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The Cotton Wool War

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To regard the high-energy music sung by Brazilians in The Cotton Wool War as being the sound of the city’s heartbeat would be apt. It is the product of a flourishing Brazilian culture that is unable to contain their appreciation for freedom. The extent of their passion knows no limit; even in the absence of instruments, it would not deter folks from slapping their bodies like a drum to create background music.

As rampant as this cultural expressionism runs throughout Brazil, so too lies an inherited sexism that – despite previous women’s liberation efforts – continues to exist as an everyday reality for Brazilian women.

The Cotton Wool War understands the potential that these toxic attitudes have on progress and explores their existence under an objectionable gaze.

With a reference to Virginia Woolf’s work in both title and subject matter, The Cotton Wool War focuses on unconscious sexism rearing its ugly head.

Dora (Dora Goritzki), a teenager who has been raised in Germany, is forced to stay in Brazil under the supervision of her estranged grandmother, Maria (Thaia Perez). Dora is unknowing to the reason for her visit to Brazil, nor does she know much about her grandmother. This creates most of the tension throughout The Cotton Wool War’s brief run-time and sets the film up to become a well-thought-out dissection on gender inequality.

Dora’s German upbringing causes people to never see her as Brazilian enough – a result which sees her having to prove herself as Brazilian. Dora’s need to rationalise her familial and cultural identity further complicates circumstances, with The Cotton Wool War successfully managing to juggle a broad scope of issues without feeling overbearing; a feat which is more impressive considering the brevity of the film.

Despite their characters’ affluence, both actors leave lasting impressions due to their ability to make the struggle feel relatable. Dora’s mounting resentment towards her family finds her engaging in regrettable behaviour. If not giving the silent treatment, Dora is curt in response and often aggressive towards her soft-spoken grandmother. The differences between the two juxtaposes the hardships faced by women of different generations and helps establish The Cotton Wool War as being more than just a film with an angst-ridden teenager at the helm.

Marilia Hughes and Cláudio Marques manage directorial duties with subtlety and aplomb. Their handling of the characters with sincere respect, warts and all, results in a nuanced piece of filmmaking that celebrates the significant contributions made by feminist pioneers.

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The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

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The undercover-cop-and-gangster dynamic gets turned on its head in the gritty Korean crime-thriller The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil.

A slew of murders in the South Korean city of Cheonan forms an unlikely partnership between a cop and gangster-crime lord, brought together by a shared desire to nab a perp whose actions are as violent as they are random.

While operating with a sense of non-disclosure to their organisations, the cop and gangster pairing are not undercover in the conventional informant sense a la The Departed. That would be banal. Their arrangement is strictly ends-orientated, with whoever can catch the assailant left to enact justice as they see fit. Just exactly how they execute “justice” differs between the two men with The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil offering an exploration of criminal ethics while also being an enjoyable, bloody frenzy.

While not precisely When Harry Met Sally, there is something fundamentally romantic about the idea of cop and gangster working together and having the two men – hardened by their professional career – developing a respectful relationship founded on compromise. Their differences are fewer than you imagine, with the two leads delivering a chemistry that would have you believe that in another life the two would be laughing up a storm and swinging down soju in a bar until the wee hours of the morning.

Their moral conduct is their clearest divider, with the two men operating with a stern forcefulness that prevents them from swaying from the direction set by their moral compasses. The cop (Kim Mu-yeol), tough as nails and unable to let bad things happen in front of him even if it means being late to a crime scene, is complemented wondrously by the gangster crime-boss (Ma Dong-seok aka  Don Lee), an imposing figure who could easily save money on security by doing the job himself.

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil switches gear into action scenes quite spontaneously, with a warning for those who are squeamish to prepare themselves. Where delivering a shoot-em-up would be taking the easy route, Director Lee Won-tae focuses the action in TGTCTD on hand-to-hand or knife-to-pokie-machine (!) combat to elicit tension. This decision works a treat in highlighting the actors’ athleticism and delivers solid, albeit stabby, choreography.

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Extreme Job

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Not since Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices has there been as big of a secret in the fried chicken world as the undercover stakeout at the centre of Korean action-comedy Extreme Job.

Pressure placed on Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong) to advance in the ranks of the Korean narcotics investigation unit finds him and his ragtag crew of accompanying misfits go undercover as owners of a fried chicken restaurant. Under their surveillance is neighbour Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun); a resurfacing drug-kingpin who dreams of “an era of meth” in Korea.

The fact that a charming film like Extreme Job exists is a testament to absurd yet interesting ideas actualised in Korean cinema.

