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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)

Asian Cinema, Classic, Festival, Film Festival, Review Leave a Comment

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.

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Blue Velvet Revisited

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

Back in 1985, a young German filmmaker named Peter Braatz corresponded with director David Lynch (fresh off the ill-fated Dune) during pre-production on his upcoming film Blue Velvet and pitched the legendary artist/filmmaker the idea of documenting his new film’s production on Super 8mm. Lynch was up for it and afforded Braatz total access. What Braatz captured is the minutiae of the day to day filming, short interviews with actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch-regular Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (“I wouldn’t play this type of role for any other director”), Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. Production crew are less forthcoming, though Braatz captures audio of almost everyone discussing aspects of the production; cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps mostly to himself, even so there’s a considerable amount of Super 8mm and stills from the set documenting (largely in chronological order) the shooting of all the key scenes.

If Blue Velvet was a film that held sway over your brain when you first experienced it and lingers still, then this film is a stream of consciousness resurgence of all the free-form dream logic that Lynch unleashed on us to mess with our brains those thirty odd years ago. Seeing the mundanity of the production that helped create it, is something of a joy to watch. The editing style is fragmented and drifts pleasantly along, audio interviews form a large part of the narration, peppered with short Super 8mm interviews that were captured by Braatz with Lynch, who gives his impressions of how the production is going.

This will absolutely appeal to fans of Lynch and Blue Velvet though the style is not the most accessible. The footage, as it stands, is phenomenally crisp and clear and the feeling of time and place is startling’ that said, it would’ve been great to hear the surviving cast members recall their experiences on the film retrospectively. This is a must see for Lynch fans and for those in the thrall of the ‘mysteries of love’.

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Journey’s End

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The sheer horror of the first World War is captured in sobering detail in this quietly moving adaptation of a powerfully emotive play of the same name. First performed in 1928, just ten years after the end of the war, R.C. Sherriff’s drama brought the reality of the anxiety and claustrophobia of trench warfare to theatre-goers.

This film is the fourth cinematic outing for the story. Directed with intensity by Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and featuring a collection of memorable performances, Journey’s End is the story of a contingent of British soldiers in France waiting for a German attack.

The young and inexperienced officer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is keen to see the war for himself. He also wants to meet up with former school house-master and potential brother-in-law Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a leader with rapidly diminishing coping skills and a perspective overwhelmed by anger and alcohol.

Raleigh is soon introduced to the other members of the group, including the wise and peacefully dejected former school teacher Osbourne (Paul Bettany) and the no-nonsense plain speaking Trotter (Stephen Graham). Some brief moments of gallows humour are also provided by the less than 3 hat culinary offerings from the trench cook Private Mason (Toby Jones).

While the jumping off point for the story is undoubtedly Raleigh’s swift education in the ways of the war, and the blood, mud and scent of death that accompany it, it is as the film moves on to the unbearable wait for the attack that it really comes into its own. The mental unravelling of Stanhope is agonising to watch. Claflin does an excellent job in creating this eminently believable character of a man as close as can be to absolute breaking point.

The injustices of how soldiers were contemptuously treated as little more than statistics by the ruling elite is also strongly focused on. While the soldiers dine on tinned fruit and tea with bits of onion in it, the generals are served formal dinners and fine wine. Food and drink becomes an obsession with the men, as the torturous wait goes on with little to alleviate it but more alcohol.

The timeless story of conflict and assessing the value of life and death is shown in all its power. Asking all sorts of questions of nationality and patriotism 100 years after the culmination of World War One, Journey’s End provides a stark retelling of the grim truth of that most senseless of conflicts.

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Cold War

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Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are Polish musicians trying make ends meet after the fallout of the Second World War in 1949. Wiktor, a quiet man with a composing background, makes ends meet by auditioning talent for a travelling music troupe. Zula, a little more outspoken, is a struggling young woman with aspirations to be a singer. Zula was also accused of trying to murder her father. They meet at an audition. So, begins Pawel Pawlikowksi slowly lyrical romance, Cold War, the follow-up to his 2014 film Ida, also shot in black-and-white.

Filmed in a boxed 4:3 ratio, Cold War’s compositions and aspect ratio often feel like a prison. Neither can escape their lives, their country, their past – each other.

It is not just the framing of Cold War which is typified by an undercurrent of claustrophobia and silence – it’s the atmosphere of Cold War Poland, it’s in the lovers’ feelings about their homeland, their looks.

The film uses dialogue sparingly. Recalling other minimalist European works of the ‘50s (Dreyer, Bresson); the romance trails the constricted courtship of the two lovers from 1949 through to the ‘60s, as they change partners, cities, attitudes.

Wiktor flees Poland illegally for upbeat Paris to become part of the burgeoning art scene – seeing the rise of Jazz and Cinema. Zula stays with the music company, travelling around Europe but still living in depressed Poland.

