of historical interest: Parkinson and Miller can't help but let the attitudes of the time seep through in their captions and choices of subject. London's Free Shows, in the middle of discussing the entertainment to be found people-watching on the streets, throws in a dig at how those streets are being dug up all the time. London's Sunday points up the contrast between the rich people relaxing in Hyde Park and the poorer folk shopping in Petticoat Lane. Even the slightly dull Flowers Of London (made up largely of black and white closeups of London's flora, tinted in unnatural colours) surprises with a touching climax when it reveals the one location where flowers will be found in London "always, always, always!" - at the foot of the Centotaph.
And then there's Cosmopolitan London, where the attitudes of 1920s London collide head-on with the present day. It starts out as a film celebrating the many different ethnic communities that made up the city's population back then, but slowly mutates into something more disturbing. You'd expect a degree of patronising treatment, such as that received by a group of Lascar sailors "in their Sunday best". You can almost write off the nervousness with which they reveal the presence of a "negro cafe" in Whitcomb Street. But then we travel to "sinister Limehouse" to visit the lair of "the Chink", and it all goes horribly wrong. To be fair, Dixon did warn us in her introduction that things would take a racist turn at one point, but as a restorer of archive film it's not her place to censor the material she's presenting.
At that point in her introduction, she acknowledged that such material could be a problem to a contemporary accompanist. And it's fascinating to observe the pianist Neil Brand at work: as he always says, his job is to react to the images on screen, rather than work with a pre-composed score. When we get to the Chinatown section of Cosmopolitan London, his reaction is to virtually shut down - the mood becomes quiet and melancholic, leaving room for our own reactions. And he flat-out refuses to crank up the tempo again for the jingoistic climax, where we're shown images of Trooping The Colour to get the taste of Johnny Foreigner out of our mouths. It's a sequence of incredibly awkward tension. I like it.
8.30pm: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia [official site]
We've all got holes in our cinema experience. There are directors we know are supposed to be great, but we've just never got around to seeing any of their work. You might think that bingeing on films the way I do, I've seen pretty much everything that needs to be seen: but far from it. So, to take an example, tonight I'm seeing my first ever film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director widely regarded as one of the finest working today. No pressure, Nuri. But expectations are tricky things.
What was I expecting? Hard to say. I think you assume that when a director has a reputation like Ceylan, his work's going to be difficult and obscure. OUATIA (yes, I'm going for the abbreviation, deal with it) doesn't have a particularly complex plot: it follows a police investigation over a period of less than a day, starting with a night-time search in the desert for the exact spot where something has been buried, and going through to the wrapping-up of the official paperwork the day after. Nothing too difficult in there. It's paced a little slower than you would normally expect, but that's not a problem, except possibly for an interlude where the search party takes a rest stop in the middle of the night. Still, Ceylan himself insists in his Q&A that he wanted the search to feel 'a little bit boring' at times, so, y'know, job done.
I don't think I was expecting such good characters. OUATIA apparently has more of them than most of Ceylan's other films, and for a large part what we're watching is an ensemble cast of a dozen or so, crammed into a couple of small cars and driving each other crazy in the desert. There's a surprising amount of humour that comes out of their banter: within the first few minutes an argument has broken out in one of the cars about the texture of buffalo yogurt, and I knew at that point I was in pretty safe hands as far as the dialogue was concerned. It's particularly impressive the way a casual conversation between Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) gradually turns out to be the central theme of the movie, as we discover the amount of self-deception that people can achieve in times of stress.
I think I was already aware that Ceylan knows what he's doing when it comes to images. And this is a beautiful-looking film: his use of the landscape is ravishing, with his characters frequently appearing as tiny specks within lovingly composed long shots. The night-time shots are particularly impressive, with Ceylan's only light sources being a couple of car headlamps and a darkening sky. So I think I knew that at the very least, I'd enjoy the look of the film - but everything else turned out to be an incredibly welcome bonus.
I realise that the above reads like an incredibly naive reaction to my first Ceylan. But to be honest, it seems like the best way I can process the film. And now I'm very keen to see another one.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Stopped On Track [official site]
The Cineaste - This is an engrossing film about a 40-yr-old husband and father who’s diagnosed with inoperable and terminal brain cancer. If that sounds like a subject for a dull and melancholic film, the way director Andreas Dresen deals with the issues makes it anything but.
The film starts in stark manner – Frank and his wife have gone to the hospital to hear his diagnosis. With the camera focussed on them quite close-up, the consultant, out of shot, patiently and professionally explains to them at length exactly what it is Frank has – a malignant and vicious form of brain cancer which is beyond being operated on. The consultant reckons Frank has probably only a few more months to live. All this takes a good few minutes. Frank and his wife Simone remain virtually expressionless – the enormity of the truth is too much for them to take in.
The film then proceeds to look at the fall-out from Frank’s condition. For me the way it did this was quite superb – without ever resorting to melodrama or histrionics, it simply gives us snap-shots of a family going about very ordinary activities with a very unordinary burden. Frank putting up his son’s bunk-bed, watching his daughter take part – to popular acclaim – in a diving competition, a family outing on a camping weekend. And all the while Frank’s gradual deterioration – mainly physical but also mental – wreaks increasing havoc on all these everyday events.
We see him having visits from friends, his parents, his wife’s Mum. All the characters are very believable, so credible – the two children (son Mika, 8 and daughter Lilli, 14) are wonderful in their supporting roles. And what makes the film so arresting is the lack of emotional ejaculations – it’s as if the viewer is invited to form his/her own responses. There are some moments of great warmth as Frank’s friends and family remember good times from the past. And that’s what the film is really about – not just Frank’s impending death, but about life, love, happy memories. This is a terrific composition from Dresen, a wonderful piece of film-making.
Louise Wimmer [clip]
The Cineaste - Cripes, what are the Cine Lumiere playing at? This film started on time, and nearly caught me out.
Corinne Masiero (Spiral, inter alia) plays the eponymous Louise Wimmer, a tenacious and sympathetic lady with a good deal of initiative but upon whom hard times and misfortune have fallen. She has a humble job working as a chambermaid in a hotel with an overbearing and autocratic boss; she has a few creditors she needs to pay (and to whom she’s falling behind with her payments); and most disturbing of all she lives in her car, an unreliable Volvo that’s seen better days. Without any sense of self-pity, we see this pragmatic and determined woman juggle all these difficulties and still have time to let off steam, hanging out in her regular bar with a bevy of friends, enjoying a wager on the horses. Masiero is absolutely superb as Wimmer, a veritable tour de force, never mawkish, playing the character straight without resorting to caricature.
The Q & A afterwards gave some interesting pointers about the film. Director Cyril Mennegun, a quietly-spoken but engaging chap, said he’d based the film on a woman he’d met in exactly that situation – although the subject was a bit uncomfortable it was a terrific vehicle for looking closely at the individual. And that’s what he wanted the film to be about – the character Louise Wimmer, not her difficulties or debt etc., nor any bigger implications about jobs/poverty etc on a larger scale. He said he needed the actress to be cast before writing, as he wanted to have an idea about what sort of person she was. And once Masiero had been chosen and he’d written the film, there was hardly any re-drafting. Masiero for her part was very effusive about her part, saying it was very refreshing to get a major role of a strong character. Overall a terrific little gem of a film.
And afterwards I found the Cine Lumiere was right back to form – the event had seriously over-run and the cinema-goers for the next film were impatiently queuing all round the French Institute’s foyer.