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Paradise without People

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Documentary Paradise Without People follows the painstakingly difficult process of asylum for two Syrian families.

The families, both residing and raising families in Greek refugee camps, await the details of their immigration into Europe with considerable unease. Determined for better, both families look upon the grace of a host country to grant them refuge – the ideal outcome for many Syrian immigrants being in the relocation to Germany.

Director Francesca Trianni isn’t interested in depicting life-after-war, but the deep-seated isolation that comes with war-torn diaspora. No better is this expressed than in the actions of Mohannad; a husband and father of two children whose desire to move to Germany – brought on by concerns over the acceptance of the hijab elsewhere – risks the livelihood of his family.

The escape from war-torn Syria acts as a constant reminder for both families of the lives left behind. The haunting details of this realised in phone-calls that function to provide updates on air-strikes and other acts of war.

This constant state of fear is somewhat mitigated through Trianni’s lavish presentation of food; a theme which denotes the importance of remaining connected to one’s heritage.

Trianni presents the passage of time in terms of seasons. The result acknowledges the lengthy and arduous reality for people seeking asylum. We watch with bated optimism the steady improvement of both families’ livelihoods; transposed from refugee camps (the compact state of which being hardly liveable) to government housing.

It is through Trianni’s conscientious gaze where Paradise Without People presents freedom not just in terms of safety from war, but in a quality of living built on community and cultural identity.


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The Walrus and the Whistleblower

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Phil Demers worked as animal trainer for over ten years at MarineLand, an iconic amusement park in Niagara Falls. For a long time, it seemed like his dream job. He loved working with marine mammals and felt that he’d found a second family among his colleagues there.

But everything changed for him after the park adopted ‘Smooshi’, a walrus calf from Russia. After her arrival, Smooshi “imprinted on” Demers, meaning that she came to see him as her ‘mother’ or protector. This was a critical moment for Smooshi and a seminal experience for Demers.

However, with parenthood comes a powerful sense of responsibility. And with this comes a scrutiny; a protectiveness; a softening of the heart and an opening of the eyes.

In due course, Demers became increasingly frustrated with the neglect, maltreatment and living conditions that the animals were suffering. He witnessed sedative drugs buried in food, chlorine burns, illnesses, undersized enclosures, starvation, and severe wounds inflicted during panic behaviour associated with some of MarineLand’s public shows.

Finally, Demers defected from Marineland in 2012, and what followed was a series of events that propelled him into the centre of growing public debate about animal safety and the ethicality of keeping and training aquatic animals in a facility like MarineLand.

Demers established his combative identity under the Twitter handle @WalrusWhisperer and his campaign reverberated across Canadian politics and contributed to the passing of a bill that banned whale and dolphin captivity in 2018.

The footage of Smooshi is absolutely arresting. The viewer immediately comes to realise that here is a truly sentient being. Young Smooshi is extremely vivacious, bursting with personality, and her eyes are giant communicators of curiosity and innocence. The remarkable bond between her and Demers is undeniable and beautiful to witness.

First-time feature filmmaker Nathalie Bibeau has produced a visually stylistic documentary with a distinct tone and kinetic energy. She blends staged footage (we’re not talking dramatizations) with interviews and archival footage but somehow maintains a powerful and consistent visual aesthetic and rhythm.

The film is essentially a character piece about a man who is, quite possibly – as we come to realise – a narcissist, but who clearly has the enduring resolve it takes to fight this kind of fight.


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

Named in reference to the popular Asian jackfruit, Boluomi tells the story of Wu Yi-Fan (Wu Nien-Hsuan), nicknamed Boluomi; an adolescent student who migrates from the war-stricken chaos of Malaysia to Taiwan to begin a new life as a student and leave his fraught past behind.

However, once Yi-Fan arrives, familiar issues and challenges of his past – which he tried to escape – soon rear their head, tarring his idealism.

So begins this study of the disenfranchised lives of Southeast Asian migrants, in the debut narrative feature of Chinese-Malaysian filmmaker Lau Kek-Huat and Taiwanese actress/director Vera Chen.