Pawlikowksi flashes forward in time; Wiktor is a successful composer for films. Zula goes on to marry an Italian, become a recorded singer, have an album released, and eventually even a child.

Still they think of each other.

At each and every point, every few years, the couple reacquaint themselves, spend a few nights together, talk about their partners, separate, forlornly vow to see each other again.

It is a passion rekindled and marked by music. Pawlikowksi uses the device as a token of their relationship. It is the only respite they get. This is in a number of scenes, nearly giving the film the feel of a musical.

But despite how free and divergent they are, away from the spectre of worse times in Poland, both lovers’ lives are still empty. There’s a longing.

There are no ‘big’ scenes. This is not a grandly made epic. There are no bursts of laughing and elation. Shot by Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal, Cold War’s photography is spare. The film is populated by quietness, looks, stares.

The compositions are subtle. The only thing that punctures this, is music.

There are unanswered questions in Pawlikowksi’s film. Why the two don’t get together at all costs when they can – multiple times – is never quite addressed. Why didn’t Zula join Wiktor and go to Paris, instead choosing Poland, when she could have? Perhaps they can’t quite bring themselves to leave their pasts.

The film was loosely based on the director’s family. Pawlikowksi leaves audiences with a note at the end – For My Parents.

This is a softly played musical contemplation of life in the midst of a harsh life, which is vibrantly on-song.



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Killing Jesus

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The fact that Jesus is a popular first name in Latin America adds extra spice to the title of this intriguing drama from Columbia. As it turns out, the person to be killed is very far from a perfect man, but more of that anon.

The director Laura Mora Ortega has only made a handful of films, but one can tell that she is passionate about the story she has to tell. The film is clearly about the state of her society and, in particular, the way in which the divide between the rich and the poor is so institutionalised and volatile. It is set in Medellin, the second biggest city in Columbia (which at one time had the reputation for having one of the highest murder rates in South America.) Here, the divided proximity of the haves and the have-nots provides the inciting incident that drives the drama.

We follow the story of typical middle class young woman Paula (Natasha Jaramillo) as she goes about her daily routines. She enjoys her university studies, she likes to hang out with her friends, maybe smoke the odd joint or two after class. Life seems good. She also has a good relationship with her dad who is a lecturer. When a random act of violence explodes into their life, Paula has to re-evaluate everything. Suddenly she must think about the life of those on the other side of the tracks. She starts out in a spirit of vengeance but, later, it becomes a kind of existential journey to understanding. She befriends the eponymous Jesus of the title (Giovanny Rodriguez); a rough young wannabe gangster whose life is so much more troubled than her own. Initially she finds his world incomprehensible and repugnant, but later she comes to see the violence and the brutality in a different light.

The film is quite slow and meandering as it focuses fairly single-mindedly on Paula’s journey. Some of the tension goes out of the film in the last third and there are scenes that look as if they could have been re-shot if there was the budget. Jaramillo, who is in every frame, does not have a great range but she carries the film as best she can. Rodriguez as Jesus also gives an authentic performance such that we can see the emotional reasoning behind her fatal attraction to him. The film is small in scope with a simple story line, but it still had a lingering quality that leaves a mark on its audience.

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Elevator to the Gallows

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Louis Malle is rarely associated with the Nouvelle Vague; in fact, his stature as one of the great filmmakers is possibly ignored because of the auteur leanings of that French filmmaking movement. Ironically, his first narrative feature film, Elevator to the Gallows aka Lift to the Scaffold, demonstrates many of that movement’s trademarks – using actual Paris locations, repurposing a classic Hollywood genre (in this case film noir), toying with traditional editing and narrative techniques, and employing a revolutionary musical score, in this case inspiring Miles Davis to riff live to the pictures on screen to create one of the great movie soundtracks.

Apart from the score, Elevator to the Gallows is possibly best remembered for introducing actress Jeanne Moreau to international audiences. And she is the reason that this fine movie is receiving a rare opportunity to be seen on the big screen as part of Alliance Francais’ Classic Film Festival, which is reviving a handful of her movies as a celebration of this iconic figure of cinema. (Even though the festival will also travel to Perth in October, unfortunately this particular film will not screen there.)

In Elevator she plays a woman who has Julian (Maurice Ronet) murder her husband, wealthy arms industrialist Simon (Jean Wall). When everything goes pear-shaped, she scours the city looking for her lover, whilst a young delinquent couple go joy-riding in his car, which leads to tragedy. This simple, suspenseful narrative contains plenty of subtext too; commenting on France’s post-war relationship with Germany, and the lucrative arms industry benefitting from wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the innocents stuck in the day-to-day middle of it all. But these touchpoints are never laboured, as Malle was most interested in telling a great story, told in an invigorating cinematic style, filled with robust characters and relationships.

