Reviewed today: The American Epic Sessions, Assassination, Hand Gestures, Happy Hour.
It was nice to see a comment from former contributor Suzanne Vega Fanclub on yesterday's post, grumbling about the lack of movie choices in his current part of the world. I was actually thinking about him at the start of the Korean thriller Assassination, because it's produced by a company called Caper Film, and Suze frequently uses the word 'caper' as part of his description of any sort of film, whether it's appropriate or not. (“Vastly overrated NASA promotional caper The Martian,” that sort of thing.) So, what we have here turns out to be a Japanese occupation of Korea caper.
It spans several decades, but the meat of the film takes place in 1933, by which time Korea has been occupied by the Japanese for a couple of decades. The Korean government is in exile in China, but still trying to co-ordinate the resistance from abroad. To this end, they create a mini-Dirty Dozen from a pair of convicts together with disgraced female soldier Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), setting them up to assassinate a couple of bigwigs in Seoul. Inevitably, it won't be easy, with hired gunmen on their tail and traitors at the heart of their organisation.
The Japanese were doing a lot of occupying in the thirties, and there was a small spate of films a few years ago about the atrocities they were committing in China in general, and Nanjing in particular. Of necessity, those films were grim as hell: so it's interesting to see a film about the occupation of Korea that genuinely deserves the description 'caper'. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon handles the story with a beautifully light touch and great big dollops of humour, while at the same time gradually turning up the heat on the way to the full-throttle violence of the climax. He's got no choice but to treat it lightly, really, because he's building towards the outrageous revelation of why Ahn Ok-yun was chosen for the mission in the first place, other than being a sniper with a name that sounds a bit like Annie Oakley.
The result is a mid-film twist that could have destroyed the dramatic tension of the film completely, and it's to Choi's credit that he not only recovers from the upset, but manages to use it to ramp up the tension even more. The period sets are handsome, the action is excellently staged in old school style (Actual blood squibs! Real explosions!), and the cast of quirky resistance fighters and evil turncoats are delightful to watch. Asian action cinema hasn't really been hitting the heights of the noughties for a while now: this film turns back the clock, and in a good way. It'll probably be an awkward sell in Japan, though.
3.30pm: Happy Hour [official site]
Third best is nowhere near good enough, and I have to apologise for that. Because Happy Hour has a running time of 317 minutes, which means I'm only going to get to see the third longest film at this year's LFF. (Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights is six hours long, albeit split into three distinct films: while Kevin Jerome Everson's Park Lanes depicts a full working day at a bowling equipment factory in eight hours of real time. Ironically, I couldn't get the time off from my own job to see that one, otherwise I'd have been fascinated to see how the hell that worked.)
Still, five and a quarter hours (with, as was only announced on the day, no interval) is a pretty solid stretch in its own right. The Belated Birthday Girl reports seeing a punter on his mobile phone outside the Studio cinema partway through, who'd obviously misread the running time: "I thought it was three hours, but it's still going!" You can understand his surprise, given that Happy Hour's subject matter appears less than epic on paper. It's the story of four thirtysomething women – Akari (Sachie Tanaka), Fumi (Maiko Mihara), Jun (Rira Kawamura) and Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) - who've been friends since high school, and regularly meet up for day trips and gossip sessions. Their relationship statuses run the gamut, from 'happily married' to 'single and using work to keep her mind off that'. Fumi runs a community centre, and helps local artist Ukai (Shuhei Shibata) to put on some sort of trendy mindfulness seminar: the four friends all come along to help make up the numbers. The seminar – or more accurately, the beer-fuelled discussion after it - will create fault lines in the women's relationships that will crack open as the months go on.
"Did it have to be a five hour movie?", asked The BBG afterwards, having already made the decision to watch two other normal-sized films instead. (See below.) Well, possibly not. The structure isn't so much self-indulgent as baggy, a bit like a first attempt at assembling footage into a movie. Some of the key scenes are stretched way beyond the length they'd have in a normal film, generally to emphasise how uncomfortable those scenes are. At one point, a Q&A session at a literary event archly turns into a self-critique of the film itself, with the rambly author insisting that her story's being told “not so much in slow motion, more in real time.” In films, we're used to editing carrying you over the dull bits, but there's no such escape here.
The other thing to consider is the impact of binge-watching this much visual storytelling in one go. The closest equivalent I can think of is the 16 hours I spent watching Heimat over four consecutive nights in a cinema, at the end of which I could draw a street map of the village of Schabbach from memory. Happy Hour has nothing like the same scope, but by the end of it you'll know the sequence of buttons to press to turn on the kettle in Akari's apartment. And you'll also know all four of these women inside out - director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's style favours extended scenes and long takes, and the cast grab the opportunity to play their parts in that very Japanese middle class style where everyone's calm on the surface and raging underneath.
