Reviewed today: Doomsday Book; A Fish; Room 237; Wadjda.
Since it was announced that Clare Stewart was taking over the LFF, The Belated Birthday Girl has been quietly compiling a list of things that have been changed under the new regime, and has been grumbling to herself while doing it. Today I received confirmation of one change that's got me grumbling next to her: the Festival Catalogue, the book with a full page of programme notes for every movie being shown, isn't being published this year. They tried this back in 2001, and I complained then: I'm going to complain even more now. One of the things that makes BFI Southbank such a great cinema to visit all year round is the provision of programme notes that can be read alongside the movie. Simply saying, as the BFI are doing, that notes will be available on the website just doesn't cut it - if nothing else, I'm pretty certain those notes will be long gone from the web by the time the 2013 festival comes around. In a month where Time Out has gone completely down the toilet in its move from paper to digital, it's sad to see the Festival Catalogue go the same way. Sort it out!
And from there, it's a simple segue to the end of the world. Doomsday Book is an anthology film by the Korean directors Yim Pil-sung and Kim Ji-woon, telling three unrelated stories of the apocalypse, each in a genre which will be deeply familiar to anyone who's visited a cinema in the last decade or so. A Brave New World shows how a small bit of domestic contamination in the food chain results in a zombie-style epidemic. The Heavenly Creature takes us forward to a robot-heavy future, and the moral dilemma encountered when a robot servant at a Buddhist monastery attains enlightenment. Finally, Happy Birthday is your everyday story of a ten kilometre wide meteor hurtling towards earth, and how it's all the fault of one little girl playing around on the internet.
The backstory of the making of Doomsday Book is interesting. Filming originally started in 2006, when it was a three-director piece, but the funding fell through during the shooting of a segment directed by Han Jae-rim. Four years later, the two remaining directors managed to obtain enough money to film a replacement third section (Happy Birthday) and salvage the movie. You'd imagine that if the directors were so committed to completing Doomsday Book after such a long delay, they'd have something new and important to bring to the table: but from the evidence of the finished film, that mostly isn't true.
It's certainly the case that Yim's opening segment, A Brave New World, does nothing that we haven't seen before in a whole string of contagion-based movies, comic or otherwise (with the possible exception of the sharply-assembled sequence which shows how the infection started). Kim's The Heavenly Creature, however, does at least have novelty on its side. It has a cracking idea at its core, and it's one that Hollywood isn't likely to steal in the near future. Unfortunately, having set up its premise, it pisses it all away in a rather tedious series of debates, and only really rallies thanks to an unexpected left turn in its final scene.
It's left to Happy Birthday to lighten the tone in the final forty minutes. It's billed as a collaboration between the two directors, but with Yim taking the final credit. It was a surprise to find that Yim was most responsible for the two funnier sections of the movie, given how much I disliked his Hansel And Gretel, and how much enjoyment I got from Kim's The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Between the two of them, they make Happy Birthday the most satisfying of the stories overall, thanks largely to the supreme daftness of the incident that causes the meteor to head for earth. Its delightfully flippant attitude to the apocalypse helps keep the story at a human level, with the regular cutaways to TV news reports being notable less for the seeding of plot points, and more for the onscreen breakdown of order in the studio.You suspect that if we found out the world really was going to end imminently, things would end up more like this than they do in Armageddon.
3.15pm: Room 237 [official site]
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is about to get a major re-release in UK cinemas. This can only be a good thing: if nothing else, it means a new theatrical outing for what I was proud to recently call The Best Damn Movie Trailer Ever Made. Kubrick's work has always been the subject of heavy analysis, and even an apparently simple adaptation of a Stephen King potboiler has layers to it that people are still discussing three decades after its release.
What sort of layers, exactly? Well, Rodney Ascher's documentary talks to five fans of the film and listens to their theories. Obviously, it's a metaphor for the genocide of the American Indians, as blatantly indicated by the placement of some cans of Calumet baking powder. Or it's a study of the Holocaust. Or it's a modern retelling of the myth of the Minotaur. Or it's Kubrick's apology for participating in a major government conspiracy. Or it's Kubrick just playing around with the subliminal techniques used in advertising. Or it's the story of 2001 told backwards. Have I missed anything out there?
Never mind The Shining, what's Room 237 really about? Ultimately, it's a study of obsession, and how a focus on details can blind you to the bigger picture, or lead you to draw an even bigger picture of your own. Ascher presents his subjects' theories in voice-only interviews, overlaid on top of brilliantly-edited clips that largely back up their conjecture, and only occasionally debunk it. He stands back and allows the interviewees to effectively hang themselves with their own logical fallacies.
