1.15pm: The Foul King
She's the main man in her office in the city
And she treats me like I'm just another lackey
But I can put a tennis racket up against my face
And pretend that I am Kendo Nagasaki
- Half Man Half Biscuit, Everything's AOR
British people of a certain age will tell you that wrestling's nothing like what it used to be. None of this glitzy crap we've been getting from the WWF since they mysteriously ditched their core competency of preserving wildlife: proper wrestling was introduced on Saturday afternoons by Kent Walton, and didn't have any ongoing narratives more complex than two blokes beating the tar out of each other. You knew where you stood: there were good guys, and there were bad guys.
The Foul King is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the bad guys of Korean professional wrestling (which happily seems to still be at the stage that the British version was at in the 1970s). He's not afraid to flick elastic bands in your eye or poke you with a fork to get an advantage. His alter ego, Im Dae-Ho (Song Kang-Ho), is a wimpy salaryman who's regularly bullied at work by his boss. Looking for ways to improve his self-confidence and stop his head being shoved down the toilet, he joins a wrestling gym. Coincidentally, this happens at about the same time as the gym's owner is asked to train up a baddie wrestler for an exhibition bout with star performer Yubiho, in an attempt to raise money from the Japanese. Suddenly Dae-Ho has a purpose in life.
It's a nice idea, but somewhat botched in the execution. It begins well, with some quirky Coenesque touches in the camerawork and sound enhancing the dumb, slapsticky fun. The sudden changes in mood are effectively handled as well: rarely has the sight of someone having cutlery jammed into their face been so amusing, particularly to the giggly Korean teens sitting in front of me. But the various sub-plots relating to Dae-Ho's office life never seem to lead anywhere and are a bit of a mess. It all climaxes, as you'd expect, in the exhibition bout between Dae-Ho and Yubiho: but the fight is massively over-extended, going way beyond satirical excess and just becoming plain boring by the end. Some interesting use of music - one song appears to be sung by a Korean version of Tom Waits - but otherwise it's a disappointment overall.
4.00pm: Les Marchands De Sable
Director Pierre Salvatori is best known in this country for his dark comedies, the most familiar probably being Wild Target. To quote his on-stage introduction, "this new film isn't a comedy, it's a genre film about political issues. Don't leave." Luckily, we didn't. The politics of Les Marchands De Sable are under the surface, but its subtext about the corruption of a good man by his environment is there for anyone who cares to look. And as a genre piece, it fits the bill very nicely indeed, with a great thriller opening: cafe owner Alain (Serge Riaboukine) staggers out of the burning cellar of his establishment, goes to the police and tells them that he's killed a man.
During his confession, Alain describes the various criminal types that hang around his Parisian neighbourhood. There's the drug dealer Antoine (Matthieu Demy): his just-out-of-jail sister Marie (Marina Golovine): racketeer Robert (Robert Castel): plus Robert's various associates and heavies, including nephew Xavier (Patrick Lizana) and waiter Stéphane (Guillaume Depardieu). When a dope scam goes fatally wrong, Alain - initially trying to help out in his role as father figure and confessor to the community - ends up being dragged down as far as everyone else.
It's an interesting exercise to think how a British filmmaker would deal with this material: let's face it, this is very similar territory to the identikit BritCrap gangster thrillers Nick and I were moaning about yesterday. A British version of Les Marchands would make the violence more frequent and more comic, to help disguise any social or political causes for it: after all, that might ruin our enjoyment of the story. The French version doesn't have any worries on that score. The death of one of the main characters part way through is a brilliantly staged shock moment, but he doesn't actually die until over five minutes after that: and we're made to feel every second. This film doesn't gloss over or joke about the business of killing: we're made to feel the suffering of both parties involved.
Salvatori has shown a great sense of comic storytelling in his previous work, but this film makes it apparent that he's a great storyteller, period. The script is pared to the bone, to the extent that a climactic tragic revelation can be expressed by a single shot of a piece of toast on the floor. And rather than just have a huge bloodbath at the end to wipe out all the loose ends, Salvatori goes to great trouble to ensure they all tie up fiendishly. The acting is fine throughout (especially from Serge Riaboukine, who makes Alain the real moral centre of the story), and there's a groovy soundtrack of dub reggae which fits the proceedings perfectly. Lots to think about here, especially after one of the most thoughtful Q&A sessions of the Festival to date.
Director Stephen Frears was almost apologetic at the start of this, pleading that we take into account that Liam is only a TV movie. To be honest, it shows: there's a grainy, underlit look to the film, and some overly emphatic camera movements that look somewhat jarring on a big screen. Coming in at under 90 minutes, it's the economically told story of a Catholic family in 1930s Liverpool.
