12.45pm: I Have Found It
Third best one-line pitch for an LFF 2000 film: a Bollywood adaptation of Sense And Sensibility, with songs.
Indian cinema's probably never been hotter in London than it is right now. Most out-of-town multiplexes are showing a Bollywood film on at least one screen every week, if not more. Right now, the largest screen in the Plaza cinema on Piccadilly Circus is showing Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein, presumably because they consider it to be more economically viable than Blair Witch 2. But they're not advertising Mohabbatein on the marquee: you have to virtually go inside the foyer before you can find out it's playing. And don't expect to find any reviews or even basic information about the film, from either Time Out or the more conventional press.
When a film like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai can actually make it into the national top ten box office charts without most British cinemagoers even being aware of it, some questions have to be asked. Why is the British resurgence in Bollywood cinema being ignored by the mainstream media? Don't they think we'd be interested in these films as well? Even the LFF is suspect in this regard: Indian cinema is generally represented each year by worthy arthouse fare, with no attempt to bring the more commercial films to English-speaking audiences (these movies generally go out without English subtitles when they're released here). I have a horrible feeling that I Have Found It has only been selected for the Festival because they can sell the Jane Austen connection to a white middle-class audience.
Rant over. I just wish I was given the chance to see more films like this, so I could make a reasonable comparative judgement. But on its own, I Have Found It is 150 minutes of sure-fire entertainment. Rajiv Menon's film takes Austen's basic structure, but moves the story of two sisters and their tempestuous love lives into present day India. Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai) is being wooed by the older ex-soldier Bala (Mammooty), who lost a leg in the Sri Lankan war: but her heart is set on the financial whizzkid Srikanth (Abbas). Meanwhile, her sister Sowmya (Tabu) is on a promise from film director Manohar (Ajith) that they'll marry once he completes his first film: but can he evade the lure of his leading actress? In the middle of all this emotional turmoil, the death of their grandfather leaves the two girls out on the street and forced to fend for themselves.
As Manohar's father says in a disparaging comment about American cinema, "the white man's happy with chicken all the time, but look at all that we can offer..." It's true: I Have Found It is a tremendous mixture of styles and cultures, resulting in a flavour that western cinema just can't provide. The fabulously lovely leads emote frantically all the way to drive the story to its satisfyingly predictable ending. (It's good to see Mammooty, from last year's Indian Festival contribution Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, adding some real dramatic weight to the role of the crippled soldier.) Yes, there's a musical number every twenty minutes, as per Bollywood standard: they're hummable as hell, taking the best elements of eastern and western music and fusing them into something unique. The songs are staged with the usual surreal flair you expect from the genre, including locations as diverse as the Pyramids and a Scottish castle. And Menon isn't afraid to throw in anything to keep the story moving, from a full-throttle battle sequence to a cat wedding.
The updating of the story has resulted in some rather nice contemporary additions to Austen's original social satire. The two girls spend the second half of the movie actively building careers rather than just sitting around waiting for a husband: Meenakshi studies music, Sowmya works in IT. Manohar's presence also allows for some nifty satire of the Bollywood industry: at one point his movie is all but subcontracted to a team of ancient studio hacks, as the director is seen as being merely the movie's front man in press coverage, a practice that's apparently more common than you may expect. If you think all these elements can't fit together into a coherent whole, I'm here to tell you that you're wrong: the two and a half hours just fly by. Unfortunately, your chances of getting to see this film may be slim at best, but you can always console yourself with its official website.
4.45pm: Go East
Not a film, but a discussion event: and sadly, a rather poorly attended one. Chaired by Tony Rayns, the BFI's resident Asian cinema guru, the idea was to look at how the cinema of the east compares and contrasts with that of the west, and to do it in more depth than a 15 minute post-film Q&A would allow. In the end, we got two directors (one from China, one from South Korea) being interviewed separately about their work: better than doing it as a panel discussion, I think, as the two countries are very different.
The first interviewee was Jia Zhangke from China. Chinese cinema is predictably bedevilled by state control, as the only way you can make a film there legally is within one of the sixteen official studios. However, at the same time laws still exist regarding freedom of expression, and a large amount of independent movies are being made which take advantage of this confusion in the law. This is the path that Jia took: he set up an association with some fellow students from the Beijing Film Academy, and between them they financed his first short film. As in the west, he used this as a calling card to raise money from private investors, resulting in his China/Hong Kong co-production Xiao Wu getting made in 1997, followed three years later by Platform (showing at this year's LFF). He sees himself as distinct from the so-called Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige: they concentrate more on the historical perspective, whereas Jia's generation is more concerned with the emotions of contemporary people.
