Reviewed today: Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys, Kon-Tiki, Our Sunhi, A Street In Palermo, A Time In Quchi.
There's a piece I've been meaning to pitch to the good folks at Mostly Film for a while now. In it, I'd revisit some of the unsubtitled films I've wrestled with in Monoglot Movie Club over the last two years, but this time watch them with subtitles to see if it makes them better or worse. There are a few opportunities to do this coming up in the very near future. This Friday sees the UK theatrical release of The Broken Circle Breakdown, which I saw last Christmas in Brussels. Meanwhile, the Dutch kiddie monster movie Dolfje Weerwolfje is getting a two-years-after-the-fact outing as part of the BFI's upcoming Gothic season, though sadly the film's international title is now Alfie The Little Werewolf rather than my more literal suggestion of Adolf Werewolf.
And then there's Kon-Tiki, which I saw in Oslo on the day of its release in the summer of 2012. What I hadn't realised at the time, though, was that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg had shot an English language version side by side with the Norwegian one: and this is the one we're getting at the LFF today. It's always dangerous when filmmakers work in something other than their first language, but this version plays just fine to an English audience. (Compare and contrast with the German film about the Natascha Kampusch abduction, 3096 Days, where even the British cast members are turned into unresponsive planks by a German crew working in English.)
Anyway, you really should know the story by now. Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) has a theory - everyone else thinks that Polynesia was originally populated by travellers from Asia, but he's found evidence that they were more likely to have come from Peru. This is an unpopular theory, because it's assumed that Peruvians simply wouldn't have had the technology to do this 1500 years ago, only possessing the simplest of balsawood rafts. So Heyerdahl puts his money where his mouth is, taking a crew of six men out on a five thousand mile voyage in a boat you probably could have knocked up in an O level woodwork class.
We know the story, so we know its ending, but that doesn't stop the film from being a corking piece of entertainment. In fact, on a second viewing, some of the problems I had with it first time round are less of an issue. The rhythms of the film seem less jarring - the huge stretches of quiet, interspersed with brief periods of peril, actually generate a fair bit of tension even when you know how they'll pan out. It's true, part of that may come from now being able to understand what everyone's saying, as the wildly differing temperaments of the six men on the boat clash for our entertainment. And the storytelling also benefits from the utterly seamless effects work, culminating in an outrageously ambitious shot that's really just there to get us over the dull portion of the journey and straight to the exciting bit at the end.
There are a couple of minor differences from the Norwegian version in this edit, I think. A silly little gag involving the president of Peru being mistaken for a waiter has been quietly dropped. More interestingly, the what-happened-next captions at the end don't have the same focus as the Norwegian ones regarding when each of the characters died. But on the whole, this experience of Kon-Tiki is what I always hoped a second viewing of an MMC film would be like - all the pleasure you had first time round, enhanced by the nuances now available in the dialogue.
3.30pm: Our Sunhi [trailer]
After last week's Nobody's Daughter Haewon, this is the second Hong Sang-soo film of this year's festival. Does this mean more film school love affairs fuelled by cheap Korean hooch? Of course it does. Sunhi (Jung Yumi) dropped out of film school several years ago without warning, but suddenly she's back: she wants to travel to America to study, and needs her former principal to write her a reference. He tells Sunhi that she needs to think hard about who she is and what she wants, as he suspects she's just using academia as an excuse to avoid real work. As she meets up with other men from her past, including one of her teachers and a former boyfriend, the question of who and what Sunhi really is becomes a major topic of conversation.
My main concern about watching two Hong Sang-soo films almost back to back was that it would confirm my suspicion that all of this films are interchangeable. Happily, this isn't the case: while Haewon was a compilation of Hong's directorial tics without any real story, Our Sunhi is a tightly-plotted comedy of manners with plenty of laughs. It's a carefully structured farce, an intricate dance between several characters who generally only meet in pairs, so that only the audience has the full picture of what's really going on.
Hong's love of repetition pays off in spades here, as people hear particular phrases in one conversation, and mindlessly parrot them back as their own thoughts in the next. By the end, nobody is entirely certain what they've said to anyone else, and Hong delights in pointing out to the audience that we're not entirely certain either. It's a slow-burner of a film, gradually becoming funnier as the misunderstandings and repetitions layer on top of each other. The result is a delightful chamber piece, and makes you wonder why Haewon was the first one of Hong's films to get a UK theatrical release, rather than this one.
