Reviewed today: Dreams For Sale, For Love's Sake, For No Good Reason, Helter Skelter.
Here's a good example of why I love having an online archive of every film I've reviewed at the LFF since 1989. With the minimum of effort, I can tell you that on October 18th 2007, I found it worth noting that Brian de Palma's Redacted was being projected digitally, as that was a very rare occurrence. Five short years later, and it's interesting to note that digital projection is now so prevalent that For Love's Sake stands out as being the first thing that I've seen this festival which has been projected from film. In fact, it's a French subtitled print, meaning that we have to have English subtitles digitally projected above them. It's an unusual situation, but you have to bear in mind that this is a Takashi Miike film: stranger things have happened.
The original title of For Love's Sake actually refers to its protagonists' names, Ai and Makoto, which in turn are the Japanese words for 'love' and 'sincerity' respectively. Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a bad boy from a broken home, who's been in and out of fights since childhood: the authorities consider him irredeemable. But years ago, as a child, he rescued the poor little rich girl Ai (Emi Takei) from a skiing accident. When the two meet again as teenagers, she makes it her life's work to reform Makoto. She even has him transferred into her posh school to persuade him that although he has problems, he'll never be able to solve them with violence. This is going to be a tricky job, because violence is the one thing Makoto's very, very good at.
Miike is notorious for hopping between genres, never alighting on any particular one for too long. He's been represented at the last two LFFs by his samurai pictures 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri, so it's probably about time he did a teen musical to totally confuse the casual punters. This is his second musical, following The Happiness Of The Katakuris ten years ago, and there are certain similarities between the two. Both of them are based around genre plots that you wouldn't normally expect to be accompanied by songs: they use animation at certain points to fill in key parts of the story: and the musical numbers are performed by a cast that's much higher on enthusiasm than actual dancing ability.
But Katakuris was a very old-fashioned sort of musical, based around orchestral show tunes which contrasted amusingly with the murderous happenings on screen. For Love's Sake is closer to a rock musical than anything else, which meshes a little better with its story of juvenile delinquency and unrequited teenage love. Miike has ludicrous fun taking the cliches of the troubled teen genre and cranking them up to the max, most notably in the set design of the 'bad' school that Makoto is later sent to, an indoor bomb site whose corridors are infested with packs of psychopathic schoolgirls.
It's probably longer than it needs to be, a failing shared with all the Japanese films I'm going to be reviewing today. But Miike's surreal style and unflagging energy carry you through the whole thing. You'd think that with all the alienation devices in play - the musical numbers, the deadpan melodrama, the French subtitles - that For Love's Sake would be a purely ironic pleasure, but that's the most astonishing thing of all: even with all this going on, by the end of the film Miike has us rooting for the couple's happiness. That's one hell of an achievement in a movie career that's pulled off several already.
3.00pm: Helter Skelter [official site]
The introduction to Helter Skelter marks my first public spotting of new LFF boss Clare Stewart. Not the most auspicious start, as during her introduction she gets the name of the film's director wrong. She should have looked it up in the Festival Catalogue beforehand! Oh, no, wait a minute.
This is a hyper-stylised satire of the Japanese fashion industry, if not the fashion industry as a whole. Erika Sawajiri plays Lilico (no relation?), a supermodel and teenage icon whose face is on the cover of every magazine. In her opening voiceover, she seems to accept that this will soon pass - every fashion icon will eventually have to bow out and pass the torch on to someone else. But this doesn't stop her going nuts when employees and lovers fail to do her bidding, or younger models overtake her in popularity, or her plastic surgery clinic turns out to be less reliable than she thought.
Helter Skelter's a pretty brave choice of project for its director and star, both of whom are big names in the industry that the story tears apart. It's Mika Ninagawa's second feature as a director, after years of working as a photographer. Her first film Sakuran had much to admire on the surface, but on close analysis it wasn't much more than a period fashion shoot with a Ringo Shiina soundtrack. This feels more like a film, where Ninagawa's bold visual style actually ties into the story being told, rather than being a layer of decoration laid on top.
Like most Japanese movies these days (including For Love's Sake), it's based on a manga, and you sometimes feel that the film is a little too eager to cram in virtually every plot point from the original story. There are a few sequences - notably the cliched hallucinations that Lilico has, all butterflies and eyeballs - which go a little further over the top than is really necessary. But even though it's a satire performed with a pickaxe rather than a scalpel, it's overall an effective one, largely down to Erika Sawajiri's fearless performance in the lead. It's possible she may never work in this town again as a result of it, but it'll be worth it if she can keep acting to this standard in future movies.