The motley crew assembled in the stakeout – including a newbie recruit keen to make his first arrest, a budding chef, a tough as nails operative, and a determined moustachioed gent – dazzle due to their well-meaning-but-clumsy nature, with their time on the job a comedy-of-errors.

The most exemplary failure made by the team is in their success as restaurateurs. A feat which renders them unable to focus on the investigation due to the insane demands of the business. You know that restaurant on Instagram that everyone goes to? This would be the one. Their struggles with popularity are the only stumbles of Extreme Job; like an overcooked piece chicken left in a fryer, the film spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on the narcotic unit’s inability to investigate.

Here, the action takes a back-seat in favour of pseudo-drama, drying out the meat on what is otherwise a tender film that focuses on family and classism. Extreme Job, however, regains balance towards the tail-end of the movie with director Lee Byeong-heon serving up a deliciously camp action set-piece that rewards the viewer’s patience.

Drugs. Stakeouts. Fried chicken. Extreme Job is a golden nugget of a film that is as unashamedly-ridiculous as it is entertaining.

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Inseparable Bros

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Written and directed by Yook Sang-hyo, Inseparable Bros [The film’s literal translation from Korean is “My Special Brother”] is a gorgeous tale of the yin and yang of co-dependent friendship.

When the movie opens, Kang Se-ha (later played by Shin Ha-Kyun) is a teenaged and quadriplegic boy confined to a wheelchair. With no immediate family left to care for him, his second cousin doesn’t want to be responsible and so foists him off on a local priest who runs a home for mentally-challenged youngsters. There, Kang Se-ha stands up to bullies with intelligence and scorn.

Also a resident of the home, his simple-minded “brother”, Dong-gu (Lee Kwang-Soo) helps him with daily tasks such as eating, going to the toilet and brushing his teeth for him, even assisting Kang Se-ha to read and get around.

We jump ahead to adulthood and see how Kang Se-ha negotiates his way through life by being the brains, while Dong-gu somewhat ineptly follows his minute instructions. Eventually, Kang Se-ha engineers a savvy business providing various services (such as translation and compiling reports) for cash while trading the skills of those seeking his help to assist others at a volunteer organisation.

Every time circumstances throw a new obstacle at him/them, Kang Se-ha has to use his wits to come up with a creative solution.

One day, the duo crosses paths with a young woman at the local swimming pool where Dong-gu loves to play. Always looking for ways to make enough money for them both to survive, Kang Se-ha engineers a meeting with Mi-Hyun (E Som) and offers her an irresistible and mutually beneficial proposal. She proves to be the only person to treat them without prejudice. Eventually, Mi-Hyun helps the pair broaden their horizons. The unexpected reappearance of Dong-gu’s mother upsets the balance of their friendship as she petitions to bring him back into their family circle, unfortunately at the expense of Kang Se-ha.

Sang-hyo’s visual style is beautiful but mostly pedestrian – that is to say, in service of his storytelling. Occasionally we see fun scenes such as the action-packed and vertiginous sequence where our enterprising duo deftly use strategic manoeuvers on a pedestrian ramp to outrace an elevator. The writer/director’s strengths lie in his candid dialogue that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter. His gifts are best displayed in his ability to present a tight trio of endearing characters who ingeniously navigate the stuffy constraints of bureaucracy and wrangle social and standard media to their advantage.

Shin Ha-Kyun gives an excellent performance despite his character being mostly immobile and restricted to his wheelchair, while Lee Kwang-Soo is especially endearing and convincing as the goofy Dong-gu.

Heart-warming and infused throughout with mild drama and gentle comedy, Inseparable Bros is an adorable film that champions love and family beyond blood-ties.

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Talking About Trees

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

A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.

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The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale

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When big-pharma does some experimental meddling on random homeless people, a test subject named Joon-Bi claws his way out of an underground dump site and staggers through rural South Korea before wandering into a senior citizens home, where he bites the forehead of Man-Deok (Park In-hwan), the grandfather of the Park family, before zombie-shuffling his way back into nearby woods. Thinking the attack to be a random nut job, Man-Deok feverishly sleeps off the encounter, before waking to feel (and look) twenty years younger.

After Joon-Bi has a series of encounters with other members of the Park clan: ne’er do-well unemployed middle son Min-Gul (Kim Nam-Gil), hapless eldest son Joon-Gul (Jung Jae-Young) and his very pregnant wife Nam-Joo (Um Ji-Won) and youngest daughter Hae-Gul (Lee Soo-Kyung), the family all presume that the limping, groaning zombie is just a homeless person who’s ‘not quite right’.