Laced with flashbacks to Yi-Fan’s turbulent and volatile childhood in the war-torn jungles of Malaysia – which involved guerrilla warfare, violence, starvation and a frenzied relationship with his father; Boluomi jumps back and forth between the issues which shaped Yi-Fan’s upbringing and his life in Taiwan.

Despite having migrated to a new country, which appears to be more open and democratic and far from the realities of his violent youth, Boluomi’s new beginning is not the vacation he imagined.

Struggling from one menial job to another, experiencing discrimination and racism against his Chinese background, plus manipulation of his minority, non-citizen status by employers, the unwelcome, outsider existence is far from the fresh, disparate and better life the student had hoped for.

As Yi-Fan wanders from job to job, directors Lau and Chan contrast the troubled situation of Boluomi against other Taiwanese immigrants who are manipulated and taken advantage of, neglected and discarded.

During one of these stints, Yi-Fan meets Laila (Laila Ulao), a Filipino migrant similarly struggling to survive and make a life in Taiwan, who he develops a romantic relationship with. This is one of the only optimistic events for Boluomi.

Detailing the plight and issues of the marginalised workers and migrants at the very bottom of Taiwan’s ladder, Boluomi grimly digs into and hones-in on the everyday struggles faced by those on the fringes of society.

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The Meddler (El Metido)

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

German Cabrera is a stringer for T13 News, a local TV news station in Guatemala City. He cruises the streets of his city at night, camera and police scanner in tow. Compulsively filming, he is a fixture at every violent crime scene, compiling shooting horrors to edit into his nightly news packages.

He is a watcher, Thomas Wolfe’s God’s Lonely Man, violence is his landscape and he’s always filming. Always peering into the dark spaces and alleyways with his camera light illuminating everything from bodies in the aftermath of gang killings and shootouts, to street fights, curb side arguments and even minor squabbles between couples. German, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is an all-seeing eye, his camera an extension of him.

German feels that if he can capture the violence on the streets and put it on display via the news, that it will raise the public’s awareness and in some way, spur them on to collectively find a way out of it.

The protagonist’s narration is ever present, musing on the violence that grips the city and his heartfelt reasons for leaving the security of his home and young family, in order to scour the neighbourhoods in a quest to film death, darkness and misdeeds to shake the citizens out of their complacency. His camera seems to intimidate anyone he points it at, so he uses it like a shield, at times almost like a weapon. He races with ambulances to reach crime scenes first, sometimes he’s there late, in time to witness the police-tape strewn aftermath: crowds of rubberneckers jostling for a glance at a body, blood splattered perpetrators in the backs of police vehicles, the awful screams of grieving family members and broken bodies lying where they died minutes before.

Seeing German ‘clock on’ for this nightly descent into hell brought to mind Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead,  where Nicolas Cage’s EMT Frank Pierce walks on a razor’s edge of sanity as he endures night after night of this kind of catalogue of horrors.

German has access like that of a journalist but he’s not strictly a reporter, neither is he a police officer, yet he works with them as well, sharing information and letting them know that he’s happy to depict the good work they do, not showing “any of the bad stuff”.

One day, German receives word that his father has been arrested in Nicaragua on suspicion of molesting a young girl. German believes his father to be innocent and vigilante-style, travels there to conduct his own investigation, with his camera in tow. It’s this portion of the film that allows us to see German out of his element, struggling to do what he believes is right but being hampered at every step.

Made across a seven-year period by co-directors Alex Roberts and Daniel Leclair and beautifully photographed by Daniel Leclair and Darren Hauck, The Meddler is a confronting and haunting journey into the violence that grips much of Central America, letting us see it through the eyes of a person who feels a strong and vital sense of moral duty for his fellow citizens and for his family, longing for the way things were, before the violence descended on the city.