6.00pm: For No Good Reason [official site]
There's a guy in the front row wearing a purple top hat, and a woman has just walked into the cinema with a dog on a lead. It's obviously going to be one of those sort of screenings. The dog turns out to be owned by Charlie Paul, the director of this documentary about the life and work of the artist Ralph Steadman: we even get to see Beanie being painted by Steadman at one point in the film, and looking quizzically at the finished product afterwards.
Paul takes a standard chronological path through Steadman's life, starting in the late sixties with the publication of his first book of collected works. The visual imagination and attention to detail was already there by that stage, but it wasn't until a period spent in the poorer areas of New York that Steadman developed the rage which would give his work the edge that we associate with him. And once he'd hooked up with journalist Hunter S Thompson to ostensibly report on the Kentucky Derby, his art took off in ways he could never expect.
Large parts of the film show Steadman at work in his studio, where it turns out that 'ways he could never expect' is a good description of his working method even now. Frequently, he'll simply start by throwing a couple of random ink splashes onto a piece of cartridge paper, and then he'll attack them with brushes, Tipp-ex and knives until something recognisable emerges. As Charlie Paul has spent the last fifteen years hanging around with Steadman making this film, we get to see dozens of works as they're built up from this simple process, and it's magical to behold every time.
For No Good Reason is obviously a labour of love for Charlie Paul, his wife/producer Lucy, and the crew who make this screening a bit of a love-in overall. But the film is such a warm portrait of Steadman - revealing the humane, gentle, slightly grumpy man behind the ferocious pictures - that you're prepared to forgive any self-indulgence on the night, including Steadman's rambly answers in the Q&A that follows. The only real misstep is the use of a visit to the studio by Johnny Depp as a framing device for the film: apart from a brief voiceover at the beginning and end, he doesn't really bring much to it other than an impressive name to put on the poster. But maybe that's a good enough reason.
8.45pm: Dreams For Sale [official site]
For a festival which claims to no longer be categorising films by nationality, we do seem to be getting little clumps of them from specific countries in each day's selection. This is our third Japanese film of the day, and our second by a female Japanese director - in this case it's Miwa Nishikawa, whose Dear Doctor caught my attention here two years ago.
Kanya (Sadawo Abe) and Satoko (Takako Matsu) are a young married couple who own a restaurant. Or, more accurately, owned, as it burned down following an accident during its fifth anniversary party. Satoko is optimistic about the future, and takes on part time work in a ramen place while they assess their options. Kanya, on the other hand, is more downbeat, and too much of a perfectionist to hold down a replacement job for more than a few weeks without getting into fights with chefs. A chance encounter with a female friend results in Kanya suddenly coming into some money: it ends up being merely the beginning of a series of risky plans, as the couple discover just how far they will go to finance their new restaurant.
Nishikawa's handling of tone in this film is a wonder to behold, especially if you're like me and had forgotten what the film was about in the time between booking it and watching it. It starts off as a domestic tragedy - the destruction of the couple's restaurant is a genuinely upsetting sequence - but very subtly mutates into something more hard-edged and cynical. So subtly, in fact, that it took me quite a while to work out just what was going on. There are several possible reasons for this: it could be my tiredness having got to the fourth film of a long day, or it could be a cultural problem in that the solution reached by the couple may be more common to Japan than anywhere else. But on reflection, it's possible it could just be a characteristic of Nishikawa's storytelling style. After all, it took me two viewings of Dear Doctor to realise there's no single big moment where the crucial twist in the plot is revealed: I think the same could be said of Dreams For Sale.
There are other aspects that appear to be characteristics of the director's storytelling, and the most notable is her non-judgmental attitude to all her characters, no matter how morally dubious they may be. Kanya and Satoko are a wonderfully drawn and complex pair of creations: their relationship evolves in a fascinating way throughout the story, and is always utterly believable. It never feels like their reactions have been merely crafted to serve the plot. Even when I wasn't quite sure what the hell they were up to, I never wanted to stop watching them.
Notes From Spank's Pals
For Love's Sake
The Belated Birthday Girl - Adapted from the manga Ai to Makoto, Miike's latest to turn up at the LFF is a delightful blend of period high-school drama, teen love story and gang culture, all set to music, using visual stylisation further to add a sense of unreality. For followers of Miike's work, the most obvious reference is Happiness of the Katakuris, but For Love's Sake is equally part of the run of teen stories which includes Crows Zero and God's Puzzle.
The story is that of Ai, a rich "bourgeois" Grade A student and Makoto, a troublemaker from the wrong side of the tracks. After a childhood encounter, Ai falls in love with Makoto, and wants to mend his bad-boy ways, but he just wants to keep brawling, and have nothing to do with Ai. Other colourful characters, including Yakuza wannabees and tough-girl gang members add to the fun, and the songs - a mix of period numbers and original compositions - keep everything going along nicely. There is also some genuine feeling in the young actors' performances. Another enjoyable addition to the Miike catalogue.