Reviewed today: A Long And Happy Life, Night Moves, Rigor Mortis, So Young, Tracks, Why Don't You Play In Hell?
If the BFI can plug its forthcoming Gothic season before the start of almost every film at this festival, then I don't see why I can't do something similar on this blog. So, Coming Soon: a three-part report on our recent visit to Hong Kong. I've been visiting the country for twenty years now, and always try to catch a couple of the local films while I'm there: this year was no exception, but the movies that were in cinemas at the time were rather heavily weighted towards broad comedy. Today the LFF gives us the chance to see what the country is currently up to in other genres, starting with horror.
Rigor Mortis is dedicated to the actors Lam Ching-ying and Ricky Hui, the late stars of the Mr Vampire movies: this one is presumably intended as some sort of contemporary take on the series. Mr Vampire was an incredibly popular franchise in Hong Kong in the 1980s, a series of charmingly comic horror films in which a stoic Taoist hero took on all manner of supernatural nasties. They were always fascinating compendia of Chinese superstitions, with plenty of useful tips for Western viewers, such as always having lots of glutinous rice to hand for repelling vampires.
So what does a vampire hunter do when all the vampires have gone? Inevitably, he opens up a rice stall instead. That's become the fate of Yau (Anthony Chan), and generally he's having a quiet life doing that. But a couple of problems have arisen in his apartment block that will require his old skills. The new inhabitant of flat 2442 is being tormented by the disturbed spirits of its former inhabitants: meanwhile, an old lady's husband has died in mysterious circumstances, leading her to consult a cowboy Taoist about the prospect of his re-animation.
Part of the appeal of the old Mr Vampire films - at least to a Western viewer - was that the imagery appeared utterly deranged, but was firmly rooted in traditional Chinese superstition. You didn't know why hopping vampires could be stopped in their tracks by having yellow prayer scrolls attached to their foreheads, but you were told the rules just before it happened, and that made it fine. Rigor Mortis can't be bothered with rules: it just throws surreal horror images at you more or less continuously, in that post-Nightmare On Elm Street way where cool visuals are considered a substitute for narrative logic.
It doesn't come as a surprise to see Takashi Shimizu listed as one of this film's producers (alongside its director Juno Mak). As the director of the Japanese horror movie Ju-On: The Grudge, he more or less invented the cliches we've come to associate with the Asia Extreme genre: sudden loud noises, spooky long-haired girls, massively over-the-top violence, and a total lack of coherence. He's sort of ruined Japanese scary films for the last decade or so, and it's sad to see his influence ruining those of other countries too. It's possible that viewers unfamiliar with the original Mr Vampire films might enjoy Rigor Mortis, but to the rest of us this feels like handing over a Ghostbusters remake to the guys who made Saw.
3.00pm: Night Moves [trailer]
It takes a while for us to discover what Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are up to. We see them early on at an environmentalist meeting, hearing about the importance of direct action. Later on, they buy a boat, and take it over to a man they apparently haven't met before, the mysterious Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). The first indication of their plan comes when Harmon says "we could use a few hundred more pounds of fertiliser." That's right - they're going to bring down the military-industrial complex with really well-tended broccoli.
Director Kelly Reichardt was last at the LFF three years ago with Meek's Cutoff, which The Belated Birthday Girl described as "a powerful tale of human hopes and fears" and Nick described as "an ambient Western." I'm very fond of Nick's comment, which amuses me mainly because he thinks that's a bad thing. If you're looking to describe Night Moves in similar terms, then it's a slightly less ambient paranoid thriller, one that even shares a title with a 1970s classic of the genre.
Initially, as you'd expect, the main focus of the film is the act of eco-terrorism that Josh, Dena and Harmon are plotting - we see them talking about it, planning it and executing it. A lesser film would make the final stage of that process the climax of the movie. But Reichardt is much more interested in what happens after that. Even in the preparatory stages, the three participants are a little uncertain of each other: once the act's been performed, that suspicion escalates into full-blown paranoia, fed by their personal reactions to the reporting of the incident and its consequences.
