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Rampant

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

Hyun Bin and director Kim Sung-hoon teamed up last year for the South Korean buddy cop actioner Confidential Assignment, which showcased Kim Sung-hoon’s keen eye for action filmmaking. Rampant sees them teaming up again, though this time it’s for a zombie extravaganza set in feudal Korea, in the kingdom of Joseon.

The setup is convoluted but in a nutshell: Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) summons his carousing, roguish brother Lee Chung (Hyun Bin) back to the kingdom after years spent away (for reasons unknown). The cause for the Crown Prince’s invitation is that his kingdom is besieged by a zombie infestation that he hopes his estranged brother (who’s also a renowned sword fighter) can assist in quelling.

Sumptuously photographed and with lavish production design, this fusion of historical epic and zombie gore-fest largely works on the level of spectacle and for the most part, it chugs along with percussive momentum, setting up and executing terrifically enjoyable set-pieces.

The performances are curiously unengaging in terms of characterisation, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable, it’s only that they lack any semblance of irreverent humour or a knowing wink at the audience but Oldboy writer Hwang Jo-yoon and director Kim Sung-hoon are playing this for its drama, the only issue being that the drama is deeply ordinary and devoid of emotional heft.

There is enjoyably gruesome zombie imagery and when it does kick into high gear during the many set-pieces, it never seems to fall headlong into being a satisfying all-out zombie actioner, which would sate the horror crowd; it instead prefers to maintain a statelier period tone and try to play to a wider audience.

For fans of the undead genre and the frenzied spilling of arcing jets of claret, this is an entertaining ride through a juxtaposition of genre tropes; for the horror uninitiated, it may be too much of a gory punch to the face that lacks the ‘feels’ to pull you through the story.

 
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Parasite

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

What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.

Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.

By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.

Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.

Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.

The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.

There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.

 
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Ohong Village

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

Very few directors make such an assured debut as director Lung-Yin Lim has illustrated here.

 

The story follows Sheng (Yui-Hsu Lin) a business magnate from Taipei who stays with his relatives in Ohong Village. As he surrounds himself with locals and the beautiful landscape, he begins questioning his place in modern society as his relationship with his father becomes more and more unpredictable.

Writer/Director Lung-Yin Lim draws from his experiences which results in a film that feels very personal. The characters are palpable and in fact, the whole film is built on a sense of realism. The story deals with issues of community, class and karma and the film’s tone and pacing have an isolated and chilling feel.

The three main performances are striking: Jieh-Wen King gives a vulnerable portrayal as Ming, Sheng’s father, while Yui-Hsu Lin and Hsin-Tai Chen capture the feeling of disillusionment in young people’s lives.

Ohong Village has a stunning variety of wide shots across beautiful scenery. The film was shot on Kodak 16mm film and this adds to the vibrancy and the general aesthetic. From the beach wasteland at the start to the city lights, the film always dazzles and surprises in its variety of locations.

While the film’s themes and tone are refreshingly complex, the characters do feel underwritten and over-simplistic at points. There are instances of the characters telling rather than showing and it feels undercooked, especially since the rest of the film is so nuanced. The female characters feel side-lined in the overall narrative and don’t get much to do. A more prominent female perspective could have added depth to the story. The ending rushes the character arcs and results in an underwhelming and obvious conclusion to an overall unpredictable narrative.

All in all, though, a solid, daring effort from a new director to watch.

 
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Looby

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

Keith Looby has a reputation for pissing off nearly every Australian art critic.

When you hear Keith Looby talk in person you will hear a soft-spoken artist with a deep resentment towards an ‘industry’ that just as easily celebrated him as it disposed of him.

Looby – which premieres as part of the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Festival – details the tumultuous career of the Archibald Prize Winner who wanted to be part of the arts conversation just as much as he tried to distance himself away from it.

Looby’s career is explored in a series of interviews detailing his perception among curators, critics and fellow artists. While critics of Looby recognise his remarkable ability to infuse politics into his artwork, his cantankerous antics left him ostracised from the Australian art scene.

Director Iain Knight does not attempt to paint Looby as a saint and affirms Looby’s reputation as being difficult through a multitude of sources. Looby would be the person talking too loudly on the train and speaking with his mouth full of food. Knight faces an uphill battle having the audience rally behind his subject but succeeds in separating the controversial artist from his art by recognising the social importance of his work against the backdrop of a pretentious industry hellbent on silencing him.

