Reviewed today: Afternoon Delight, Eliza Lynch: Queen Of Paraguay, The Great Passage, Ida, Milius, Norte: The End Of History, A Touch Of Sin.
We've previously discussed the standard formatting that's been applied to the English titles of Yuya Ishii's films. In 2010, we had Sawako Decides: in 2011, Mitsuko Delivers. If we stick to the rules, his 2013 film should be called Mitsuya Lexicographises. But it isn't, partly because it doesn't quite fit in with the rest of his work to date, partly because it's a bloody stupid title.
At the request of an editor who has to take time off to look after his sick wife, Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsura) is transferred to a small team that works on dictionaries. The year is 1995, and his boss has had a brainwave: he wants to create a brand new 'living dictionary' that will take into account all of the new language that's being created daily. As mobile phones and personal computers are just starting to make an impact, he wants a dictionary that will allow readers to navigate their way through all the terminology associated with them, and he wants to call it The Great Passage. Mitsu has no real social skills to speak of, and has only really been hired because he looks geeky enough to be the sort of person who could work on a dictionary. Nobody could have predicted how he would develop in the role, or how long he'd be in it.
Up until now, Ishii has written his own scripts, and his protagonists have been people who are just that little bit too manic to fit into Japanese society: it's territory not many other people have been covering, so it's made his films stand out. Here, he's working for a studio with someone else's adaptation of a best-selling novel. His hero is someone who's too withdrawn to fit in, and frankly that's a much more traditional subject for a Japanese movie. So has Ishii sold out? A little bit, perhaps, but he's done it in the most satisfying way possible.
It's always interesting to discover the minutiae of jobs that we take for granted - it's why people love season two of The Wire so much. Here, we get some fascinating insights into the process of creating a brand new dictionary from the ground up: the amount you can take from work that's been done before, the gathering of new words from any source you can find, the painstaking process of checking and revision that typically runs to five drafts. The film revels in these details, like the small cards which Mitsu and his team use to document new words as they discover them, most notably when he overhears a group of schoolgirls discussing the literary genre of BL. (No, you look it up. The alternative term 'yaoi' may help.) The cards become a major feature in the film, being given different symbolic uses at numerous key points in the story.
This isn't the specific territory you'd perhaps associate with Ishii. But his previous hits have shown an outsider gradually making themselves accepted into society through sheer force of will, and that's more or less the path Mitsu takes here. As ever, the director has huge sympathy for all of his characters, and refuses to judge them: the difference here is that they're not as obviously assembled from a set of off-the-shelf personality quirks as before, they're much more detailed than that. This may be selling out, but it's good selling out, and the sort that makes The Great Passage the first really enjoyable fiction film I've seen at this year's festival.
6.15pm: Milius [trailer]
What's the attraction of a documentary about the writer/director John Milius? For me, the answer's simple: he co-wrote Apocalypse Now, my favourite film of all time. Others may point to his work as an uncredited contributor to other people's scripts, the most famous example being the USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws. Or they might point out that as the writer/director of Conan The Barbarian, he gave Arnold Schwartzenegger one of the most complex lines he's ever had to say, in response to the question "Conan! What is best in life?": the answer being "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." It's always good to have lines like that that you can use at work.
If you talk to the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg - as Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson did for their documentary - you find that of all the people who came (like them) out of that Movie Brat generation in the late sixties and early seventies, they consider Milius to be the most talented of them all. So why isn't Milius as iconic a name as they are? In the early days, it looked like he could have been. He came out of film school at USC at the same time as those other filmmakers, and made a name for himself as someone who could rapidly churn out scripts containing the sort of dialogue that people actually say, while always being quotable as hell. Like most writers, he soon got fed up with the way that directors and studios mangled what he wrote, and moved into direction with Dillinger. But it was his writing that made him a star, and Sam Elliott has a theory about why that was: "he didn't write for pussies and he didn't write for women. He wrote for MEN. Because he was a MAN."
But part of the problem is apparent just from that tongue-in-cheek line. Even as far back as his days at USC, he was at odds with the left-leaning politics of his colleagues: the title Apocalypse Now comes from a series of pro-war badges he made to protest against the Nirvana Now badges he was seeing all over campus. Is Milius a genuine right-wing nutcase, or just indulging in contrarianism for the sake of it? The interviewees in Milius seem roughly split on that one. Arnie himself suggests that Hollywood will generally ignore your politics as long as you make money - after all, just look at him. But when Milius made Red Dawn in 1984, a film about a Russian invasion of America, it was simultaneously a huge box-office hit and the reason why no major studio would ever talk to him again. (Amusingly, the critical backlash against Red Dawn is represented in the documentary by our own Barry Norman, apparently reviewing the film as part of a report on LFF 1984.)
