Reviewed today: Blue Island, Fast & Feel Love, Short Film Competition part 2, Unicorn Wars.
12.15pm: Short Film Competition part 2 [link to all shorts until October 23rd]
So, we saw four films on the Short Film Competition shortlist yesterday, and now we’re seeing the remaining six. And I have to say, I’d be curious to find out how they came up with that shortlist, because it seems patchy as hell. The films are all drawn from the various shorts collections showing theatrically in the festival, and it seems like the experimental side is being represented a little too heavily here.
Let’s leap straight in with the biggest disappointment in this particular collection, Eoghan Ryan’s A Sod State [official site]. The Troubles are a perfectly fine subject for a more oblique analysis, particularly as we’re on the verge of the Good Friday Agreement being wrecked. But this film throws together so much stuff – archive footage, personal testimony, puppets, Enya played at half speed – without any sense of a real point of view inside there. It all just feels like artist games, with even the subtitles getting artily disrupted every so often.
The other two bits of experimentation at least have a recognisable coherence to them. Luis Macias’ The Ocean Analog [I'd link to the official site here but it triggered off my anti-virus program, so I won't] is the more abstract of the pair, taking images of the sea and applying all sorts of old-school manipulation to them – colour tints, lens flares, layering, and rapid zooms in and out that remind me far too much of the camerawork on Top Of The Pops in the early 70s. And Maria Estella Paiso’s It’s Raining Frogs Outside [official Facebook] juggles multiple images of isolation: it's based around a central depiction of a woman trapped in her house while the titular storm fills the soundtrack with splatty noises, and animation, CGI and underwater photography are thrown into the mix. It’s possibly the hand-crafted, analogue feel to these two films that sets them apart from A Sod State’s digital, glitchy coldness.
Once we get into the more traditionally made shorts, things get more interesting. Maria Marrone and Shenny de Los Angeles’ The Ritual To Beauty [director's site] is a documentary in which three generations of Dominican women talk about the more racially charged aspects of feminine beauty, mainly concerning hair: the youngest one in the family is happy to let hers go natural, while her mother and grandma have historically preferred to straighten theirs out using chemicals. It’s a generational clash depicted effectively in both the voiceovers and the imagery. The one straight narrative drama here is Yue Li’s I Have No Legs, And I Must Run [trailer], in which a young athlete gets into a competition with his new teammate that the latter might not even be aware of. It’s imaginatively shot, and knows how much to spell out and how much to leave hanging.
But is it too much of a cliche for me that my favourite film of the ten is the one animated short? Ethan Barrett’s Rosemary A.D. (After Dad) [trailer] looks like a cute piece of work with its cartoony hand-drawn narrator, until you hear the first words out of his mouth: “I thought about committing suicide this morning.” His chosen method of killing himself is magnificent, but the main thing stopping him from doing it (apart from minor issues of practicality) is the impact his death would have on his infant daughter. The film shows him working through several possible scenarios of what her future life could be like: in each case, the mixture of genuine emotion, sketchy visuals and some brilliantly timed tension-defusing gags combine to give you something that would be incredibly hard to achieve in any other medium. I remember the days when we used to have whole programmes of this sort of animation, you know...
3.45pm: Unicorn Wars [official site]
...but as I’ve said before, feature length animations aimed at an adult audience are fine by me too. Like this one, depicting a holy war being held by two factions over the right to live in an idyllic forest. It used to be the case that everyone co-existed happily there, but the inhabitants who considered themselves the chosen ones of God were forcibly ejected, and are now forming an army to get their territory back. A small platoon from that army has been sent into the forest on a special mission, and they’ll either come back from it massively changed or not come back at all.
Right, that’s enough burying of the lede. This is sort of a cartoon take on Saving Private Ryan where the Nazis are unicorns, and the Americans are pastel-coloured teddy bears with names like Commander Fluffy. The levels of gore are much the same as in Spielberg's film, if not more so: the bears are heavily armed, while the unicorns can stab you with their horns or kick you to death with their hooves.
As you can imagine, Alberto Vazquez’s film is really just a collection of scenes where cute cartoon animals perform unspeakable acts of violence on each other. It’s very much a one-trick pony – okay, maybe not so much pony. But it’s a very good trick, one that’s performed with a commendably straight face throughout, and a greater degree of inventiveness in the plotting than was maybe required. You aren't necessarily emotionally involved with the characters here, even when they're quickly whittled down to two brothers on opposite sides of the battle: but the story has enough momentum to keep you watching, and has a rather wicked punchline waiting for you at the end.
