Reviewed today: Men And Chicken, Office, Sherlock Holmes.
What with the festival being reduced down to twelve days, and not getting started on it myself until day three, it feels like LFF 2015 is over before it's begun. Still, I've been doing three films a day throughout (apart from those days when one of those films was at least three hours long), and the strain's starting to tell: the cold that's been hovering over me since the middle of the week has finally hit with a vengeance, and the music from the LFF trailer has started mashing up in my head with the music from the accompanying promo for the BFI's Love season to produce something I'm calling Generic Soft Rock Audio Polyfilla #3. It's time to wrap this up, at least once I've got this final globe-spanning collection of three movies out of the way.
Firstly, from Denmark, we have Men And Chicken, written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. It's the story of two brothers, academic Gabriel (David Dencik) and sex maniac Elias (Mads Mikkelsen). When their father dies, there's a nasty surprise for them in his belongings - a videotape which reveals they were both adopted, and are the biological sons of reclusive scientist Evelio Thanatos. They travel to the remote island where Thanatos lives, and find that his decrepit mansion is home to three more brothers they never knew they had: Franz (Søren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Josef (Nicolas Bro). And it's home to an awful lot more, as well.
But you know all this already, because I reviewed Men And Chicken back in March for Monoglot Movie Club, having seen it without the benefit of subtitles on its initial release in Copenhagen. It's always fascinating to revisit an MMC selection once an English translation becomes available, and discover just how close my interpretation of the plot came to the truth. In this particular case, I put together my own version of the ending from the tiny number of visual and verbal clues available, and wondered if I'd somehow imagined something even more appalling than what Jensen had actually intended. Well, the news is that I got the basic gist of the climax pretty much exactly right, which is both satisfying and a little bit terrifying.
So what feels different second time around? Well, on my previous viewing the key way of differentiating between the five brothers was visually, by their facial deformities and their choice of weapons. But Jensen gives each of them a specific set of verbal tics: from Josef's need to over-analyse everything, to Elias' rush to blame all his problems on other people's shoddy workmanship. The lack of comprehensible dialogue also shielded me from some of the most appalling ideas spoken out loud: I thought that the most offensive bits of the film were what you could see on screen, and boy was I wrong.
But the other surprise is that despite all the obvious comedy (running the gamut from cod-philosophical debate to ultra-violent slapstick), there's also an underlying sense of melancholy running through the film. In purely visual terms, the five brothers appear to be psychopaths with no regard for life of any sort: but as they start to communicate with each other, you realise the amount of damage they've had inflicted on them over the years. By the end, when the jaw-dropping truth is revealed, you actually feel quite sorry for them: and the wish-fulfilment of the coda feels like something they ultimately deserve. For a film with so much concentrated wrongness built into it at every level, that's quite an achievement.
5.45pm: Sherlock Holmes [clip]
It looks like Neil Brand's first mention in these pages was back in 2001: I hadn't been aware of his work before then, but was impressed with his ability to improvise a piano score for Metropolis with no apparent effort. Fourteen years on, everybody knows Neil Brand: he's become the rock star of silent movie accompanists, and his BBC Four music programmes would make him a household name if they had the guts to broadcast them on BBC Two. It's surprising that this particular screening, when listed in the LFF printed programme, only gave Brand's name in the smallest possible typeface available: but the house is gratifyingly filled with an audience who realise he's one of the main attractions for this event. Though he's not the only attraction, of course.
Brand does his usual stuff with an opening supporting short, accompanying Stuart Kinder's A Canine Sherlock Holmes at the piano. Made in 1912, it's really just a series of silly dog tricks edited into a bog-standard detective story. There's a lot of charm in its technical cack-handedness - at one stage, our doggy hero is required to hide behind a tree while stalking a suspect, an effect achieved with a crude series of jump cuts to cover that he's had to be physically dragged into the correct position. Still, it's amusing enough, and acts as a suitable curtain-raiser to the main event - possibly the first film ever to feature the human Sherlock Holmes.
BFI curator Bryony Dixon does her usual fine job of setting the scene beforehand. Arthur Berthelet's 1916 film of Sherlock Holmes is actually an adaptation of a stage version of the Conan Doyle stories, which, like the film, starred William Gillette when it played at the Lyceum in London for a successful run. It's a movie that's long been assumed to have been lost, but in 2014 a copy was discovered in the archive of La Cinémathèque Française. (As Dixon points out, it's easy to be unimpressed by the news that a rare Sherlock Holmes film was discovered in a film archive in a can with 'Sherlock Holmes' written on the side, but sometimes it takes archives a while to realise what they actually have.) This French copy (complete with French intertitle cards) has actually been split up from the original single film into a four-part serial, but the four parts are played back to back at this screening, making you realise what Netflix bingewatching must have been like during the First World War.