Jeanne Moreau is complex in this film, she is neither heroine nor femme fatale. We do not get much of a backstory to her character’s motivations, but are engrossed in her journey nonetheless. It’s a tribute to her screen magnetism and an acting style that transcends 1958 – compare her performance to some of the other cast and you can see why she is regarded as one of the great actors of all time.

Louis Malle is today best remembered for his work in the US such as Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, and the autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants which he made late in his too-short life. Elevator to the Gallows shows a filmmaker tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, excited about the possibilities of cinema, and it’s a treasure to find it on the big screen again.


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A Geisha

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“A geisha never lies. Sweet-talk is our trade. We just agree with everything. Didn’t you know that?”

Just as she’s inquiring about a position at The House of Miyoharu, a teenaged woman named Eiko (Ayako Wakao) overhears these statements uttered by an esteemed geisha named Miyoharu (legendary actor Michiyo Kogure) right as she is rejecting one of her formerly regular – now deadbeat – suitors. Eiko is hoping to follow in the footsteps of her mother who has recently passed away, and is now seeking an apprenticeship (“maiko”) with Miyoharu in order to extract herself from a difficult situation with her lascivious uncle.

“To become as good as your mother requires work,” she is warned by the older woman. We then see Eiko undergo rigorous training in tea ceremony, dance and musicianship as well as industriously completing menial daily tasks such as laundry, mending and cleaning.

After a full year of training, she proves bright and industrious and therefore worthy of presentation to society – an expensive prospect for her mentor, who banks on it ultimately paying off in dividends (her cut). Thereafter, our heroine’s fortunes depend on whether or not she can land a regular client. Without financial backing – for all the expensive accoutrements, including a good kimono – her prospects are limited. But without a good kimono, she won’t gain good contracts.

For the official presentation (to society and prospective clients), the teahouse proprietor Okimi (Chieko Naniwa) advances Y300,000, Y200,000 of which buys Eiko’s first kimono. During the fitting, the tailor warns Eiko that no matter how hard she works, she’ll never pay back even a third of its price. It’s the typically Japanese way of masking (or cautioning against) pride with pessimism, yet we expect her to exceed expectations. Little does she realise the obligations of the loan…

It’s at this stage that Eiko adopts her professional name Miyoei. It’s only after she’s advanced to geisha status that our sweet but independently-minded heroine begins to question the injustices of her society as it pertains to her gender as well as her profession. Eiko openly challenges the dearth of their constitutional rights even as the geisha’s role is becoming degraded and devalued in postwar Japan.

Born in 1898, celebrated director Kenji Mizoguchi began his film career in the silent era and became known for his women’s films in the 1930s. A common theme in his films is a sympathy for the exploited and marginalised members of society, whether they be women, traveling artists, feudal servants or slaves. Additionally, the 1950s was a golden age for Japanese cinema, thanks to the relaxation of WW2-related animosity towards Japan paired with the impact that Japanese films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, enjoyed on the international world stage. The codes of this mysterious culture must have seemed so exotic to Western audiences.

Along with Mt Fuji, geisha historically have been considered premier symbols of Japan’s beauty; living works of art. Mizoguchi’s perceptive film scrupulously charts the politics and nuances not only of this celebrated profession, but of contemporary (meaning 1950s) Japanese society. Most people today understand that a geisha was not always a prostitute. Historically, their profession has been elevated to the revered artistic status of highly skilled entertainer.

For the film, Matsutarō Kawaguchi adapted his novel in collaboration with esteemed screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda. The dialogue is frank and unfussy yet vivid in its depictions of life for women in post-war Kyoto.

But the story’s themes are profound. Kawaguchi and Yoda’s sensitivity to the plight of women in society is shrewdly and compassionately observed, and beautifully complemented by Mizoguchi’s sympathetic storytelling style. The performances from Ayako Wakao and Michiyo Kogure are astonishing for their expressive subtlety. Portraying Eiko, Wakao is exquisitely beautiful even before she transforms into the ultra-stylish fashion plate, adorned with intricate hairstyle, immaculate makeup and elegant kimono. A living artwork indeed! The complicated yet compassionate relationship between the two women is astutely presented.

The doll-like women are gorgeous, but the environment, and the way it is filmed, is realistically plain. It proves a matter-of-fact, practical presentation of a closeted world as viewed through the lens of Japan’s finest DoP Kazuo Miyagawa.

For A Geisha, the filmmaking team crafts a candid portrait infused with forward-thinking feminist themes of defying oppression through loyalty and sisterhood. The resulting film is an unflinching account of the complications endured by geisha in upholding and balancing their dignity, livelihood, and personal rights.