Thinking it best to trap the bitey wanderer in the garage of their dilapidated family-run petrol station, he’s kept there tied-up long enough for Hae-Gul to decide he’s the object of her romantic affections and for their now-youthful and reinvigorated father to start charging local elderly residents large sums of money for access to Joon-Bi’s rejuvenating chomps and the de-aging effects that await.

Mixing elements from Cocoon, The Castle and Shaun of the Dead, the film manages to homage everything from Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead to straight up showing characters watching a clip of Train to Busan. Despite wearing its influences on its sleeves, it’s clearly made by earnest fans of the genre, aiming the zombie shenanigans squarely at a broad audience, deploying a light comedic touch with less of an emphasis on gore and more on the screwball comedy.

There are funny character touches, particularly the pregnant Nam-Joo’s handy self-defence techniques utilising a frying pan and the weirdly romantic relationship between the zombified Joon-Bi and the young and impressionable Hae-Gul.

This is definitely on the comedy side of the ‘zom-com’ and there’s much to enjoy here. As an entertaining and family-centric horror-comedy, it’s a really fun ride.


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Sorry We Missed You

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50 years after his pioneering film Kes shadowed an underprivileged boy facing torment at home and at school, Ken Loach produces another sharp-eyed, unadorned snapshot of the working class, this time turning his lens to the horrors of the ‘gig economy’ of 2019.

Blue-collar parents Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), struggling daily to keep their family afloat, decide to sell their car. This enables Ricky, formerly a building worker, to take a contract job as an independent delivery driver where he is paid per-job, not in wages.

Abbie, also on a contract, is a nurse and home carer to elderly and often neglected patients.

Their son Seb (an excellent Rhys Stone) is perennially getting into fights and being castigated. Abbie’s colleagues seem to call in sick daily, forcing her to fill in, working unpaid overtime, and neglecting her own (in crisis) family. To make matters worse, Ricky is in rising debt due to his employment situation.

As inconceivable as it seems, things only get worse for the family, with each part of their existence pummeled.

With Sorry We Missed You, Loach is making another major statement; a fiery call to arms for the beleaguered working stiff.

In the vein of The Bicycle Thieves and his own singular variety of social realism, Loach crafts a shattering account of a family living off casual zero-hour contracts. (An agreement where an employer has no obligation to provide minimum hours.)

Operating in a documentary-like wheelhouse that Loach has gravitated to throughout his six-decade career, each of the cast turn in affecting, honest performances.

Refined and considered photography from cinematographer Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake, The Meyerowitz Stories) puts viewers inside Ricky’s van. Tight angles and modest lighting are favoured by Ryan and Loach (in their fourth collaboration) to plunge filmgoers into the constant capitulation of the family’s situation.

Whilst the tribulations the characters suffer are wrenching, if there is a fault with the film, it is that it can slide towards overstatement. Ricky’s boss is almost entirely unsympathetic to his colleague. On the phone to his hospitalised worker following a robbery, the supervisor speaks mostly of Ricky’s debts for the stolen goods. In the waiting room, he gives Ricky an arrears total. One wonders if Loach takes this a tad too far.

Regardless, this is a searing, brilliant and excoriating film from one of the giants of social realist cinema – a work which demands to be seen.

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The Sweet Requiem

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Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem is the story of the untold struggles of Tibetan refugees. The film focuses on Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), who made the grueling trip from Tibet to India at the age of eight. She is now twenty-six and living in New Delhi, India.

The film alternates between Dolkars’s present life and the past in the form of flashbacks that she had repressed for years. Dolkar’s friend Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee) assists the Tibetan community in Delhi and works alongside a man whose real name is Gompo (Jampa Kalsang Tamang), who they believe is a Tibetan activist.

When Dolkar sees Gompo, she immediately recognises him as the man who guided her group through the mountains and into the pass that leads into India; a difficult trek where losses were incurred. Dolkar struggles to forgive Gompo for the pain that his actions put her through. We also see her struggles with reaching her family back home, when she learns her sister has gotten married and has a two month old daughter.

The Sweet Requiem shines in its focus on Dolkar, a refugee that has made the most of her new life and who has tried to bury her past for the last eighteen years. Themes such as loneliness, alienation, and repression are explored throughout the visually impressive film. The mountain-set aspect of the film gives the viewer a wonderous sense of the journey, expertly contrasted with scenes of the crowded and busy streets of Delhi.

The intriguing The Sweet Requiem has its slower parts, but it is rich in its storytelling and its subtle approach to bringing attention to a struggle that is lacking in awareness by the general public. The film doesn’t come off as a cry for help, but rather, a true visual representation about something that is very real but unfortunately overlooked.