Milius remains a much loved character, and that comes across in the huge set of interviewees that Figueroa and Knutson have gathered. Even his polar opposite, Oliver Stone, has great affection for the man despite his opinions. And Milius comes across wonderfully in the bits where he's interviewed himself, proving himself the great storyteller that Coppola and Spielberg insist he is. Which makes the final act of this documentary rather distressing, as it covers the work Milius has done so far on his Genghis Khan project, and the sudden setback that's put the project on hold for now. That seems like a perfect meeting of subject and writer, and I hope we get to see the film eventually.
8.30pm A Touch Of Sin [trailer]
That little rant I had at the start of this festival, the one about not wanting to get a press pass because it may influence what I write? Looking back at it now, it seems a little holier-than-thou, because I get quite a few freebies in my other role at Mostly Film. I've been to a couple of press previews, and picked up several screener DVDs along the way. One of the nicest things I've received in a Jiffy bag was a collection of three DVDs collecting the early works of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, which I hadn't seen before. I duly reviewed them for Europe's Best Website, and wasn't shy about pointing out that the middle one wasn't very good, so I guess I'm not as swayed by freebies as I thought I was.
Jia's 2002 film Unknown Pleasures contained quite a few references to Pulp Fiction, a film that he probably assumed most of his Chinese audience would be aware of, even if only through pirate DVDs. To a degree, his latest one is influenced by Tarantino too, as it consists of a series of four loosely linked stories with crime and violence as their common factor. A man gets fed up with the corruption of the town leader and factory boss where he lives, and the way that everyone else seems to blindly accept it. Another one returns to his family after some time away, but refuses to explain where the money he regularly sends them comes from. A young woman has an affair with a married man, only to discover the messy consequences. And a young man's involvement in an industrial accident leads to a sudden change of job, working in the sort of establishment where all the girls dress up as sexy Chinese soldiers.
Here in the West, we rely on directors like Jia to tell us about the current state of China, as an antidote to the costume dramas that are usually exported from the country. If A Touch Of Sin is to be believed, the state of China right now isn't particularly healthy at all: most of his other movies have some degree of hope despite their low points, but that hope is barely visible here. All four of the stories have acts of violence at their centre - most notably the first one, which feels more like an act of catharsis than an actual narrative. And that violence turns out to be the biggest problem with the film.
As ever, Jia's use of unfamiliar landscapes is fascinating, and his characters are still engaging enough to keep us interested in their stories. But the frequent gory sequences tend to overwhelm anything else, to the extent that they feel like the point of the film, rather than a symbol of the national decay he's presumably trying to depict. As a result, it's difficult for a Western viewer to get a firm handle on what he's saying this time. It's ironic that the other movie reference in A Touch Of Sin is a brief clip of Johnnie To's Exiled, because there's a director who knows how to mix action and social comment without one of them drowning out the other.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Norte, the End of History [trailer]
The Cineaste - Now this is what the LFF is all about – discovering a film director you’ve never even heard of (Lav Diaz – almost sounds like a toilet cleaner) and submerging yourself in one of his 4-hour marathons….. only by Diaz’s standards it’s not a marathon, because some of his offerings stretch to more than twice this duration.
Philipino Diaz charts an unravelling story here in a remarkable way – it’s his languorous style and long takes that build a sense of calm, tranquility, and permanence, the background details of which almost act as kind of documentary to those unfamiliar with this terrain.
Basic storyline – the main protagonist Fabian is a free-thinking spirit, highly intelligent and intellectual, who meets a regular bunch of mates in their favourite bar to put the world to rights. He’s dropped out of law school. But he has no job, so he regularly gets a loan from a money-lender. During his philosophising with his mates he schemes ideological plans for a revolution (which is what the title refers to – by redefining what truth is they plan to re-write, or even abolish history, which is what they’ll do when they activate their revolution in the city’s suburb of Norte). But Fabian’s intellectualism hides a dark side to his character, and we see this gradually unravelling during the course of the film.
Meanwhile, across town, we’re introduced to the secondary protagonist [whose name, maddeningly, I’ve forgotten, but I can remember his nickname, Kuya, so we’ll call him that] – an honest family man, lovely wife and two young kids, who also borrows money from the money lender to help make ends meet. Well Fabian, in a rash moment of desperation, murders the money-lender and daughter, and Kuya gets charged. Ignorant of the appeal process, and a victim of the corrupt legal system, he’s found guilty and sent down. The film then progresses looking at Kuya’s sentence behind bars, and Fabian’s unsuccessful struggle to come to terms with what he’s done.
