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.
An altogether more straightforward proposition, although in this context that would go without saying for a great number of films, is Filipino writer/director Dodo Dayao's fierce debut Violator. Opening with a string of images reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, Violator is, at first, a study of a city in ruins. Derelict high-rises house ghosts in their grey-walled rooms, their basements the secluded spaces for gangsters to torture and murder their prisoners. Suicides are commonplace, and people don't seem to talk to each other, barely communicating and struggling to connect. Then, the story shifts gears and settles (so to speak) on a group of police officers stuck in their precinct during a storm. When a creepy teenager is arrested and dragged to a cell, weird things start happening around the station, and the cops soon begin to turn on each other.
Dayao paints a despairing picture of contemporary society. His compositions focus intently on colourless spaces for long stretches of time, and he's happy to let scenes run within a single shot, lingering on awkward pauses in conversations and allowing the ugliness of the surroundings to overwhelm each moment. He also positions his camera either at an impersonal distance from his characters, or in uncomfortably close proximity to their faces, suggesting the disconnected of their lives. A rare tracking shot, moving backwards along a sterile corridor, keeps his characters at such a distance that their faces are impossible to make out. In the following shot, a teacher walks into a classroom, glued to her phone while talking to her students, only to find when she finally looks up that not only are her students not in the room, but that there's a dead body with the head of a pig sprawled out on the floor. It's an unpleasant image in a film filled with them and, as such, Violator is a deeply unpleasant film - but if it is, it is so by design. Dayao, on the basis of his film, seems to be something of a pessimist, so when the disparate social commentary of the first half morphs into an Assault on Precinct 13-style horror-thriller about paranoia and demonic possession, it comes as no surprise that his dystopian vision of modern life, seemingly not specific to the Philippines, is revealed as one the bleakest in recent cinema.