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Gully Boy

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Somewhere in the streets of Mumbai, up-and-coming Muslim rapper Murad aka Gully Boy (Ranveer Singh) lies down on his bed and dreams of an India free from social disparity. He sits with headphones on, not to drown out the sounds of his mother fighting with his abusive father about his second wife, but to unleash his frustration at a class system that defines impoverished people like him as unworthy.

His grandmother, who sleeps a few metres away from him, watches as the drama between his mother and father escalates into violence. If the heat of the argument didn’t make the room feel smaller than it already is, the tourists who pay to tour their house – buying into Indian struggle as a form of spiritual enlightenment – do not help the situation either.

These hardships inspire Gully Boy’s raps with lyrics flowing through him like lava in a volcano. It is not enough for these lyrics to remain hidden on his phone. For Gully Boy, he must be the change he wishes to see in India, or else he remains just another dreamer.

A hip-hop fairy-tale, the parallels between Gully Boy and 8 Mile are evident. Murad, a boy from a poor background, rises-up in the Mumbai hip-hop scene and uses the platform as a soapbox to inspire change. Anything less in Gully Boy’s mind would be an acceptance of oppression, with Director Zoya Akhtar cleverly using hip-hop as a voice of rejection towards classist norms embedded in Indian culture.

Gully Boy is frustrated at the state of modern rap – seeing it less as a voice of the people and more as a voice for materialism. He hears what the world thinks of him when he participates in rap battles, with competitors reducing him because of the status of his ‘servant’ father. Rather than be ashamed of his upbringing, Gully Boy celebrates the hustle his family goes through by turning all disses about his social standing into recognition of his fight to survive. These barbs have less bite when translated from Hindi to English (“Your biggest dog is a poodle on my street” being one of the many highlights) but when considered in the context of a male-centric Indian culture, they go straight for the jugular.

Despite being restrained by cultural norms that prevent complete independence, Akhtar ensures there is no shortage of strong women featured in Gully Boy. Student-doctor and love interest of Murad, Safeena (an impressive Alia Bhatt), is a driving force for change in the film thanks to her refusal to remain complacent. Safeena is frustrated by a regressive system that disadvantages women so much that she chooses to be defiant if-not independent.

The music in Gully Boy comes through as kinetic, creating a heavy vibe that matches the rising frustration felt by a new wave of young Indians fighting against discriminatory traditions. The continued use of high energy music helps keep the film burning, which when you factor in the two-and-a-half-hour length (half an hour shy of Avengers: Endgame), helps keep the viewers’ mind from any impending numbness.

All elements considered, Gully Boy exists as an important rejection of discrimination and represents a progressive foot forward for Indian cinema.

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Another Child

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Known predominantly as an actor in South Korean crime and action thrillers such as The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, actor Kim Yoon-seok directs, co-writes and stars in this strangely tender familial drama Another Child (originally called Underage).

It follows Joo-ri (Kim Hye-jun), a high-schooler who discovers that her father has had an extra-marital affair with the mother of her classmate Yoon-ah (Park Se-jin). This confronting revelation comes with even more complexity: Yoon-ah’s mother, Mi-hee (Kim So-jin), is pregnant.

Angry with her own mother’s actions and resenting the arrival of a baby that threatens to wreck the one-on-one relationship she’s enjoyed with her mother all her life, Yoon-ah directs her anger and frustration at Joo-ri, which signals the start of a strangely adversarial friendship between the young girls as they’re forced to reckon with the massive upheaval that’s been foisted on them by their respective parents.

Joo-ri’s mother, Yeong-joo (Yum Jung-ah), finds out about her cheating husband at the same time as her daughter. Feeling betrayed by her husband she decides to project her anger towards the pregnant Mi-hee and decides to confront her. Meanwhile Mi-hee, who’s been single for a long time, feels that she once again has purpose and meaning in her life though even she feels the situation is untenable and her adulterous relationship, doomed.

The person most responsible for the mess they’re in is the feckless and responsibility-shy father of Joon-ri, Dae-won (played by director Kim Yoon-seok). It’s the cowardly way his character refuses to deal with the situation that’s the fulcrum for the film’s drama, where the women left in the wake of his behaviour must find a way to cope and move on.

While the setup may seem slightly soapy, the execution is, dramatically-speaking, rather spartan and devoid of melodramatics. It’s really a remarkable showcase for Kim Yoon-seok’s deft direction and the very fine performances he manages to get from his cast. Despite its seemingly convoluted plot, what ultimately emerges is a quietly tender tale of two families in crisis, inextricably linked by betrayal and the birth of a new life, while the young girls caught in the middle are forced to grow up rapidly, in order to compensate for their parent’s all-too-human flaws.