Diaz fills the film with lots of themes – love, forgiveness, destiny, redemption, religion, inter alia, and creates a wonderful cocktail of ideas and sights that’s a joy to watch. Sometimes the plot to the story seems little more than a framework for Diaz to hang his cinematic style – his long lengthy takes are either leisurely and languorous, or rather tedious and self-indulgent, depending on how the viewer’s taste interprets them.
My only mild criticism is with the film’s ending. Diaz was obviously wrestling with the dilemma of how to wrap it up. And he didn’t. No doubt feeling obliged to give us something climactic, we get some absurdly surreal histrionics, completely out of character, and then an ending in the middle of nowhere, like a railway line that terminates in the middle of the open countryside. But that’s minor nit-picking, and the film as a whole was an astonishing spectacle. Chances of a UK general release?? Probably better chances of me riding the winner of next year’s Grand National.
Eliza Lynch: Queen of Paraguay [press conference]
The Cineaste - This is an intriguing documentary – wonderfully made – about a little-known Irish lady. During Latin America’s Triple Alliance war of the 1860’s – Paraguay against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay - Eliza Lynch was the partner of (but never married to) the Paraguayan president, Francisco Solano Lopez. Vilified in Brazil but deified by the Paraguayans, two Irish academics, Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning were intrigued by this contradiction and set out to uncover the truth. Their book, an 18-year odyssey of dedicated and painstaking research, forms the basis of director Alan Gilsenan’s research.
Born in 1833 in Charleville, county Cork, into a moderately comfortable family, Eliza Alicia Lynch’s life was upturned when her father died when she was still young. She was sent to boarding school in France, and was them living in Paris when she was 16. Here she was duped into to marriage by a French soldier who was already married. After three unhappy years she managed to extricate herself from this marriage and met a dashing young Paraguayan diplomat. Francisco Lopez was in France negotiating arms deals with his French counterparts. He fell for the young Irish lady’s charms and they remained life partners until his gruesome death years later.
Gilsenan’s documentary very cleverly tells Eliza Lynch’s story from her point of view. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays a wonderful part as Eliza, telling her story as a ghostly figure from another world, feeling the need to put right all the myths and calumnies against her. The film is regularly interspersed with Lillis’ and Fanning’s comments, as well as military figures from Paraguay commenting on the diplomatic situation in the build-up to the war. The film describes her settling into Paraguay – her huge popularity amongst the ordinary population, which apparently continues to this day; Lopez’s succession to the Presidency after the death of his father; the concern amongst his colleagues that he seemed rather fixated on war against the Brazilians, something is father had been careful to try to avoid; and the unravelling disaster that was inevitable when war broke out.
Gilsenan was an enthusiastic talker in the Q & A afterwards and amongst other things said that Eliza Lynch’s very low profile amongst her countryfolk was a strong motivation for making this documentary.
Afternoon Delight [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - A packed and mildly boozy Ritzy was an appropriate venue for this hugely enjoyable rom-com from Jill Soloway, her debut feature. The storyline could have descended into clichés and sentimentality, but it very cleverly avoided both, and with plenty of genuinely hilarious humour it was an easy watch.
Thirtysomething Rachel has, on the face of it, a wonderful life – lovely husband, young son, good group of local friends, but she’s disillusioned by husband’s lack of interest in sex and, on a whim, visits a strip club. Things take one or two implausible turns after that but there are some very clever and humorous scenes throughout the film which kept it interesting and made for an easy 100 minutes.
The Cineaste - This is a wonderfully understated film by Pawel Pawlikowski about a young novice set on becoming a nun who is prompted to question who she is – her identity, destiny, hopes, background - when she meets her free-thinking aunt. Agata Trzebuchowska gives a wonderfully opaque performance as Ida, a young novice about to take her vows. Before she does so her Mother Superior insists she contact her aunt, her only remaining relative. When she does so her aunt takes her on a journey back to her childhood – both literally and figuratively – as Ida finds out about the background to her being orphaned, where her aunt fitted in, and things which prompt her to question what sort of person she is.
Pawlikowska afterwards said he wanted to make a film about identity – for him, themes of being Polish, Catholic, Jew, where we want to go in life. He said the challenge in making this film was to reveal less rather than more, so that there was always an aura of enigma around Ida. And filmed in black and white, he’s made a lovely gem of a film here.