From Looby learning about the power of illustration when defiant at school, to his unpopular pursuit of the Archibald, the artist has always been under constant scrutiny by critics. His resentment at the culture-of-criticism is explored with a satirical gaze on an almost mafia-esque industry that would as soon dispose of its detractors as it would accept a non-conformist.

This disparagement for critique – whether hurt feelings or not – does not deter from Looby’s refusal to remain silent against a surveillant power. This ideology seeps through not only Looby’s personal life but also in the political nature of his artwork. The effects of Looby’s professional expulsion builds the emotional core of the film, with the artist now approaching the reality that most of his artwork will more likely be held in storage than presented in a gallery.

Radical? Maybe. Difficult? Most likely.

Keith Looby’s rejection from the art scene provides a fascinating exploration on art and critic-culture told through the eyes of an artist in constant disagreement with the establishment.

 

 
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Nina Wu

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

The opening of Nina Wu, Myanmar-born filmmaker Midi Z’s first feature shot in his adoptive home of Taiwan, is an eerie phantom ride on the Taipei subway. It’s an adept visual metaphor, a premonition of the psychological tunnels down which its titular protagonist will tumble. Working with long-time muse Wu Ke-xi, who shares a screenwriting credit, Nina Wu is Midi Z’s take on a ‘MeToo’-era psychological thriller, reaching back to Polanski’s paranoid ’60s thrillers to mirror the deterioration of the mind of a female protagonist in the physical set. On the style front, he emulates the baroque excess of Aronofsky and Nicolas Winding Refn, especially in the pointed use of the colour red. It’s fortunate he has such an unusual and intuitive visual sense, as Nina Wu otherwise feels like three distinct movies warped into one.

Struggling actress Nina lands her first big role in a salacious period production, despite transgressing moral and personal boundaries. The film about filmmaking angle is ultimately perfunctory, although the lavishness of the staging suggests a sly parody of The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful, 2017’s preposterously over-the-top melodrama that gave Wu her breakout role.

In its dominant mode, Nina Wu is a powerful and bitter critique of the degradation perpetrated against vulnerable women in the ‘entertainment industry,’ and the long psychological shadow it casts over them. On a character level, the film is structured around this polemical point, doused in the excess of sex and power but never erotic. It’s a clever exercise in making the audience feel awful without crossing over into the exploitative: the film withholds, for example, any actual nudity. The bluntness of the delivery, however, detracts from the veil of mystery.

Finally, there is a heartfelt love story between the lead and Vivian Sung, as unpretentiously charming as she’s ever been on screen but wasted in this role, and swallowed up by the sharp edge of the film’s thrust. As for Wu, she is a fascinating screen presence, utterly capable of anchoring the film. She and Midi Z share an obvious rapport developed over their long period of collaboration, and this is reflected in his understanding of how to channel her almost austere features through brittleness and versatile countenance. The most unnerving images put Wu front and centre, isolated in the frame, wearing a perpetually fraught and disoriented expression, her face scrunched up.

A film on the intrusion of the past into the present, Nina Wu disrupts its chronology with unwelcome, nightmare-tinged flashbacks. The editing is fluid, Lim Giong’s score bubbles away sinisterly, and it masquerades capably as a genre film, while harbouring far more subversive intentions. The powerful central performance and aesthetic flair hold it together, more or less, even though it never coheres narratively.

 
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Our Youth in Taiwan

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

After a decade of Beijing exerting its seemingly inexorable gravitational pull, China’s peripheries – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet – are renewing their pushback against the centre. Nowhere is this unequal struggle more acute than in Taiwan, the self-ruling, democratic island still officially called the Republic of China, neither under the actual control of the People’s Republic nor recognised as an independent state. Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary on 2014’s Sunflower Movement – a student-led push that successfully overturned a trade pact with mainland China – gains an extra frisson of resonance in light of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

This documentary’s director, Fu Yue, wears her political convictions on her sleeve: Our Youth in Taiwan builds on a short film she contributed to the anthology Sunflower Occupation, released in the year of the demonstrations. And at November’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, she sparked her own controversy when she called for Taiwanese independence.

