Thursday, 29 October 2015

I take the train to London a lot but rarely do I spend my time in transit wisely. Ideally, the ninety minutes I am afforded per journey should be spent reading or writing, but I often find myself running down the battery of my phone solving a wordsearch or a sudoku puzzle, which, while stimulating enough to engage my mind in short bursts, is far from productive. On Saturday, set for my only day at the "zeroth" edition of the fascinatingly programmed London East Asia Film Festival, I thought I'd turn off my phone and bring a book for a change. I had recently picked up some second-hand novels destined to add height to the already towering  "to read" pile in my bedroom, so perhaps, I thought, it would be wise to make a start on finally working my way through them. I finally decided on Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami as my novel of choice, and set about reading it on the train. It's, admittedly only from the forty pages I've read so far, a fascinating novel, following two very different stories that slowly begin to converge. The first, about a 15 year old boy running away from home, is told in the odd chapters; while the second, initially, at least, relates to a strange event during WWII in which sixteen children mysteriously collapse in a forest, and is told in the even chapters. As a structure, it works well, and both stories are, again, at this early stage, compelling. But one section in particular stood out to me. Early in the first story, Kafka, the young protagonist, is talking to a librarian, Oshima, who tells him:

"According to Aristophanes in Plato's The Banquet, in the ancient world of legend, there were three types of people," Oshima says. "Have you heard about this?"
"In ancient times, people weren't simply male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female or female/female. In other words each person was made out of the components of two people."

A variation of this idea can be applied to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Journey To The Shore, which, along with six other movies, received its UK premiere at the festival. The film follows a young widow, Mizuki, as she deals with the sudden return of her long-dead husband, Yusuke, who drowned at sea three years earlier. He, or rather his ghost, takes her on a trip across Japan to visit all the people, both "like me" and "like you," dead or living, he has befriended since his death, including an old newspaper man, a young couple who own a restaurant, and the residents of a bucolic village in the mountains. On the journey, Yusuke is shown to be very much alive, able to interact with the world of the living, and able to be interacted with in return. One scene shows a visibly perturbed small boy on a train tentatively walk over to Yusuke and touch his leg, before his mother, oblivious to the effect Yusuke is having on her child, instinctively rushes to pull him back. Straight away, Kurosawa is blurring the lines between life and death, and not just with Yusuke. Mizuki's first pre-return appearance sees her lifelessly navigating a lonely life, drained of all colour and vitality, meekly nodding along to the passively offensive remarks of a disgruntled mother angry at the lack of progress her daughter has made in learning to play piano under Mizuki's diffident tutorship.

Neither Mizuki or Yusuke could accurately be described as alive/alive or dead/dead. Instead, they both seem to occupy the same space in between these two poles, existing as exclaves from the worlds that possess them, simultaneously separate and tenuously connected. But being alive/dead and dead/alive are not the same thing, and the subtle metaphysical differences between the two lovers are pulling them further apart. Each encounter they have on this ostensibly romantic journey exposes the gulf between life and death further. At one point, Mizuki sees the ghost of the newspaper man in the street and rushes over to say hello. He doesn't see her, as if she's not there at all, and carries on with his work before inexplicably disappearing, leaving Mizuki standing alone in the street. Later, the very much in love couple are walking together along a street in town, and Mizuki turns to Yusuke to tell him: "this is my favourite moment ever." Yusuke seems unmoved by this, and later he brings it up in a conversation about the relative benefits of their differing states of existence, as if to suggest its significance was entirely incomprehensible to him.