Plotwise, the film draws lightly on several bits of the Holmes canon, and makes up some of its own - it turns out that William Gillette was the first person to associate Holmes with the deerstalker hat. It's based around the MacGuffin of a series of incriminating letters from a prince to his fancy woman: everyone wants to get hold of them, from the prince himself to a dodgy criminal couple called the Larrabees. The letters are currently in the possession of the fancy woman's sister Alice (Marjorie Kay), and when the Larrabees capture her it's up to Holmes to save the day. When he succeeds, the Larrabees are somewhat annoyed: but fortunately, they know of a Professor Moriarty who may be able to help with their dastardly schemes.
Given that this is presented here as a serial which relies on what-happens-next tension from minute to minute, it's surprisingly how incredibly slow Sherlock Holmes is. For example, when Alice is literally being tortured by the Larrabees for her information, the film cuts to Holmes mooching around outside their house with zero sense of urgency. The pacing goes way beyond what we'd think of as slow, and moves into the territory of deliberate time-wasting. At one point, a good ten minutes is dedicated to a detailed explanation of a deadly trap that's being laid for Holmes, which is all completely ruined when he arrives at the scene and proclaims "ah, this is Stepney Gas Chamber, isn't it?"
Well, yes, it's easy to scoff at a 99-year-old film. Particularly one where we know the basic framework of the story, and can be amused by its deviations from the norm - for example, the way the film takes ages to find something for Dr Watson to do, having him spend the entire first episode reading in Holmes' office while waiting for him to get back. But one of the things that makes this screening so much fun is this: Neil Brand isn't scoffing. His semi-improvised score, with the assistance of violinist Günter Buchwald and percussionist Jeff Davenport, always takes the film at face value and refuses to send it up. The final scenes of Sherlock Holmes have some huge, melodramatic emotions at their core: his music plays them up for all they're worth, and actually makes them work for a modern audience. They really should have printed his name a bit bigger in the programme.
9.15pm: Office [official site]
This wasn't quite the finish to the festival we had planned. When we originally booked for Office, it was going to start at 8.45pm and in 2D: now it's starting at 9.15pm and in 3D. The two changes aren't related, in case you were wondering. The late start is to allow for the crowds turning up at the Vue for an extra screening of the Closing Gala film, which gives us an extra half hour to grab a quick bite at Pret between movies. So, hooray for Steve Jobs: finally, he's done something that allows people to use their time more efficiently. As for the 3D... well, it's hard to see how it could have been any other way.
Office allows Hong Kong movie buffs to use combinations of words that we previously couldn't have dreamed could exist in the same sentence, specifically 'Johnnie To', '3D' and 'musical'. To's been the underrated hero of HK's film industry for several years now, but he's the sort of director who's more likely to be turning up in my Terracotta Festival reviews than in the more mainstream LFF. This film eschews his usual blue-collar crime settings for something a bit whiter: the gargantuan offices of Jones and Sunn, a company with fingers in an awful lot of pies.
We find our way into the corporate structure through two new recruits, Lee Seung (Wang Ziyi) and Kat Ho (Lang Yueting), who join at the point where the company's coming under intense scrutiny as it prepares to go public. They quickly discover that the office politics are largely driven by inter-staff relationships, the biggest one being the not-so-secret affair between CEO Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang) and Chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat). But what nobody at Jones and Sunn realises is that they're in a period piece: it's 2008, there are bad financial times just around the corner, and there's a nasty twenty million dollar surprise buried in last year's accounts.
To handles the complex interdepartmental shenanigans of Sylvia Chang’s screenplay with his usual efficiency, and then throws in the additional complications of musical numbers and 3D as if to keep himself interested. The original songs by Lo Tayu and Lin Xi are catchy affairs that genuinely drive the plot along - this isn't a drama movie with music thrown in, it's a real musical in the traditional sense. It helps that the Venn diagram of Hong Kong actors and Hong Kong pop stars has such a wide overlap, with Eason Chan in particular covering a lot of bases in his portrayal of David, an employee who's trying to be too many things to too many people at the same time.
But it's the look of Office that's the most astonishing thing about it. It's hard to believe that this was ever advertised in the LFF programme as anything other than a 3D movie, as the design scheme is wholly geared towards maximum stereoscopic impact. The office of the title is a huge, multi-storey, open-plan affair constructed entirely out of railings, pillars and Venetian blinds, with a giant rotating clock situated right in the middle - every single shot has multiple layers that stack on top of each other beautifully. There's no attempt at realism here, as the film's aiming more for the feeling of large-scale theatre: even the scenes in other locations are obviously being performed in one of the corners of this single, spectacular set. To's camera, mobile at the best of times, is positively hyperactive here, hurtling at top speed across the office trying to keep up with everyone running from one room to another. The result is a massively kinetic experience: possibly too kinetic for some viewers (The BBG was left a bit queasy by parts of it), but anyone curious to see what cinema looks like when running at full throttle needs to see this film.
And that's it for LFF 2015. If you want to know what our overall highlights and lowlights were, come back in a few days for The Wrap Party.