State censorship is of course a real problem for a Chinese filmmaker, and it's interesting to compare this with the situation in Korea as described by the second interviewee, Bong Joon-Ho. (Hopefully I'll report on his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite next week.) Korean cinema is going through a real boom period right now, with several films making it to this year's LFF. 40% of the movies seen on Korean screens are homegrown, a staggeringly high figure compared with other countries: one movie, Swiri, even managed to outgross Titanic in its home territory. So the amount of investment available for Korean films is huge: the downside that comes with this is the pressure to make them commercially succesful. As a result, more experimental and political movies simply don't get made, a more subtle form of economic censorship than that experienced in China.
Bong's film only managed to get financed because of his previous working relationship with a producer who sounds like the Korean equivalent of Jerry Bruckheimer. The producer pulled together a number of assistant directors from various films (including Bong, who was AD on the LFF '98 film Motel Cactus) and set them to work writing a script for his action flick Phantom The Submarine. Euphemistically described as a "learning experience" by Bong, it helped convince him that working outside the mainstream was the only way to make the films he wanted.
Some useful insights here, but sadly because of late running I had to shoot off before the final section where both directors came back to answer audience questions. Which is a shame, because there's one question I was dying to ask: obviously it's a stuggle making an independent film in both countries, but once you've made it, how difficult is it to distribute the film to an audience? Answers if you've got them to the usual address...
6.30pm: Wild About Harry
Harry McKee (Brendan Gleeson) is, to put it bluntly, like Delia Smith on crack. A celebrity chef on Belfast daytime TV, he's forever in the papers thanks to his habitual drinking and womanising. All of this has pushed his marriage to Ruth (Amanda Donahoe) to the brink of destruction. With divorce a matter of days away, fate takes a sudden turn when Harry is viciously mugged: when he recovers consciousness, he's lost all memory of the last 25 years of his life. With no way of recalling the mistakes he's made since he was eighteen, he's got a unique chance to start again and rebuild himself as a better human being. Unless, of course, he's just faking it to save his marriage...
Wild About Harry is a curious little movie: after all, it's basically a feelgood comedy about permanent brain damage. Some interesting names are attached: the director is Declan Lowney who worked on Father Ted, while the script is by novelist Colin Bateman (whose Divorcing Jack was filmed a couple of years ago). It plays around with ideas about memory and the ability to change the past by changing the memory of it, rather like a less intense version of the current hit Memento. There's some nice ambiguity (sustained for a large part of the movie) when we're never quite sure exactly what's going on inside Harry's head. Sadly, eventually all this has to be resolved via a rather silly sub-plot involving a local politician (James Nesbitt) whose life was ruined when he encountered Harry in his initially semi-concussed state.
The main reason this film works at all is Brendan Gleeson in the title role. He's always been a dependable presence in British and American movies, but here he shows a whole new depth to his performance that I can't recall seeing before. As an 18-year-old in the body of a 43-year-old man, he avoids the usual cliches of those terrible 80's age swap movies: he really gets across the mixture of confusion, terror and wonder he's experiencing as he relives everything for the first time. Gleeson's ably supported by Amanda Donahoe (surprisingly clothed) and Adrian Dunbar, among others. But in the end, with or without the BBC Films logo at the start, this really isn't much more than a TV movie bolstered by a terrific star performance. Still, it's entertaining enough.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Room to Rent (4pm)
Ken - Essentially the story of a struggling Egyptian screenwriter in London. Struggling to get a visa to stay and to keep a roof over his head since he keeps insulting his landlords by using them in his scripts. The story takes a strange twist when he meets an old woman who believes him to be the reincarnation of her long lost lover. Deeply comic.
Wild About Harry (6:30pm)
Ken - I'm not sure why they are wild about him. He's one of those TV celebrity chefs that his fans love and is never out of the front pages with his drunken antics. His wife is divorcing him until a mugging leaves him with amnesia and a second chance. Very funny drama, and refreshingly a film set in Northern Ireland without any mention of terrorists.
The Man Who Cried (8:45pm)
Ken - Painfully slow start. Ridiculously far fetched ending and a title that despite the director's (Sally Potter) protestations has no connection with the film whatever. The middle bit of the film isn't too bad but I feel the project would have been better suited to a TV mini-series. Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp were wonderful of course and their fans won't be disappointed. Sally Potter in the interview afterwards came over as a real eccentric. Incidentally I don't know if she's related to Harry but she did mention Alchemy in a long winded explanation about the film's music. Still when you try to put the Nazis invading Paris, Gypsy dancing, Opera and Busby Berkeley all in the same movie you have to be some sort of eccentric.
P.S. all times given are the ticketed start times. So far I haven't been to a film at this festival that started anywhere near the correct time.
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