This is a documentary crafted unmistakably from within its movement. Fu provides little background on the Sunflower Movement for international viewers, and never steps outside of the protest crowd for an alternative opinion. It’s the sort of embedded filmmaking that observes events as they develop and offers real-time commentary. Eventually, Fu directs her focus on two individuals, a young Taiwanese activist (Chen Wei-ting) and a mainland Chinese student and writer (Cai Boyi), subjects she follows for the rest of the film.

Our Youth in Taiwan is shaggy, exhaustive and arguably overlong, but it’s also as immediate and of-the-moment as you could hope for in a snapshot of China’s turbulent relations with the polities and peoples of its outlying regions in 2019. Fu adopts a lo-fi approach; the camerawork is grainy, footage is recycled and there is no soundtrack. She muses about ‘mutual understanding’ (between Taiwan and mainland China), and the eternal friction between ideals and politics is a theme in the film, yet its substance is more about how a protest movement lives and breathes, what drives its participants on a personal level.

Fu is also, despite her obvious political leanings, a sympathetic filmmaker, able to elicit openness from Chen and Cai and capture them in all their human complexity. The film, in following their abortive attempts at political careers, sidesteps the common inclination in documentaries to heroize its subjects: Chen is brought down by personal shortcomings, while Cai discovers that Taiwan’s democratic politics are as cruel and unsparing as everywhere else.

This collage of events leads to an uncertain resolution in which Fu grapples onscreen with her own expectations and emotions as a filmmaker. It’s unexpected, a violation of documentary convention that the director should remain at a distance, but in fusing the structural and the personal to seek closure outside the traditional form of a documentary, it’s a minor revelation. It’s that emotional core, and its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments, that sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.

 
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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Having worked on over a thousand films as a writer, producer or director, French pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s achievements are one for the history books.

Yet you will never find her name published in any of them.

Present at the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, Guy-Blaché’s absence from the annals of filmmaking is explored with vivid intrigue in documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

Be Natural explores how Guy-Blaché became absconded from history through limitations of outdated technology in preserving her films and from her experiences working in an industry riddled with patriarchy and sexism.

Guy-Blaché’s belief that film could be used for more than documenting real-life created the template for all films with a narrative structure that have followed. There is an expression of authenticity in her work that carried through not just in the performances she drew from actors but in her creation of material that bravely addressed at-the-time taboo topics such as inequality. Guy-Blaché’s modesty did not detract from her ingenuity, with the filmmaker helping introduce colour, sound and special effects to cinema during a time when films were dark, silent and static.

Be Natural’s willingness to invite the audience in on the mystery behind Guy-Blaché’s deletion from history is alluring, resulting in a compelling watch that adds appeal to dry subject matter relating to film-preservation and archiving.

Director Pamela B. Green presents Guy-Blaché’s fighting-spirit through archival footage – allowing Guy-Blaché to showcase her intelligent and likeable personality. This is given more credence in recounts of her life through the admiring eyes of her daughter Simone, Francophile narrator Jodie Foster and in interviews with present-day Hollywood filmmakers shocked by Guy-Blaché’s lack of profile.

Green uses motion and graphics (which she has built a career on) throughout Be Natural to create a work that is accessible to the public and not just appealing to academics.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché exists as a testament to an industry clamouring for the equal treatment of women through the gaze of an innovator that fought a large part of her life to be recognised.

 
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Black ’47

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Though birthed in America, the western genre has been a seasoned traveller over the years, galloping its way into territory as distant as Italy (courtesy of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and co), Denmark (Kristian Levring’s The Salvation), New Zealand (Geoff Murphy’s Utu certainly flirts with the genre) and Australia (The Proposition still stands as a great western to rival much US output). With the absolutely cracking Black ’47, the western has now made its way to Ireland, and the results are stunning, as the film deals strongly in familiar genre tropes, Irish history, and blistering social comment.

When young Irish soldier Feeney (Australian actor, James Frecheville, best known for Animal Kingdom, gives an impressively intense and highly physical performance here) returns home from serving the crown in Afghanistan, he finds his home destroyed, with the nation in the violent grip of The Great Famine, which rained down starvation, death, disease and corruption between 1945 and 1949. With his family torn apart by unfeeling landlords and oppressive English forces, Feeney – an experienced fighter now equipped with exotically effective Afghan weapons – sets out for revenge. On his trail are his former military colleague, Hannah (the ever reliable Hugo Weaving is in fine form), and pompous English officer, Pope (Freddie Fox).