As with the last marathon art event I undertook – the eight-hour performance of Max Richter's Sleep, still available on iPlayer for two more weeks, hurry hurry hurry - the way in which you experience Happy Hour becomes part of the art itself. I wondered at the start how the pacing would work: would it be like a six part drama series run back to back, or a more continuous flow? How does the internal body clock by which you work out how much of a film is left respond to over five hours without a break? At one point, it felt like the literary event at the community centre would mark the end of the film in the same way that the seminar in the same location marked the beginning, and I found myself mentally preparing for the whole thing to wind up. In fact, it's not really the end, merely the incident that triggers a climactic long dark night of the soul followed up by a morning after. But the curious thing is this – at no point in that process did I think “dammit, there's even more of this now.” You're tied up with the characters by that stage, and want to see them through to whatever sort of conclusion the film can offer after 317 minutes.
Did it have to be a five hour movie? Maybe it didn't have to be - any editor worth their salt could compress all the best bits of Happy Hour into a two hour feature. But I was never bored, and only came close to nodding off when the film was deliberately trying to bore me. So maybe the answer to that question is 'yes', after all.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Hand Gestures [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - The craft of bronze casting, using the lost-wax process, is not taught in any school. The techniques are not written down, but are passed down through the generations from master to apprentice, passed on by showing, not telling. And that is also the method of this film, showing rather than telling us the process, and the history, of making a bronze statue in a Milan foundry, which has been using the same basic techniques for about a century. The film starts as the finishing touches are put by the artist to the wax model of a dog, which we then see encased by and filled with clay, heated in a kiln, replaced with molten bronze poured into the void, and once cooled, welded and polished, until the finished bronze is delivered to be part of its exhibit. The film is simply shot, with little or no dialogue or explanation. We see interspersed clips of the same foundry in 1967, showing how many of the processes have barely changed, apart from improved health and safety, while a few elements have been aided by a bit of technology.
Hand Gestures is a film which holds up the connection between the work the artisans do and the tangible product of their work in a very straightforward way, allowing the viewer to take from it what they will. In the Q&A afterwards, the director mentioned that two of the artisans at the foundry are nearing retirement, and have no-one to whom they have passed on their knowledge, so these techniques may be lost. Or else this film may help preserve them. In showing how some techniques have adapted with the times – use of plastic cups may not be “traditional” but is now part of the process used at the foundry – the film is also showing that such adaptation is part of how a craft such as this has survived, and may suggest that it will find ways to survive in the future, too. By starting with the artist making the wax model, and finishing with the finished article in the exhibit, the film also shows the intimate connections between the artist and the artisan who makes their art into something lasting. As long as there are artists who want or need this connection, then such crafts may find a way to continue to exist.
The American Epic Sessions [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - In the 1920s, feeling the threat of the rise in use of radio, record companies in the US decided to expand their market and sell records to a more diverse audience. But to do that, they needed more diverse music to market. And so began the quest for music across America, from coast to coast and down into the Southern States, with open calls for musicians to come and record. To do this, they needed a machine to take with them to record the music they found, and this machine, powered by weights and pulleys and using electrical value amplifiers and diaphragms, was the Western Electric lathe.
British filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty have made a series of documentaries for PBS America and BBC Arena called American Epic, about this time and the music it produced, and how the 3 minute pop record grew out of the time it took for the weight which drove the rotating wax disc to descend. For the final part of this series - The American Epic Sessions - they teamed up with Jack White and T. Bone Burnett to assemble an extraordinary array of musicians to record on a reassembled Western Electric lathe, the only one now in existence.
The American Epic Sessions is a wonderful film, featuring some fabulous performances – all shown in their entirety, and with the sound directly taken from the recording made on the machine – but also showcasing the machine itself, and the man who took 10 years of his life to reassemble it and learn how to use it, with no instructions, very few pictures, and whatever parts and information could be gathered. It is a film with surprising amounts of drama and tension (what happens if a part of the machine breaks?), a lot of humour, a few surprises (you may learn something new about Jack White’s talents) and plenty of geek element. There is also great music, some dating from the time of the machine, some composed especially for the sessions (in one case, pretty much on the spot at the session). As each performance was shown in its glorious 3-minute-or-so entirety, watching the film with an audience took on some of the air of a concert, and you could not help but applaud them as though you were in the room with them.
The other parts of the series are having their previews at other festivals, and I really hope and intend to watch the whole series when it airs on PBS or Arena (although I always fear Arena will shorten them and make it look as though Alan Yentob made them all himself, so maybe PBS will be the way to go). There will also be soundtrack albums to accompany the series, both of the original music to accompany the first 3 parts, and of the recordings from the sessions, and I fully expect to get those when they come out, too. But I think we were very fortunate and privileged to get the world premiere of the Sessions part, and I was very happy to experience it as part of an audience, which really was something special.