Meek's Cutoff stirred up controversy among viewers who went into it expecting a straight Western, and ended up getting something else instead: in particular, the ambiguity of its ending seemed guaranteed to generate a reaction. By comparison, Night Moves performs its bait-and-switch earlier on in the film, and much more openly. Seen mainly through the eyes of Jesse Eisenberg's character, the growing sense of unease is built up beautifully by Reichardt: and it culminates in a rather splendid final shot, which is as definite an indefinite ending as you could hope for. It's a quiet little thriller, but a thriller nonetheless.
5.30pm: So Young [trailer]
Unexpectedly, this film turns out to be the biggest red carpet event we've attended so far this festival, with press and fans out in force to welcome Vicki Zhao. Who she? She's best known as an actress, previously namechecked on this site for her splendid supporting role in John Woo's Red Cliff. She's been a major presence in Hong Kong movies for over a decade, and now she's filmed her hugely popular directorial debut in mainland China. The whole of London's Chinese community appears to have come to the Odeon to welcome her: they all have their cameraphones out during her pre- and post-movie appearances, and a couple of them can be spotted filming with their phones during the movie as well. I do hope that the Chinese ambassador - present at this screening - wasn't one of them.
It's the story of a young girl's time as an architecture student. We see Zheng Wei (Zishan Yang) arrive at college on her first day, and immediately attract the attention of a couple of the cuter boys. Her roommate Ruan Guan (Shuying Jiang) gets even more of that attention, though. That competitiveness initially results in some friction between the two girls, but they eventually get over that to become good friends. This seems to be the way that Zheng gets to know people: first despising them, then gradually coming to accept them. Her love-hate relationship with Chen Xiaozheng (Mark Chao) will take an awful lot longer to resolve itself.
For the most part, Zhao's directorial debut has an impressive confidence to it. She handles the actors well, and takes them into areas that you wouldn't normally expect in this genre. Zheng's wild mood swings would be the sort of behaviour you'd expect in a typical romcom, but Zhao pushes them that little bit further to contrast them against Chen's reasonable nature, making Zheng look like the borderline psychotic she actually is. It's all part and parcel of the volatility of teenage friendships and relationships, and the film captures that rather beautifully.
And then we leap forward several years to see how everyone has grown up, and the film all goes to hell. Suddenly, we're hit with a pile of dramatic contrivances, overcooked melodrama, and a complete unpicking of much of the good work of the first hour and a half. Presumably this comes from the structure of the source novel, but it totally unbalances the film: what could have been a neat where-are-they-now coda becomes a whole third act that shows a certain degree of contempt at what's come before. Pity, it was going so well until then.
8.45pm: Why Don't You Play In Hell? [official site]
There's one more unexpected Hong Kong connection to today's programme, but we're not part of it. Because this year's LFF Surprise Film is revealed this evening, and it's Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, or at least the Miramax re-edit of same. I actually picked up a Blu-ray of the movie while I was in HK last month, so I'm not too disappointed about missing out on that one, although the chance to see it on one of the big screens at the Vue would have been nice. Instead, we're spending our evening watching a movie from elsewhere in Asia.
Sion Sono has been one of Japan's most notorious directors for years now, but his last couple of movies (Himizu and The Land Of Hope) have been serious dramas, looking at the country in the wake of the great disaster of 2011. Still, there was probably always a limit to how much time he could spend doing that before going back to the crazy genre pastiches that made his name: and Why Don't You Play In Hell definitely counts as one of those.
There are two strands to the story. One of them follows a collective of filmmakers called The Fuck Bandits, who've been making amateur movies for over a decade without ever getting the big break they think they deserve. The closest they ever came to making something memorable was near the start of their career, when they filmed an injured yakuza as he crawled down the street. The other strand follows another yakuza boss: he should be concentrating on preparing for a gang war that's about to erupt, but instead he wants to make a movie starring his daughter, as a getting-out-of-jail present for his wife.
Can you see where this is heading? Of course you can, and Sono knows that you can too. But he irritatingly takes the scenic route to get there, padding out the story with an irrelevant subplot in which the gangster's daughter runs away and goes into hiding with the first man she sees. (It turns out that he's fancied her since she was ten years old, but let's not think too hard about that.) It's a detour that doesn't really add anything, except for half an hour to the running time, and a character that the climax has to navigate around in order to work the way we'd expect.