And maybe it was. Aside from the occasional wry smile, Yusuke never shows any genuine emotion towards his wife, or anyone alive, and only during a heated encounter with a fellow ghost does his stoic facade slip, and even then only for a second. This inability to connect on an emotional level seems the only difference between being dead and being alive in Journey To The Shore, and Kurosawa, as ever, subtly suggests this rather than dealing with it literally. The clothes of both characters, for example, at first seem lifeless. Mizuki initially wears a dull navy blue cardigan, a grey buttoned-up shirt, and a loose grey a-line skirt during her day-to-day life, and pale grey pyjamas at night. Yusuke arrives in a mustard yellow coat, a burgundy jumper, and grey-blue trousers; all muted shades of typically bright colours. As their romance (re)develops, even as long gestating issues in their marriage start to emerge, Mizuki's self-confidence returns, and her clothing gradually becomes more vibrant: grey shirts are discarded in favour of brilliant white ones, dour skirts make way for a pair of royal blue wide-legged trousers, and the cardigans disappear completely. Similarly, as Yusuke begins to act on his irrepressible human impulses, namely to have sex with his wife, which he refused out of hand earlier, his clothing also shifts from dull to vibrant, and he starts wearing a bright blue track jacket and red checked shirt. They're happy again.

But Yusuke's embrace of humanity ultimately marks the end of his relationship with both his wife and the world of the living. Their second chance at love energises Mizuki but, no matter how much he tries to mask it, Yusuke is and will always be dead. This romance is inevitably doomed from the start, and plays out that way, perhaps explaining (to some degree, at least) the widely negative reception Journey To The Shore received at its Cannes premiere. But Kurosawa uses its conventions as a mannequin, of sorts, adding layers to craft a low-key but deeply affecting study of what it is to live without living; dead/alive, alive/dead. Early on, Mizuki discovers the newspaper man cutting glossy images of flowers out of magazines, before adding them to the gorgeous faux-botanical collage above his bed. When his ghost suddenly disappears, presumably to an afterlife, the mural disintegrates to dust. Impressions of life can die too.

Though not necessarily about life and death, although it quite easily could be, Chinese director Bi Gan similarly blurs lines with his mystifying debut, Kaili Blues. Occupying a constantly shifting space somewhere between dreams and memory, the film follows, as far as I can tell, several disparate events related to two doctors working in an empty hospital in the tropical town of Kaili. The younger doctor, an ex gang-member, searches for the nephew obsessed with drawing clocks his brother abandoned while he was in prison. His older colleague gives him some items: a cassette tape, a Hawaiian shirt, an old photograph; to return to a former flame of hers in one of the towns he passes through on his journey. As he travels, he finds himself in a strange village that exists outside of time. Memories overlap. Sadness pervades. Time becomes an abstract concept. 

This description hardly seems to do it justice. Kaili Blues is an easy film to get lost in, but there are clues to help navigate the labyrinth. Repetitions emerge, both through images (a spluttering moped, cupping marks on a man's back) and of words (usually in the form of names, or questions asked by the doctor relating to his search), which act as landmarks to provide context for the images we're seeing. But no sooner than a vague sense of clarity appears, the film veers off in a totally different, seemingly illogical direction, and the helpless feeling of mesmeric confusion returns once more.

The most notable example of this shift, one surely destined for a kind of arthouse notoriety, is the elaborate 40 minute unbroken shot which follows different characters around the streets of a small village. Entirely handheld, though the methods of transportation are difficult to ascertain (at some points it seems as if the camera-operator is simply walking behind characters, while at others the camera travels too quickly and steadily for that to be the case, but there's no obvious transition from transport to foot or vice-versa), the shot is an astonishing feat of choreography. But, far from a boastful display of arrogance, the extended scene impressively illustrates Kaili Blues' surreal dream logic. One strand of the shot focuses on a young woman as she leaves work to watch a band play in the village square. She walks to a small dock, bumping into a young moped driver who likes her, and takes a boat across the river. When she arrives on the other side, she buys a pinwheel, and again bumps into the young man with his moped, who takes the pinwheel, breaks it, and follows her as she walks across a large, seemingly often overlooked bridge back across the river. She walks past the workplace she just left, telling her colleague that the band is about to start, before arriving in the village square at the precise moment the band begin to play their first song. The young man makes her a new pinwheel. Then Bi Gan shifts to follow a different character, and the shot continues.