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Insert Coin

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

Mortal Kombat, Narc and NBA Jam, all famous titles in the world of arcade video games and part of the focus in director Joshua Tsui’s excellent documentary, Insert Coin. 

The action follows the journey in chapters of gaming manufacturer Midway, chock full of interviews with the pioneers of this legendary company. Midway was one of the first in the field to use live-action capture techniques, where real footage is shot in a studio and converted into pixelated imagery for video games. It was also the ‘punk rock’ gaming company where shock and awe tactics were used in the battle for arcade domination against the other big players, Gottlieb and Bally, famous for pinball machines like Ace High and Twilight Zone.

Narc started the ball rolling for Midway, designed by legendary developer Eugene Jarvis, extensively interviewed for the film. It was one of the first ultra-violent video games and a frequent target of parental criticism of the video game industry. The object is to arrest and kill drug offenders, confiscate their money and drugs, and defeat “Mr Big”. Narc became the first billion-dollar arcade game in the USA taking over from the likes of Donkey Kong and Pacman.

Mortal Kombat was another major hit for the company. Its use of comical violence, where a player could, among other things, rip an opponent’s head off while also removing their spine, horrified members of the public and ended up seeing company executives face up to a Government regulator intent on banning the game, which only fuelled the public’s salacious appetite and sales continued to go through the roof.

After graduating from film school, Tsui spent several formative years working for Midway as a game developer, eventually coming up with such titles as Fight Night and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Having inside knowledge and remaining acquainted with his work colleagues, Tsui realised that an important story could be told about the early days of gaming; Insert Coin becoming his first film.

Tsui conducts the interviews on his own, a personal approach eliciting candid, often hilarious responses from his subjects. Anecdotes explain how the game based on Terminator II starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, directed by James Cameron was created; director Paul Anderson discusses how the film based on the game for Mortal Kombat came about. Archival footage has rock stars Aerosmith in motion capture sessions for Revolution X.

With its use of interviews and archival footage, Insert Coin is reminiscent of Australian documentary masterpiece Not Quite Hollywood. It’s a fascinating look at the history of gaming, and entertaining even if you’ve never sunk a video basket or mowed down a pixelated drug dealer.

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

Killer fashion sense takes on new meaning in absurdist French horror-comedy Deerskin from cult French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (Reality, Rubber)

We first meet protagonist-blurring-on-villain Georges (Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin) driving to an isolated town nestled within the French alpines; the air of quietness instilled in this town easily broken by the slightest sniffle.

We know little about Georges other than his odd disdain for corduroy and by his fixation for deerskin. The extent of this obsession leaves Georges in a state of bewilderment as he comes into possession of an enchanting (not to mention costly) deerskin jacket.

Smouldering stares tell the audience something is brewing inside of Georges’ mind, with Dupieux leaving backstory up to the imaginations of the viewer.

Could Georges be dangerous? Has he escaped from somewhere? Is he a runaway? This sense of mystery helps craft an alluring and fearsome characterisation intensified by Dujardin’s unshakeable charisma.

With Deerskin, Dujardin contributes to the mythos of complex anti-heroes by blending suave and psychosis with the punctuating magnetism of Anton Chigurh and the mystique of a Sergio Leone creation.

Georges doesn’t so much as wear the fringe adorned jacket as much as he becomes possessed by it. Dupieux plays with concepts of realism versus supernaturalism but doesn’t allow for their dissection to interrupt the flow of what is most compelling in the film: Georges’ chilling descent into madness.

As far as Georges is concerned, all other clothing is lesser in comparison to his remarkable deerskin. This realisation sparks one of cinema’s most unconventional maddenings, with Georges’ desire to rid the world of inferior fashion executed with diabolical hedonism.

Deerskin is a nerve-inducing triumph of off-kilter and self-aware filmmaking. Dupieux manifests suspense with stern patience and humour. The payoff bites with audacious splendour that prioritises tense mood over short-lived thrills.