5.40pm: Fast & Feel Love [trailer]
Despite the best efforts of writer/director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (just going to put that surname into my copy buffer for later on), this film has only got the second most ridiculous premise for a sports movie I’ve ever seen at the LFF. The one to beat is still Les Convoyeurs Attendant, based around a world record attempt at speed door opening. By comparison, this film’s focus on sport stacking – a genuine timed competition to build a stack of plastic cups and dismantle them again – is much more sensible.
Kao (Nat Kicharit) has wanted to be a sport stacking champion ever since his careers adviser at school told him he couldn’t make a living from it. It was on that same day he met Jay (Urassaya Sperbund), and persuaded her that with her support he could achieve his goal. Years later, he’s near the top of his game, mainly because Jay has devoted her life to doing all the things in Kao’s life that aren’t directly connected to the movement of plastic cups. She’s 30 now, and thinking that as a couple their relationship should be moving up to the next level – the trouble is, that’s precisely the sort of distraction that could ruin Kao’s gameplay.
Programmer Leigh Singer says in his introduction that he’s been finding it difficult to source comedy movies over the last couple of years that don’t have an element of darkness to them (“for some reason or other”): when he found this bit of pure silliness, he pounced on it immediately, and I can see why. One devilishly handsome chap in the audience afterwards notes the similarities with Stephen Chow’s films, particularly in [control-v] Thamrongrattanarit’s love of unexpected cutaway gags, as well as some smart post-modern references (halfway through the film, Kao complains that there haven't been as many stacking scenes as the trailer seemed to promise). It's an influence that the director acknowledges, though he's also a fan of Takeshi Kitano, another director who likes using editing to surprise the audience.
Comedy films really shouldn't be two and a quarter hours long, but in its defence Fast & Feel Love has lots going on in it. It's crammed with references to other movies, but handles them lightly and doesn't mind if you miss them. It has a hilariously bombastic Hans Zimmer-style action movie score accompanying even the most banal action, which points up the comedy beautifully. And it works well as a romance (even though the two people involved aren't in the least compatible really), and it's got some clever things to say about how long it takes men to grow up properly. Still, sometimes there's a lot to be said for just being a bit daft.
8.55pm: Blue Island [official site]
The last time I was in Hong Kong was in 2017: coincidentally, around the time that Chan Tze-woon started making this documentary. This was three years after the Umbrella Revolution, and at the time I didn't really notice any signs of the turmoil that the territory had been through - I was too busy discovering all the new microbreweries that had opened up since my previous visit in 2013. One of my favourite beers was an oatmeal stout by Young Master brewery called Add Oil. I assumed the name was a reference to the beer's darkness, but some years later I discovered the truth: 'add oil' is a local slang term meaning 'keep going', used as a rallying cry throughout the 2014 protests and beyond. I was being lectured about the fragile state of Hong Kong's democracy by my beer, and I didn't notice it at the time.
In the five years it's taken Chan to make his documentary, things have gone downhill even further: dissent is now being suppressed to such a degree that the chances of this film being seen in its home country are basically zero. Blue Island is an attempt to explain how Hong Kong got to this point, bringing the past and the present together in an ingenious way. It's built around a series of dramatic recreations of key moments in history. 1967, when labour disputes broke out into rioting: 1973, when hundreds of thousands of people escaped the Cultural Revolution in mainland China by fleeing to HK: and 1989, when the atrocities in Tiananmen Square sparked off demonstrations of solidarity with the mainland. The main actors in these recreations are students who were part of the protests in 2019 against the increasing interference by China in Hong Kong's affairs, and therefore have some personal experience of the tension between the two countries.
At first, you're admiring the mathematical precision of Chan's structure. But in time, you stop following who's from which time period and realise that there's a continuous thread of dissent running through Hong Kong's history. In some cases, he brings in people who were in the original protests, and adds them as extras to the dramatisations, so they can comment on how accurate they are. In one lovely scene, a man who was arrested in 1967 for printing a seditious magazine sits in a prison cell with the student who's playing him in the film - a kid who's awaiting trial for his own part in the 2019 protests - and the two of them share their experiences with each other.
The final couple of eloquently wordless sequences show that this is a struggle that's far from over. A series of shots of Hong Kong streets show areas where pro-democracy graffiti has been covered up, not entirely successfully: and that's followed up by a few dozen portraits of HK citizens, all nameless, all of whom are currently awaiting trial on a variety of offences. Because as one protester says, it's reductive to think of Hong Kong as a Chinese colony or a former British colony: Hong Kong is its people. I'm not sure when I'll make it back there again, but there's some comfort in knowing that the people aren't going down without a fight.