This is a place in which things line up perfectly in ways that simply don't happen in reality. It's an odd scene which, while not entirely representative of Kaili Blues as a whole, certainly echoes its concept. A subjective procedural, in essence, in which the nostalgia, hopes, regrets, and sadness of the doctor's search blur together to form an overwhelming haze, not obscuring reality so much as wallowing in a frustrated and convoluted thought process. Or maybe it's something else entirely, it really is impossible to know for sure. But, however impenetrable it may seem on a first pass, Kaili Blues is a puzzle worth struggling with.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

LFF 2015 | #2

A willingness to delve into the unknown is perhaps the best (and only) mindset to be in when writing about cinema, especially at the LFF, which offers such a diverse variety of films that sticking to what you know seems to defeat the point entirely. Perhaps the best example of a personal leap of faith this year would be Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour, a five-hour drama about four women in their mid-thirties in urban Japan, whose close friendship is tested by the messy fallout from an ongoing divorce. A student of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hamaguchi has been making films and documentaries since 2008, but Happy Hour is his first to gain major festival attention, winning the best actress award, shared between all four women, at this year's very competitive Locarno Film Festival, as well as a special mention for its screenplay. Perhaps Happy Hour's most impressive quality, however, is in Hamaguchi's use of time to present a vivid, novelistic insight into its characters, both together and apart. The successes and frustrations of their professional and personal lives, the unspoken tensions bubbling under the surface of every moment they share, and the silently destructive effects of their friend's divorce on their own lives. The extended duration, as well as Hamaguchi's patient direction (he spends around half an hour watching a young writer read her new short story in full to an audience, as well as the following awkward Q&A), allows these dramas to develop and expand organically. Not enough can be said for good drama, and Happy Hour is certainly that. An all-consuming, low-key marvel of a film, which confirms Hamaguchi as not only one of the most interesting working Japanese auteurs, but one of cinema's most exciting dramatists.

Sylvia Chang's Murmur of the Hearts is similarly bold in its approach to drama, but in a very different way. In Taipei, an artist and her boxer boyfriend suffer a breakdown in communication when two life-altering issues disrupt their lives, while her estranged brother, living on an island off the coast of Taiwan, tries to track her down decades after being separated by their parents' divorce. As these contemporaneous dramas play out, the three characters ruminate on traumas from their childhoods which influence the ways in which they resolve their problems in the present. As far as leaps of faith go, Murmur of the Hearts requires a huge one. It's a complicated, messy film which drifts between the past, the present, and pure fantasy with a total abandon that, at first, mystifies more than it illuminates. Yet as each narrative develops all the seemingly disparate elements begin to converge, and the film finally builds to a tender and moving finale. Murmur of the Hearts is my first encounter with Chang as a director (following her impressive acting role in Mountains May Depart) and her attention to visual and aural detail is immediately evident, especially so within the era-spanning mystical opening sequence, in which the artist reminisces about a story about a mermaid her mother used to tell her and her brother in their youth. It's an alluring, if difficult, point of entry, but on the basis of Murmur of the Hearts as a whole, Chang is a filmmaker whose mysterious work I'd be happy to dive into again and again.

The same can be said of Gabriel Mascaro, whose impressive first film, August Winds, played the festival last year, and whose intriguing follow up, Neon Bull, about the lives of a group of nomadic workers for a travelling rodeo, arrives here again with surprisingly little in the way of fanfare. Narrative takes a back seat to mood and sensuality as Mascaro focuses his attention on the physicality and messiness of the work: the raising and lowering of the gates, the chalking of the bull's tails, the cleaning up afterwards; as well as the reversal of normative gender roles: the group's "leader", Iremar, spends his free time designing and sewing strange, alluring animal-based costumes for Galega, the group's sole adult female member (she has a young daughter), who drives the rodeo's large truck from city to city and comfortably revels in her sexuality as an exotic dancer. Like August Winds, Mascaro places the human body front and centre in Neon Bull, silently observing people at their most intimate: a group of men shower together, for example, and Iremar and a heavily pregnant security guard have passionate sex on a cutting table at a textiles factory in one extended shot. It's a gorgeous, breathy image, and one that represents the film as a whole. And while Neon Bull may be tricky to pin down at first, Mascaro's commitment to its atmosphere reaps rewards for those willing to let it wash over them.