Almost Hitchcockian/Hermann-ian in application, Janko Nilović’s wondrously jolting score is peppered throughout the film to depict the depths of Georges’ insanity. Its resulting sting radiates long after its appearance; creating a gestating unease that appears throughout every fibre of the film.

Scenes revealing the depths of Georges’ insanity, however strange, never feel ridiculous. In fact, they work to convey the facade Georges creates so he may participate in normative society. This fabrication is best realised in Georges’ interactions with Denise (an always impressive Adèle Haenel); a bartender-turned-‘film editor’, uninspired by her unassuming livelihood, manipulated by Georges as a source of cash. Their twisted relationship is played with a level of awe that will have viewers believing the two were business partners in another life.

While there is plenty to read into regarding Deerskin’s portrayal of masculinity and isolation (heck, Dupieux even plants the seeds as a cautionary tale on the impact of fast fashion), Deerskin is at its ripest when confidently indulging in its wonderfully bonkers premise.

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Mafia Inc.

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Adapted from André Cédilot and André Noël’s non-fiction novel of the same name, Mafia Inc. follows the antics of Montreal’s most influential crime family, The Paternòs.

Set predominantly in 1994, Canadian-based Sicilian Mafia patriarch Frank Paternò (Sergio Castellitto) – a deceptively-suave drug kingpin who upholds virtues of traditionalism, family and Italian pronunciation – forwards a plan to make a substantial investment in the development of a bridge that connects Sicily to Italy. The money to be made in tolls alone is expected to clear one million dollars per day!

Frank, along with his son Giaco (Donny Falsetti) and the son of Frank’s long-time tailor Vince Gamache (Marc-André Grondin), navigate the murky, deceit laden waters of Montreal’s gangster scene to go undetected, transferring $180 million towards the endeavour. Lies, jealousy and under-the-table arrangements propagated by greed (almost a given in the genre) ensue, with the mysterious (and barbaric) transportation of a lucrative narcotics run adding fuel to an already disorderly flame.

Director Daniel Grou empowers an oscillating rock-heavy score and bleak visuals to paint the mood of an underbelly on the fritz. The well-established Canadian filmmaker keeps Mafia Inc. trodding at a purposeful pace, with this only falling asunder with jarringly intertwining back and forth between the present (1994) and past (1980). Scenes of gratuitous violence appear here and there, and are tastefully administered to convey the bloody implications of mistrust and envy.

At 135 minutes, Mafia Inc. provides ample time to articulately flesh out character motivations and behaviours. The film features an array of superb performances (seldom seen women, not without leaving their impact, include Mylène Mackay), with noteworthy turns from Castellitto – refraining from ‘capeesh’ and ‘che vuoi’ gestures – successfully elevating a role ripe for caricature into something human and realised.

Intricately told and impressively acted, do what Marty says and avoid watching it on your phone.

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

The “White Terror” period was a dark moment in Taiwan’s history, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians suspected or accused of being anti-government, were sought-out, arrested and killed.

Adapted from the popular supernatural video game of the same (which is set in 1962 during this bleak period), Detention stars Gingle Wang as Fang and Tseng Chin-hua as Wei, high school students who believe in freedom in a country under martial law, where freedom of speech is banned.

Part of a secret high school book club which studies banned books, one day Fang turns up to her school to find the halls empty, her tutor missing, a massive storm looming and not a person around. As the students search their deserted school, strange happenings, dead bodies and ghost-figures begin to appear.

So begins this Taiwanese high-school-set horror, the debut feature film directed by John Hsu.

Like the game on which it is based, Detention combines the historical evils of this era with CGI monsters, mythological elements, demons and villains, switching between fantasy and reality.

Comprised of multiple chapters and parts, Detention jumps back and forth between the savage horrors committed by the repressive Kuomintang military (KMT) and the physically monstrous creatures and devils roaming the hallways of the fictional Greenwood High School.

As the movie progresses, the flashbacks of brutal and torturous abductions start to blur with the game-ified, gory, fantastical monsters devouring educators, pupils and civilians, as bit by bit, the answers to what happened to the students’ peers and teachers become slowly apparent.

