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The Challenge

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Reconfiguring a hostage situation and siege-style action premise into a more resonant story of morality and political whims, Aleksei Petrukhin’s new film is a modern and compelling thriller.

Filled with surprises and shocks, but above all else, showing huge respect for debate and education, The Challenge is actually a sequel to Petrikhin’s 2015 film The Teacher, and once again stars Irina Kupchenko as Alla Nikolaevna.

A high school group of teenagers manage to persuade their former favourite teacher (Kupchenko) to join them on a trip to the theatre to watch the premiere of a new performance of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone is excited, and everything seems to be going well; even the new modern dance interpretation is received warmly enough. It’s a nice evening at the theatre. That is, until masked figures shouting insults and baring guns descend on the stage and the drama all gets very real.

Before the crowd really knows what’s going on, the gang of terrorists start to intimidate and threaten, keeping the hostages in their seats and refusing to explain or make any demands. The former teacher is then forced into a dicey situation of negotiation with the terrorists, asking them pertinent questions to try and work through the confusion.

It’s a wonderfully realised plot device. With violence and melodrama taking over the entire venue, Nikolaevna remains calm, broaching subjects of history and cultural ethics with the bad guys. The film raises several important points such as how we view what a terrorist is, and how they became that way. The history of religion and morality is also widely discussed, and with each new question we can see the process of humanisation taking place, as masked villains become different people in search of an answer.

The ‘challenge’ of the title is one that’s set to the students as well as to Nikolaevena, having to use skills learnt in classroom debates of philosophy in the all too real arena of the crisis. It is also a test of the terrorists as well. The situation forces everyone to take responsibility for their actions and not hide behind political or religious doctrine.

Ultimately, the film is about self-discovery, something that’s only done by asking the right questions. The fact that it manages to do this framed in a high-octane thriller only goes to show what a well-produced and imaginative film this is.

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Based on the critically-acclaimed stage play by Ukrainian Anna Yablonskaya, director Lera Surkova sticks close to the source for most of the part in this slow-burning family drama.

The moments where she strays in order to take creative control, usually when we leave the main family home setting, is where it also takes audiences out of the moment. Some pivotal scenes feel overproduced for no reason, particularly the black-and-white flashbacks and an impromptu rap routine.

When Valentin Samokhin’s introverted musician, Oleg, is interrupted during an audition with a call from his mother, his minor reaction makes it seem like a regular occurrence. It turns out she’s been out of contact for most of his life serving God, and has arrived at their doorstep to interrupt their very lives.

Regardless of their new visitor, Oleg’s family has many cracks beneath the surface. Their daughter arrives home drunk and depressed, his wife is struggling for work, and their handyman can’t stay sober enough to finish renovations.

Slowly but surely his mother, as though possessed by a higher power, convinces everyone to follow her ways – and ultimately, they think they’re becoming happier people as a result. This is only believable because of the perfect timing of Tatyana Vladimirova, continually tiptoeing a fine-line between compassionate and patronising.

Similar films typically have you question the very idea of religion without forcing beliefs, but initially Pagans seems quite clear about the message: Devote yourself and good things will happen. It’s not until the final act where things start unravelling that audiences get a chance to decide for themselves.

Judgement is the core theme that carries through, particularly the unfair judgement by all five main characters, against one another’s actions and beliefs. This is summed up nicely with the film’s prologue, with each of these characters breaking the fourth wall and raising the question of what exactly makes us happy – whether it’s family, love, creative passion or religion.

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One Cut of The Dead

Asian Cinema, Film Festival, Horror, Review, short film, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s much to be made about the opening shot of Shinichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, which is ostensibly a short wherein a film crew are attacked by zombies. As a 37-minute-long continuous shot that takes us in and out of warehouses and vehicles, it’s a technical marvel of low budget filmmaking which ends on a beautiful crane shot. But then there’s the little things that distract: gore splattered on screen is wiped off by a hand off camera, the cast miss their cues and in one instance, our hero calls for the director to cut. Taken on its own, this could be Ueda’s affectionate ribbing of when a filmmaker’s ideas just about out-reach their talent. It’s good, but it’s not great.

And then he flips the switch and One Cut of the Dead becomes something different entirely; a behind the scenes look at how the whole thing was put together.

It all begins with Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), a director of news re-enactments and karaoke videos. Mild mannered and aware of where he sits in the pecking order of life, his creed is “I’m fast, cheap, but average”. At home, his wife, Nao (Syuhama Harumi), moves from hobby to hobby to distract from her real passion of acting, whilst his daughter Mao (Mao) is an overzealous wannabe director who routinely gets fired. Things start looking up when Higaurashi is asked to direct a short film for a new Japanese horror channel. The catch is it must be filmed live and performed in one take. From here One Cut of The Dead follows Higurashi as he tries to achieve what he thinks is the impossible, but which we, the audience, knows can and will be done.

Starting with the film within a film and moving backwards to show its pre-production allows Ueda to have a lot of fun with narrative flow, rewarding his audience with jokes that snowball. Things that seemed out of place earlier, begin to make more sense as the film progresses. The key is how Ueda banks on you being ahead of his characters. So, when the prim and proper actor Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) tells Higurashi that she won’t film anything to do with vomiting, the humour comes from knowing where this will eventually lead to.

However, not content with the pre-production and constructing a satirical stab at the politics of filmmaking, Ueda goes one step further by showing us the production of the short. And it’s here that Ueda’s cast really jump into the chaos feet first, with Higurashi having to keep every mishap and blunder off camera in order to keep his bosses happy. Those who’ve seen the play, The Play That Goes Wrong, which adopts a similar ‘show must go on’ motif will know what to expect.

Put simply, One Cut of the Dead is a cinematic jigsaw with all the disparate pieces falling satisfyingly into place. Ueda’s attention to detail and meticulous planning is to be applauded as he weaves a clumsy horror short into a tableau which celebrates imagination, filmmaking, and, perhaps most importantly, family; whether that be the one you’re born into or the one you accumulate in a sweaty warehouse covered in fake blood.

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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

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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.