My first encounter with the work of Dutch auteur Alex van Warmerdam took me to the wetlands of rural Holland. Swamps are tricky to navigate at the best of times, but when the element of surprise is an integral part of your job this kind of terrain can change everything. Warmerdam's Schneider vs. Bax tracks a day in the life of a clinical hitman, Schneider, sent on a last minute job on his birthday by his insistent boss. Assured he'll be back home with his loving, oblivious family by midday, he heads to the countryside with his rifle and fake moustache to assassinate Bax, a reclusive writer who lives on the bank of a large lake in the wetlands. These swampy surroundings are both a blessing and a curse, offering plenty of hiding places and vantage points, but at the cost of being impossible to navigate adeptly. Warmerdam fills Schneider vs. Bax with devices like this which only serve to escalate the absurdity of the narrative: awkward locations, convenient coincidences, the ticking clock of needing to make it home for a birthday party. But he has his characters tackle these obstacles with the life or death seriousness that an assassination would inevitably require. It's a straightforward contrast from which Warmerdam draws a huge amount of deadpan comedy, so while Schneider vs. Bax is perhaps hamstrung by its own precise, somewhat stifling engineering, it's still an enjoyably tense, constantly unpredictable thriller - it's just never much more than that.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

LFF 2015 | #1

The best and worst thing about the London Film Festival is its depth. 240 films playing over twelve days across sixteen venues places the LFF among the biggest festivals in the world, its programme covering everything from grand-scale Oscar hopefuls to self-produced documentaries, prestigious arthouse fare to emerging talents from all corners of the globe. It's impossible to see everything, so what do you prioritise? There are many approaches, some of which make more sense than others, but the one I've had most success with is the same as that of friend and fellow writer Sam Inglis, who put me onto this school of thought at the festival two years ago: if it has UK distribution, it can wait. Seems simple enough, and it makes sense for the LFF, in particular, considering its status as essentially a "best-of" festival, with many of its bigger films having some kind of release plan already in place.

That being said, there are a lot of interesting films this year that would otherwise be excluded under the terms of this rule, the first of which being Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart. Split into three sections, the film spans different eras in the life of Tao, a woman in Fengyang forced to choose between two men in 1999: Liangzi, a reserved, sweet-natured and old-fashioned coal miner, and Zhang, a brash, modern and excessively wealthy businessman. When she makes her decision, Jia jumps ahead to 2014 to see how it has impacted upon her life, before Jia jumps ahead once more to 2025, where the story of Tao's son, Dollar, becomes the focus, as he struggles with his identity in Australia. A simple allegory for China's embrace of capitalism at the cost of its traditional values, opening with a group of young people performing a choreographed dance routine to The Pet Shop Boys' Go West, Mountains May Depart may be Jia's most critical film about his native country. In the first part, Zhang gets the attention of Tao by literally speaking louder than Liangzi. He buys sports cars without insurance because he can afford to pay for repairs, then he waits for the price of coal to drop low enough to buy the mine Liangzi works at - his first act as owner is firing Liangzi when he refuses to give up on Tao. Then there's Dollar, or Daole, his traditional name. Named as such by his capitalist father for obvious reasons, he grows up in Shanghai, where he learns fluent English but forgets his Chinese heritage. He doesn't know how to perform rites at a traditional funeral, for example, and, by the film's third section, he can barely even speak his native language, only able to communicate with his father through Google translated emails. Mountains May Depart shows Jia on furious form. A film aching with regret over catastrophic decisions and the pain of not just losing, but willingly giving up one's own cultural identity and having nothing to show for it, as well as the ramifications such a decision has on the next generation of Chinese people. It's apt, then, that the film ends as it starts, only this time the optimism of 1999 is, 26 years later, represented as something far bleaker than those idealistic characters could possibly have imagined.