It's told through the eyes of young Liam (Anthony Borrows), who's preparing for his first confession and first communion with the aid of a full-on hellfire and brimstone Catholic school education. ("No food before communion: you don't want the body of Christ swilling around inside you with your toast, do you?") Liam's father (Ian Hart) has just been laid off from the shipyard: coincidentally, Liam's sister Teresa (Megan Burns) has just started work cleaning house for the Jewish shipyard owner, but it isn't enough to make ends meet. With the family descending further and further into poverty, Dad is desperately looking for someone to blame. When he encounters a Blackshirt street rally, it's an accident waiting to happen.
The two main strands of the plot never seem to mesh properly. The Catholic school bits brought back all sorts of scary memories of my own childhood - I particularly remember the teacher going round class asking if you'd been to Mass on Sunday (with "What colour were the priest's vestments?" as a backup question to catch anyone who was lying). Liam's increasing guilt at what he presumes to be his mortal sin is nicely depicted almost entirely in images, with the help of a winning performance from Borrows. But sometimes the film falls back on the predictable cute kid cliches. Liam's stammer is used a little too much for effect, and there are far too many sequences of him happily running through the streets, accompanied by a sugary score from John Murphy that could stun a diabetic from twenty paces.
The story of Liam's dad doesn't really tie in with this, but is observed with the power and articulacy you'd expect from writer Jimmy McGovern's earlier work: it carefully depicts the social conditions that could combine to make fascism seem a very attractive philosophy. The main problem with McGovern's script is his usual tendency towards melodrama, which results in a climax that goes a little too far with dramatic irony to be believable: but despite this, the almost wordless coda that follows is incredibly moving. Flawed, but constructed with the craft you'd expect from Frears and McGovern: it's definitely worth seeing when the Beeb transmit it.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: Meet The Parents
"Get Carter? Some Stallone fans in the audience, I see. Lord Of The Rings? Nice idea, but they haven't actually made it yet. Little Nicky? Yeah, that would be popular..." As has become traditional, the Surprise Film opened with Adrian Wootton asking the audience for guesses before the identity of the film was revealed: but really, there weren't all that many options. The rules, though unwritten, are pretty fixed by now: it'll be a mainstream American movie that's already been released over there. A discussion on Film Unlimited came up with suggestions ranging from the no-brain option of Charlie's Angels to the nightmarish prospect of Pay It Forward: but I think we all had a suspicion that Meet The Parents - which topped the US box office charts for four weeks last month - would be a nice, solid, uncontroversial choice. And so it was.
It's a simple setup. Male nurse Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) desperately wants to propose to girlfriend Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), but finds out that he won't really stand a chance unless he gets on well with her parents. So they go to the Byrnes' home for a weekend visit. Mother Dina (Blythe Danner) seems pleasant enough, but father Jack (Robert de Niro) is a different kettle of worms entirely. For a retired horticultural expert, he seems curiously uninterested in the rare flower Greg brought him as a gift: it quickly becomes apparent that despite Greg's best efforts, he and Jack aren't going to get on. As Greg and Pam get dragged into her sister's wedding preparations, he tries to rectify the situation, but events conspire to make things worse. Boy, do they conspire.
For once, a mainstream Hollywood comedy that actually does what it says on the tin. Rather than just relying on a string of gags, the script by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg (based on an earlier indie short by Greg Glienna and Mary Ruth Clarke) is painstakingly constructed, setting up jokes carefully over a long period of time and then detonating them in clusters of half a dozen or so all at once. Director Jay Roach appeared on stage afterwards (with Teri Polo), and it was interesting to hear that writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (best known for the splendidly cynical Election) did some uncredited work on the ending: a smart move which ensures that the usual final-reel mushout we expect from Hollywood comedies doesn't really happen here.
All of this intricate work on the writing wouldn't count for anything if you didn't have actors who could do it justice. De Niro is just hammy enough as the scary dad: Stiller is just neurotic enough as the boyfriend. The two of them play off each other beautifully, ably supported by the rest of the cast (including a nicely smarmy cameo from Owen Wilson as Pam's ex-fiancee, who's subsequently taken up carpentry "because Christ was a carpenter, and if you're going to model yourself on anyone..."). Enjoyable as hell, and pretty much the entire audience agreed with me: though part of that may just be down to sheer relief that it wasn't any of the other films we thought it could have been.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Old Lag - Being a Dead Again Protestant, Jimmy McGovern's Catholic-centric Liam was intriguing. The rather poisonous Catholic education given to the children of a recently unemployed 30's Liverpool family eventually had the audience laughing. But this was cunning bait. As the family descended into hardship the mother took even more strongly to the church: the father, bringing damage by his outspokenness, took to Oswald Mosley's fascists. The film itself holding the answer to our intolerance as the father accidentally firebombed his daughter working in a Jewish household. Essentially a film that would never have been made without BBC money, it was a critique of extreme behaviour. That of the Catholic church for its education of children, of the fascists, our views and the unbending father. The play itself is slightly misnamed as it is not really through the eyes of Liam the eight year old boy, but it was certainly a catch as the audience questions were all gooey for the two child actors. A serious, minor piece.
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