Still, that climax pretty much delivers what we want, and is presumably what inspired the BFI to make it one of the two films in this festival to come with an age restriction (see also: Aatsinki). It's true, there is a wee bit of violence: the film starts with a ten-year-old girl coming home to find her living room ankle-deep in blood, and ends with Sono setting a new world record for the largest number of decapititions depicted in a single shot. But it's all cartoony violence, depicted with huge spurts of obvious CGI gore, and impossible to take seriously: if anything, the violence in Rigor Mortis is more deserving of censure, with its suicides, rapes and infanticide.
That's always been Sono's modus operandi, of course: never quite knowing when to stop. It's a problem he's always had, with his best film Love Exposure being unusual in that it has enough material to fill its epic four hour running time. If Hell was 85 minutes long, it could have been brilliant: but at over two hours, there are far too many dull passages in it to make it consistently entertaining. Still, the fun bits are definitely fun, enhanced by nicely-pitched self-parodic performances from the likes of Tak Sakaguchi as the Fuck Bandits' Bruce Lee-loving star. And fair play to Sono: making fun of the links between organised crime and the movie industry is ballsy stuff to be doing in Japan, if you know what I mean.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - In 1977, young Robyn Davidson set off from Alice Springs with a wildly ambitious plan to walk 2,700-odd kilometres across the wild Australian outback until she reached the Indian Sea on Western Australia’s coast. A city girl, the locals thought she was mad. Planned as a tribute to her adventurer dad (who disappeared while trekking across the Kalahari Desert and was never seen again), she had no money, no experience of the outback, and no experience of working with camels. All she had was a fierce determination (and, probably, a desire for solitude). Her determination won the day, and John Curran’s dramatisation of her trek is based largely on Davidson’s book about the experience.
Mia Wasikowska’s terrific portrayal of Davidson, and Curran’s sympathetic treatment of her and his wonderful expression of the landscape through which she travels, make this a joyously engaging film. It starts with Davidson arriving in Alice Springs with her pet black labrador (who accompanies her on her expedition). Seeking work on a camel farm to get to know how to work with the animals, one cynic takes her on – without any pay, but with the promise of two camels after 8 months. He reneges on his promise, and Davidson has to start elsewhere, all over again.
Eventually she feels sufficiently confident working with the camels, and, having worked enough to buy a “train” (three of the animals and a young calf), she’s ready. A huge disappointment awaits, however. She sought, and was granted, sponsorship by National Geographic magazine, but a condition of their sponsorship was that a photographer would accompany her. She’s devastated by this, all the more so when she meets said photographer - a geeky young New Yorker she takes an instant dislike to.
The film then unravels, looking at Davidson’s setbacks, hopes, and joys (she meets an elderly couple in the middle of nowhere, who she’s clearly touched by). It gradually paints a picture of an admirably tenacious but also vulnerable young lady (we see her fragility in some tender moments at the end), seeking a sense of achievement by refusing to be stereotyped (by generation, gender, being a city person), and finding solace in her conquest of the outback. A wonderful story told in a wonderful way, it was a really engrossing and uplifting film.
(One nitpicking criticism, and I say this as a railway anorak. Before Davidson sets off, her friends and family arrive by train in Alice Springs to see her off. OK, I don’t claim to be an authority on Aussie railway heritage, but the railway coaches look more like they come from the 1880’s rather than the 1970’s.)
A Long and Happy Life [clip]
The Cineaste - Quite bluntly, this was dire. OK, maybe it was a contrast with the wonderful film I’d just seen, maybe the fact that I was nodding off repeatedly didn’t help, and neither did the stuffy auditorium, but there was absolutely nothing in this film to excite, engage, thrill, or do anything.
Shasha runs a farm, and he employs locals to work it. But the powers that be want his land, and offer Shasha some compensation. Only it’s not compensation, it’s an ultimatum – because if he doesn’t accept the compensation, they’ll acquire the land by less honest means. Cue issues of exploitation, extortion, bribery, socialism, tractors and God knows what else, it was just a monstrously dull effort. Seventy-seven minutes makes for a short film, but it was plenty long enough for this ennui.