Shifting away from its game origins into historical horror, Detention attempts to unpack the true reality of the evils inflicted over decades by a frightening regime – one that left thousands missing or worse.

Scenes of torture are not shied away from; the movie depicts these happenings without hesitance.

This is one of the first large-scale movies to address the White Terror Period. Replete with CGI demons, gore and hellish monsters, this is a historical-horror movie genre fans will be entertained by.

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A Family

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

As family is one of the basic units of human association, it is not surprising that it occupies a central space in most cultures. And of course, there have been endless explorations of this institution in art over the centuries. All this ought to give a timeless relevance to director Jayden Stevens’ explorations around the theme. That said, he has gone about it in a very oblique, not to say odd, way. The approach is the point of the film really, and it probably means you will either love it or hate it.

Though the director is Australian, he has chosen to make his film in the Ukraine using Ukrainian actors, none of whom is very polished. Once again, he tries to use this in his favour. After all they are only ‘acting’ themselves in the first place.

The protagonist is Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lugubrious looking dude who bears a passing resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family. He is fond of filming family occasions on his old-fashioned mini video camera, and we start with him filming a Christmas get together. It is no spoiler to say that this quickly turns out to be a con or a spoof, in the sense that he has paid the various ‘relatives’ to pretend to be his family. That is the whole idea of the film really. The rest of the piece then jogs along with this idea, with various iterations of fake family scenarios.

All this could be quite funny (and there are a couple of mordant jokey exchanges) but it would have been a great deal more interesting if the concept had been developed more, or if the film had more of an arc. As it is, it is very grey and monotone in both look and characterisation.

As noted, there is a deliberate quirkiness to all this. There are parallels perhaps with some of the work of Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismaki (the deadpan humour, the affection for the misfits) or even with the ever-cultish Yorgos Lanthimos (the sheer absurdity of the premise, the creepiness of an artificial family a la Dogtooth).

The idea of the distorting longing for family is potentially poignant and, here, occasionally nicely absurdist. The problem is the joke wears thin and no real empathy is possible for the viewer.

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The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead

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

BS (Roy Chiu) and Wenxi (Huang Di-yang) are childhood friends and dreamers who spend more time dreaming about making movies than working or finding a job. Desperately wanting fund their zombie thriller The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead and hard up for cash, the amateurs decide to join a gang where their wishes catch the eye of Gang Leader Brother Long (Lung Shao-hua), who agrees to bankroll – and take control of the production.

So begins frenetic Taiwanese oddball comedy The Gangs, The Oscar, and The Walking Dead, directed by Kao Pin-chuan (The Soul of Bread).

A movie laden with bloodied-up hijinks and gross-out gags, Kao’s fast-moving spectacle takes its audience on a ride which includes run-ins with angry mobsters, cut-off fingers, lots of killing and a dead lead actress. It is not for the faint of heart.

The movie is the second feature by the Taiwanese director, whose first and starkly lighter effort, a romantic comedy, screened at the prestigious Tokyo and Bucheon International Film Festivals.

This, his follow-up, played at the equally renowned Busan International Film Festival.

It is about as much of a 360-degree flip in tone as possible. Packed with flying body parts and splatter gags, this is not a film for everyone. There is frequent shooting, spurting liquids, chases and explosions.

Local Taiwanese star Roy Chiu (Dear Ex, Marry Me, or Not) anchors the feature amidst the bang, boom and whack.

There is an element of self-referentiality in the goal of Kao’s two fledgling Taiwanese producers, who mention internationally-known Taiwanese figure and film director Ang Lee (Gemini Man, Life of Pi) by name. It is unfortunately little known that the frequently undervalued and fledgling multimedia industry of Taiwan has produced many internationally high-profile filmmakers including Edward Yang (Yi Yi), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness) and Tsai Ming-Liang (Stray Dogs).

A gross-out comedy with gore all over, this is a charged film that thriller fans and genre viewers will find entertaining.