6.30pm: Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys [official site]
Since the LFF programme was printed, there's been one curious change made to it: two of the films now come with warnings that viewers under 18 will not be admitted (the general dispensation for uncertificated films in a festival is no admittance to under 16s). One of those films is the new one from legendary Japanese shitstirrer Sion Sono, so that's perfectly understandable: I would be more surprised if he'd made a family-friendly film, and possibly even a little aroused by the prospect as well. But a nature documentary about lots of Bambis? That's a perfect one for the kiddies, surely?
Driven by a desire to find the contemporary equivalent of the old school American cowboy, director Jessica Oreck went to Lapland to live with the Aatsinki family for a year, following their lives as reindeer herders. We start in the autumn, which is round-up time, and it quickly becomes apparent what that BFI warning was all about. These animals are being reared so that they can be turned into steaks and coats, and this film doesn't shy away from the details of the process. Speaking as someone who a) has lived with a vegetarian for over a decade and b) discovered on a couple of trips to Finland this year that reindeer are delicious, I have no problem with these scenes at all: if you're prepared to eat the meat, you've got to be prepared to accept where it comes from. In fact, I'd possibly side with The Belated Birthday Girl's opinion that there's something slightly worrying about the desire to keep those details hidden from teenagers.
We continue to follow the family all the way through to the next year's round-up. Their Christmas celebration, when Santa pays a house call and boasts about how he's made sure Rudolf won't be bothering the female reindeer. The quiet winter months, when the farmers have a side career organising sleigh rides for tourists. And all year round, as the reindeer are effectively free-range, there's the continuous problem of trying to protect them from wolverines and other predators.
Aatsinki has no voiceover narration, no interviews, no digifrigged archive photos. For ninety minutes, we just observe the herders as they go about their daily business, picking up what incidental details we can from the tiny amount of dialogue we get to hear (apparently a total of just eight minutes). Oreck relies on the changing of the seasons to act as our narrative thread through the film, which works just fine as an approach. The downside is that we don't really get to know the Aatsinkis personally - it's a little too detached and observational a documentary for that. But as a portrait of a way of life, it's incredibly atmospheric and ravishingly photographed. If it inspires you to find out more about the reindeer afterwards, I can highly recommend the burgers at Fly Inn in Helsinki Airport.
8.45pm: A Time In Quchi [official Facebook]
Bao (Liang-yu Yang), a young city boy living in Taipei, gets sent to the country to live with his grandpa over the summer. He's an uncommunicative little sod, spending all of his time hunched over his iPad clone, and you suspect his parents have done this just to get him out of the way while they finalise their divorce. Initially, Bao can't cope with his granddad's regime of eating vegetables and going to bed early, and fails to get on with the other pupils at summer school. Will he learn to adapt?
Tony Rayns' programme note acknowledges that this story has been used time and again in Asian cinema, but seems to suggest that Chang Tso-Chi's film has something new to offer to the genre. And it really doesn't. Sure, the Quchi landscape is nicely shot, and the children's performances feel true to life. But the cliches of the coming of age film are all cycled through in a fairly mechanical fashion, with the inevitable tragic bits being signposted from a mile away. There's a suggestion initially that Bao might buck the narrative trend by not learning anything from his experience, but sadly that turns out not to be the case. For a change, after that summer couldn't everything be exactly the same as it was before?
Anyway, that marks a disappointing end to a day entirely devoted to movies whose titles end in the letter 'i', so I suspect that's an experiment I won't be repeating in the near future.
Notes From Spank's Pals
A Street In Palermo [official site]
The Cineaste - Experienced theatre director Emma Dante’s first feature film is a hilariously enjoyable black comedy.
A young female couple are driving to a wedding. They’re running a bit late and lost, and in Sicily’s searing heat they have a few minor arguments and disagreements. Then, hoping for inspiration, the driver Rosa takes a short cut down a minor single-track road. In the opposite direction they meet a car with a sizeable family in it, driven by stubborn grandma. The most almighty stand-off then develops, (the impasse lasts almost until the end of the film), with both parties stubbornly refusing to back down to the other.
Emma Dante gloriously milks the situation for all it's worth. So the whole neighbourhood becomes involved, friends and family appealing passionately and gesticulating wildly, enhancing the melodrama no end. Inevitably in the heat tempers become frayed, and a brief fight breaks out amongst the men – one chap needs to be hospitalised. The ladies take solace together and share a meal. Then as nightfall comes some of the men develop idea for a betting ring – and this theme runs for quite some time.
It may be a simple idea for a comedy, but Dante’s wonderful feel for absurdist humour, her handling of the situation and her eye for human feelings of pride and vanity make this a very amusing and enjoyable film. It never dragged, and she was able to wrap it up with some more deft touches. Bravissimo!