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As I Lay Dying

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This is adapted, very freely, from the 1930 Southern Gothic novel of the same name by William Faulkner. It is (of course) relocated to Iran, and there are superficially major plot differences. (The central death in the book is of a woman, for example, while here it’s of a man.) But the big themes and the structure are intact.

The premise, or at least the earliest event, is that an 80-year-old man with a number of children by different women dies. He’s stipulated – in person, though not in his will – that he wishes to be buried in a certain distant location. And, more to the point, he emphatically did not want to be buried in the town where he died: a place whose inhabitants hated him, and vice versa.

The various adult sons and daughter start driving across the desert as requested, with the steadily deteriorating corpse in one of their cars. There are tensions between them, and revelations of mistrust, unresolved disagreements, and ambiguities which should not be revealed here…

‘As I Lay Dying is about as downbeat as it gets, but – intermittent references to putrefaction aside – the grimness is predominantly psychological rather than physical. In fact, on a visual level, it’s rather beautiful and ‘poetically’ shot, especially the twilight scenes. This is a sombre, quiet and lyrical film, whose languid pace and subtlety make it seem longer than its 74-minute running time – but in a good way.

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‘I have the right to testify,’ screams a business woman as she’s manhandled out of court halfway through the latest film from Ivan I. Tverdovskiy (Zoology). And it’s easy to understand where her anger stems from. Dragged up on trumped charges of drink driving, she initially sits in astonishment as it becomes apparent that not only is the police officer who charged her on the take, but so is the judge, the prosecution, and even her own defence lawyer. This is the corrupt world of Jumpman where in Russia, there are those who jump and those who are told to jump.

17-year-old Denis (Denis Vlasenko) falls very much into the latter category. Given up for adoption as a baby, Denis has grown up with rare genetic disorder which means he can’t feel pain. When his mum, Oksana (Anna Slyu), turns up to bust him out of the orphanage, Denis feels that he’s finally attained everything he needs. Mum, meanwhile, is a shambles from day one. A heavy drinker, she regularly spends her time roaming the flat they share together in her underwear and stoking a more than uncomfortable flirtatious relationship with her son. This borderline incestuous care of duty is only the tip of the iceberg before mummy encourages her son to jump out in front of cars for money. Choosing only the wealthiest victims, Oksana’s motley crew offer to drop the charges for large amounts of cash, whilst sending anyone who dares to stand up to them to kangaroo court. See above.

From the minute Denis steps out of his orphanage, Jumpman wears its political leanings on its sleeve. Tverdovskiy has said in interviews that he is fascinated by the notion of adults in 2018 who have grown up only really knowing Putin overseeing Russia. This is echoed in Denis’ genetic condition; he feels no pain, numb even, and happily goes along with what he’s told by those above him in the food chain. He naively trusts the law enforcement of Moscow in the shape of Oksana’s cop buddy. When Denis begins to question his place in this new world and how it’s being run, Jumpman shows that it doesn’t help to question those who are looking out for you, regardless of how much they hurt you.

In terms of an allegory, it’s all about as subtle as the vehicles that plough into Denis, with Oksana being a clear stand in for Mother Russia itself. However, none of that detracts from the fact that Jumpman is an exhilarating thriller with some splashes of black humour. As Denis, Vlasenko offers up a timid, wide eyed performance as he struts through Moscow like Bambi to the slaughterhouse. His naivety is really the only bright light in the film and it’s crushing to watch it dim as the story advances. His performance is supported by Tverdovskiy’s slick visuals and long takes that allow his characters to breathe against a background of blue light and vape smoke.

With a name like Jumpman, and with his Deadpool like condition, comparisons to superhero movies are likely. Get past this presumption early however, and what you’re left with is a twisted take on the coming of age tale, which only struggles because its political point scoring is so on the nose.

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River’s Edge

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Teen angst remains a bedrock of the high school movie. Whether it be tackling first world problems in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a coming of age tale in Lady Bird, teenagers can be found lamenting their plight at the hands of teachers or adults, who just don’t get them.

Adults are largely absent in River’s Edge, the latest film from Isao Yukisado. Their lack of presence becoming a metaphor for how much of a part they play in the lives of the film’s protagonists. Based on an early ‘90s Manga by the same name (and sharing the name and many of the themes with the cult 1986 Tim Hunter film starring Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper), the film charts the interwoven lives of a group of students – all of them deliberate stereotypes – as they wrestle with a cascade of problems inside and outside of school.

The main focus is on Haruna (Fumi Nikaidou) who regularly protects Ichiro (Ryo Yoshizawa), a closeted gay boy, from being beaten up by her boyfriend, Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi). In an effort to thank Haruna for help, Ichiro shows her the secret he keeps hidden in the long grass by a river: a rotted corpse which the young man visits in times of trouble. The fetid skeleton ends up symbolising the dark secrets that all the characters hide, whether it is a penchant for violent sex, becoming involved in prostitution or a willingness to commit bloody murder.

This makes River’s Edge sound like a no-holds barred visual fright fest, but these moments are scattered throughout the narrative. For the rest of the time, Yukisado follows the sombre teens as they wax lyrical to each other and an unknown interviewer about the lives they lead and want to lead. Like a Japanese Ken Park there is a never a moment when the audience doesn’t feel like something is going to go terribly wrong.