In a way, it's partly Kubrick's own fault, as he built a reputation for himself as a perfectionist throughout his career. This means that as soon as something unusual appears in one of his films, the theorists can immediately rule out the possibility of it being an accident or a continuity error, because Kubrick didn't make mistakes. If you cling to that as a basic rule, you can justify almost anything. The Holocaust interpretation particularly gains from this approach, as one interviewee scours The Shining for all references to the key year of 1942. When someone expresses pride in noticing that a storeroom scene features six crates of 7-Up stacked on top of each other, and 6 x 7 = 42, you have to lose respect for them a little bit. (Don't get me started on the scariest room in the hotel being 237. STOP MULTIPLYING THOSE DIGITS! Oops, too late.)
Like all the best consipiracy theories, there are small elements of probable truth scattered through Room 237. All horror directors like to play around with stuff on the edge of perception to unsettle an audience, and it's almost certain that some of the inconsistencies spotted here are down to Kubrick doing just that. But look too hard, and you cross that line between unsettled and unhinged. Similarly, it's fun to spot the coincidental clash of images that occur when you superimpose a backwards-playing copy of The Shining on top of a forwards-playing one (see also: the final section of 2001 and Pink Floyd's Echoes). But suggesting that the director planned all of this on a frame-by-frame basis is confusing Kubrick's brand of obsession with a more worrying variety.
Room 237 is entertaining as hell, especially to film buffs, but we are just laughing at these people, aren't we? (Disclaimer: there were very few actual out-loud laughs at this particular screening.) It's the kind of amusement that people used to get from wandering around Bedlam, or that they get nowadays from visiting David Icke's website. If there's a message to be taken away from the film, it's that people who spend all their time in cinemas need to get out more. So let's move on to the next one of the 35 films I'm planning to review this fortnight.
6.15pm: A Fish [trailer]
Back to Korea for our final film of the day, the debut feature from Park Hongmin. Its main character is Professor Lee (Lee Jang-hoon), who's become totally distraught since his wife left him: rumour has it that she's run off to a remote island to become a shaman. A dodgy private detective has tracked her down, and the two of them set off in a rickety boat without any real plan of what to do when they find her. Elsewhere, two guys in another boat are about to have the fisherman's tale of their lives.
A Fish starts off well, generating that awkward tension we've come to expect from Korea's arthouse movies - maybe not at the level of a Kim Ki-duk, but aiming for the same ballpark. And part of that tension comes from the strangeness of the world that Park creates, and the way it all seems to be conspiring against Professor Lee. But eventually, the film has to stop dealing in abstract mysteries and start providing some answers (no matter how oblique they may be), and this is the point where it goes off the rails in a tangle of existential dilemmas. It doesn't have enough courage in the story's more surreal aspects to be able to make them work in the final reels.
Where the film really scores is in its use of 3D, which is described in the programme notes as 'homemade'. It feels like the real thing: there's a true sense of depth, rather than the artificially created planes of vision that a post-production conversion gives you. After several years of slapdash 3D images, it's a refreshing change to see a film that looks as if it's been consciously composed with the depth of shots in mind. There are several sequences that feel like happy accidents discovered during shooting, rather than being planned - for example, the realisation that the opening has been shot through a car window, once you twig that the floating smudge in the bottom left hand corner is the kite mark.
The slightly exaggerated sense of depth present in every shot of A Fish isn't just a gimmick - it's a smart way of emphasising the unreality of Professor Lee's world, which is apt when he spends much of the film not quite trusting the evidence of his own eyes. There are enough visual quirks like that to convince you that if Park can spend a bit more time on his scripts, we might have a new Korean talent on our hands in the future.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - 10-year old Wadjda is a bit of a tomboy, wearing Converse sneakers, hanging out with the boy next door and desperate to buy a bike so she can beat him in races. Nothing so remarkable about that - apart from the fact that Wadjda is a 10-year old Saudi girl.
Wadjda the film is notable for being the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia - where cinemas are banned - and the first directed by a Saudi woman. The director, Haifaa Al Mansour, has previous form with making short films and a documentary Women Without Shadows, but this is her feature debut, and it is screening in the LFF's First Feature competition. Wadjda centres on two strong performances from Reem Abdullah as Wadjda's mother and 12-year-old Waad Mohammed as Wadjda herself, and the simple central tale is set within a context which shows us much about Saudi society in general and the lives of Saudi girls and women in particular.
I was surprised to realise that this is not in any sense an underground film - it has money from Saudi and other Arab states, and although there are no cinemas in Saudi it will be seen there on television. You could be cynical about it and see this, coming along at a time when we have just had the first women from Saudi Arabia take part in the Olympics, as a move by the Saudi government to placate critics while avoiding making real change. But it also occurred to me that in fact it is just possible that many things we see in the film which will make it of interest to people from outside that world will be so natural to anyone living within it that they won't even notice them, and so the impact on those in the West seeing it may be stronger than the Saudi authorities could imagine.
In any case, the central story, though simple, is a heartwarming one, delivered with plenty of humour, and the background stories are skilfully woven around it. The film is also beautifully shot, giving a view of dusty Saudi desert city life rarely seen on screen.