While on the surface functioning as a straight-ahead western actioner (Frecheville’s hard-charging killing machine Feeney is almost cut from the same cloth from which Rambo was constructed), Black ’47 really burns brightly in its fierce, uncompromising depiction of Ireland suffering under English rule. It’s exciting, entertaining, and utterly gripping, but Black ’47 is also a defiant, heartfelt piece of protest cinema.

 
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Locusts

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Festival, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

With his 2016 feature directorial debut, Broke, and its 2018 about-face follow-up, Book Week, writer/director, Heath Davis, marked himself as a filmmaker capable of making massive genre shifts, sliding from a gritty, bruising drama to a gentle character comedy with apparent ease. Both films were top-tier local efforts, and Davis delivers once again on his third time round (with credit to writer/producer Angus Watts, who receives equal top billing on the film), making another genre jump with the slippery outback thriller, Locusts. An obvious call-out to the seminal dust battered classic, Wake In Fright, it’s an inventively shot and highly entertaining reminder that what lies outside of our city borders isn’t always pretty.

When he returns to his small outback hometown of Serenity Crossing for the funeral of his violent, abusive father, big city tech success story, Ryan (Ben Geurens), is quickly reminded of why he left. Burned dry by drought and seemingly run on beer, it’s an ugly stain of a place. Ryan’s broken down brother, Tyson (Nathaniel Dean), is still there, and so are the debts left by their father, which finds the pair in the sights of a local crime boss (Alan Dukes) and his henchmen (Steve Le Marquand, Justin Rosniak, Ryan Morgan and the late Damian Hill). With only Ryan’s embittered ex (Jessica McNamee) and a family friend (Andy McPhee) on his side, the suited city slicker is way out of his depth.

Boasting a tight and twisting script from Watts and stunning imagery from DOP, Chris Bland, Locusts is the kind of film that we don’t see nearly enough of in Australia: a classy crime B-movie in the style of John Dahl or (early) James Foley. It’s elevated even further, however, by the stellar performances. Ben Geurens is totally empathetic as the harried hero, while Alan Dukes, Steve Le Marquand, Justin Rosniak, Ryan Morgan and Damian Hill (in his final screen performance) are absolutely stunning as the bad guys, bringing a wonderfully wild eyed brand of menace and madness to their characters. With Locusts, the third time is certainly a charm for the supremely talented Heath Davis and his partner in crime on this occasion, Angus Watts.

 
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Savage Youth

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Set in a nameless impoverished town, Savage Youth focuses on the lives of two separate groups of young people living out their existence and trying to figure out their place in the world. The characters, the town and everyone’s situations push this sense of hopelessness, which sucks the viewer into their world and helps you see things from their perspective, even if you can’t relate to them directly.

The central story revolves around two young lovers in a familiar story; shy girl meets bad boy and gets swept up in a whirlwind romance that ultimately leads to a tragic ending. Mix that with a downtrodden bullying victim always yearning to prove himself, a couple of misguided girls experimenting with drugs, a pair of heart of gold drug dealers, with a dash of teen angst and jealousy, and you have a combination destined for disaster.

One of the many things that director Michael Curtis Johnson does well is the realistic portrayal of teens and drug culture. The dialogue and interactions between characters feels authentic and it really helps you get involved in the story. The side-effect is that the film explores socio-economic and racial issues in a terrifyingly raw way. Even the supporting characters feel real.

The location is nameless and could be anywhere; this could be your town, you could know someone like this, or you could even be this person, and that is what makes this film so effectively captivating.

There are moments that genuinely make your skin crawl, which is a hard feat to accomplish today, when audiences are so desensitised. The cinematography (by Magela Crosignani) is a highlight, there are breathtaking sequences set to music and terrific one-shot monologues that go on for minutes. The beautifully composed cinematography is aided by the score (by Jonathon Keeling), which ranges from classical piano to creepy synthesiser tones when appropriate.

This is the second feature from Johnson (following 2016’s SlamDance winner Hunky Dory), who is quickly proving himself to be confident in dealing with gritty subject matter and delivering a raw and entertaining take on it.

Savage Youth delivers a strong punch to the guts and will definitely leave a few viewers with tears.