Despite splashes of gallows humour that lighten the mood on occasion, the film’s bleakness can be tough to wade through. Does that make it a bad film? Not necessarily. After all, despite the heightened reality of some scenes, there’s still a truth that will resonate with those who grew up never understanding why they were told high school would be the best years of their lives. Adults, it argues on behalf of its characters, are only there when things get really rough. Until then, you are left to navigate by yourself without a map.

Filmed in Academy ratio – giving the whole thing the feel of a demented after school special – and seasoned with suitably melodramatic performances from its cast, River’s Edge is the kind of film that will make you want to comfort its characters, whilst making you feel relatively grubby at the same time.

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Ryuichi Sakamoto cuts a solitary figure, striding silently along a desolate irradiated beach in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, not far from the nuclear power facility that was damaged during the 2011 tsunami. Along with a group of environmental activists, clad in hazmat suits and masks, Sakamoto searches through abandoned buildings and remote beaches, in search of found objects that may provide interesting sounds that can be recorded.

He’s a collector, of recorded sounds from nature and technology. Earlier in his career, he was fascinated by degraded technology, happy accidents that can create strange and wonderful soundscapes. These days, he’s more concerned with the organic sounds of nature; technology still features though, as exemplified in his wonder at the discovery of an intact grand piano in an abandoned building that was consumed by the tsunami floods. He joyfully tinkers with a dead piano key that emanates a muffled chime and nods agreeably.

Starting his solo career in the late seventies, while at the same time collaborating in the electronic three-piece Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto also established his tastes for working across a variety of media when he composed the music for (and starred in) Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence alongside David Bowie. He would also go on to compose the scores for many films, such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Constantly working, Sakamoto has also written for various anime and games.

All this was brought to a grinding halt in 2014 when Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer. Now in remission, we follow him on his daily routine, as he muses about his mortality and his shock at not knowing quite what to do with himself during this extended hiatus.

In conversation, Sakamoto is quietly spoken and reflective though he’s prone to bouts of enthusiastic wonder such as one sequence where he records a frozen Antarctic stream, revelling in the fact that these waters are ‘pre-industrial’ and untouched by modern machines; moments later he stands beneath a huge Antarctic boulder and clangs two hand-held bells together – they chime like tuning forks, shrill and reverberating. As if claiming an unseen victory in the bells tolling amidst the silence of the frozen surrounds, he pumps his fists in the air and bounces on his toes.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s infectious curiosity about nature and the music of life, make for an engaging and moving subject. Highly recommended.

Following its screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival, the film will release in cinemas, which you can find here:

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Manji (aka Swastika)

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Japanese films have this particular relation to the Western tradition and there is a mutual fascination and mirroring going on that has lasted for decades. Just think of The Magnificent Seven, one of the most iconic cowboy films in the canon, which was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. In pulp cinema too, there are parallels. This melodrama made in 1964 is a kind of harbinger of the sexual revolution but with a very Japanese twist. Its slightly lurid palette and emotional musical score recalls 1960s films from Hollywood. Partly now, some of this seems kitsch but there is something both endearing and attractive about its approach.

The heroine of the picture is a young married woman called Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), who tells her complicated tale of lust and betrayal in flashback mode. She was determined to be a dutiful wife in the terms of the day but at her art class she comes across an alluring model called Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The model’s irresistible beauty brings out a latent lesbian desire in Sonoko and the two embark on a secret affair. Sonoko’s husband is appropriately shocked and tries to coral her back into the marriage by reminding her of the weight of society’s disapproval. Sonoko becomes mildly hysterical at this point and declares that her lust for Mitsuko outweighs all rational and conventional moral considerations. Later, the two lesbian lovers engineer various schemes to draw both the husband and Mitsuko’s boyfriend into a game of plot and counter plot. This being Japan, there also has to be an element of a suicide pact that will seal the fate of the lovers.

Far from being a simple case of the transgressors getting what they deserve, and the conventional order being preserved, Yazuo Masumura’s film recognises the lover’s logic of desire and leaves the question of, which is the true morality, open. Even so, the film does take a very soft focus approach to the mechanics of their love (In the Realm of the Senses, it ain’t) but, in its chaste and histrionic way, it comes out as a plea for tolerance and a comment on the wastefulness of repressed lives.

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Thirst Street

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Thirst Street gets us in right from the word go. Its central character Gina (a superb Lindsay Burdge) is an American flight attendant, who comes home to find that her boyfriend has hanged himself. This would, needless to say, tend to unhinge anyone, but Gina is a more vulnerable and immature individual than most. She’s also the kind of person who seems incapable of reading body language or taking hints, whether they be from lovers or just people she’s boring in casual conversation…

In any event, Gina soon finds herself in Paris, at a sleazy bar/strip-joint, where she meets – and has a one-night stand with – the barman, Jerome (Damien Bonnard). She falls for him, precipitously and obsessively, and while the feeling does not appear to be mutual Jerome makes a concerted effort to be patient with her. This being basically a psychological suspense thriller, it would not do to reveal more about the plot.

Thirst Street is not Fatal Attraction revisited, and its characters are not archetypes. Gina isn’t abidingly dislikeable – we feel more sorry and embarrassed for her than anything else – and Jerome has his serious faults. This is suspenseful and nervily atmospheric cinema: we can’t look away for a second. The script is intelligent, and the accompanying sound and vision are highly effective. Whether it be Gina singing “Time Is On My Side” at karaoke, Anjelica Huston’s dry narration or the cinematographer’s use of lurid colour, everything is done to make this low-budget and understated film a believable and memorable one.