Still without distribution, but presumably not for long, is James White. The long-awaited feature debut of Josh Mond from Borderline Films, the production company behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, follows the titular James, a short-tempered, twenty-something New Yorker, as he comes to terms with the death of his estranged father while caring for his cancer-stricken mother, the only constant figure in his life. As the extent of her suffering becomes apparent, his behaviour grows more erratic. He drinks heavily, fucks around, and starts fights with strangers in bars, alienating his dedicated friend Nick and his too-young girlfriend Jayne, whose presence in James' life gradually dwindles until she disappears completely. Even Nick comes and goes, clubbing all night with James at his best, standing him down in his darkest moments, but entirely absent for long periods in between. But these fading presences are what makes James White so impressive. A widescreen film shot with a shallow depth of field, Mond gives a broad sense of the surrounding hustle and bustle of New York City only to blur it from view, instead focusing on the broken figure of James as he moves through its streets: his black hoodie, white iPod earbuds, unkempt black hair, and despairing, bleary eyed expression. His single-minded determination to care for his mother blocks out the world, but his life feels increasingly lonely. James White is more about feeling pain than dealing with it, and is, at least in part, drawn from Mond's experiences caring for his own mother. This sober authenticity, neither reverential or sentimental, nor overly grave, suggests a level of control unusual for a debut filmmaker, and Christopher Abbot's tempestuous performance as James is surely one of the most affecting of the year.

Similarly affecting but in a different way is Vincent Lindon's performance in Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man, winner of the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. A straight-forward redundancy drama, The Measure of a Man follows Lindon's schlubby, moustachioed family man as he hunts for a new job a year after being made redundant. He needs to pay off his mortgage, as well as his disabled son's education, and he is slowly worn down by unsympathetic recruitment consultants, potential bosses, and their cyclical bureaucratic processes. "I feel like I'm going round and round in circles" he says resignedly at one point, and Brizé's film does the same, observing the dehumanising repetitions of his life in seemingly never-ending scenes. One sequence sees him locked in stalemate negotiations with a potential buyer for his mobile home, while in another he is forced to listen to fellow jobseekers, all significantly younger than him, critique every aspect of his performance in a taped job-interview. The film has drawn comparisons to Two Days, One Night, the superb (and superior) film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, but where that film had life or death consequences for its characters, The Measure of a Man discards its pursuit of financial security to ponder how far into moral dubiousness this man should go to feed his family. It's an interesting shift, yet it ends prematurely, giving Lindon a just moment of defiance, without waiting to consider what this life-changing moment would mean to his family. Still, The Measure of a Man asks interesting, dramatic questions, even if its answers are ultimately frustrating.

Frustration doesn't even begin to cover Radu Muntean's One Floor Below. Ostensibly a murder mystery, but also absolutely not that, Muntean uses the barest elements of this genre framework to obliquely explore the guilt felt by Patrascu, a middle-aged man who one day overhears an argument between his young downstairs neighbour, Laura, and a mysterious man, Vali, whom he sees leave her apartment. The following day, he hears more arguing and a loud thud, and later he finds out the woman has died. But Patrascu doesn't tell the police what he heard. After all, it may just be a coincidence. But Vali doesn't leave him alone, forcing his way into his life and ensuring Patrascu's conscience is never allowed to clear - and maybe that's what he deserves. Like his previous film, Tuesday, After Christmas, Muntean's approach to emotional turbulence is contained entirely within his characters, only betrayed externally by small moments of behaviour that are not part of a normal routine. The dieting Patrescu smokes a cigarette after he finds out about the murder, much to the shock of his wife, for example, and later he almost snaps at his son for not feeding the dog, his tone of voice shifting for a second before returning to his usual mumble. This is the level of subtlety at play here, and, at times, One Floor Below verges on total mystification. But that only makes the tension more unbearable. It's impossible after one viewing to know why the characters do what they do, and it's only minutes before the end that Vali's intentions become even vaguely clear. Yet it all seems so deliberate. Late on, the bubbling tension between the two men finally boils over, and somebody in the surrounding crowd says: "let's mind our own business." The closest thing in One Floor Below to a central thesis is mentioned in passing by a background character. I think this one's going to need time to sink in.