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Acute Misfortune (Brisbane International Film Festival and Adelaide Film Festival)

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Acute Misfortune tells the story of the later years of Archibald-Prize winning artist Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall, Snowtown, The Babadook), as chronicled by reporter Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace).

Cullen’s works have represented Australia all over the world. At 42 years old, he was the subject of a comprehensive career retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 – 4 years before his death in 2012.

Jensen was not yet 16 when he first got into journalism, going on to become the youngest news journalist to join the Sydney Morning Herald in two decades in 2007.

Based on his penned account, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, the film picks up in 2008, when the 19 year-old is invited to interview the divisive Cullen at his house in the Blue Mountains. Off that article, Cullen handpicked the fresh-faced aspirant to write his life story for a book commissioned by publisher Thames and Hudson – a deal, it turned out, never existed, one that was entirely made up by Cullen. In spite of the fact it became clear no manuscript was commissioned, Jensen spent four years on and off writing the book.

Cullen, depicted in the film, is a man who compares himself to Ned Kelly, and idolises David Wenham’s iconic performance of a Western Sydney suburbs hood in the 1998 film The Boys. (One of Cullen’s most famous pieces is a painting of Wenham.)

Cullen sits in his lounge chair, watching Wenham’s thug call himself a God, uttering “Wenho, Wenho, Wenho”, as Wenham grimly tars a cigarette on the car window. (The Boys producer Robert Connolly is heavily involved with Acute Misfortune.)

The comparison is apt. Here is another figure who lives by his own rules and vices.

Jensen is lured into the artist’s vacuum, moulded and exposed to Cullen’s literal and figurative nakedness. There is a scene where the painter arrives home at 1am, standing outside Jensen’s room, nude.

What follows is a strange, intense, dangerous relationship between the two, bordering on obsession; as the bright-eyed correspondent experiences skinned rabbits, drugs, being shot… Jensen is bruised, beaten up, pushed off a horse, continually threatened with his life – yet still, he sticks around Cullen’s house to get the story.

The performances are notable. Daniel Henshall, in particular, gives a lived-in portrayal, completely exhibiting madness and capriciousness.

The compositions of the film are arresting. Figures enter the frame, and dissipate. The photography by cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking ratchets up intensity. Shots of the Blue Mountains, where Cullen resided, vividly enhance the backdrop to the madness. Many scenes capture simple shapes, dots, figures.

Thomas M. Wright, an acclaimed actor (Top Of The Lake, The Bridge, Sweet Country), and co-founder of stage company The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, makes an impressive feature directing debut with the film. Not a standard, conventional biopic, Wright wisely chooses a poetic approach, interpreting moments and elements rather than taking a traditional route. It is more of a mosaic. The result is all the more fitting.

Written in collaboration by author Jensen and Wright, this is a film that, like The Boys, is not a pretty or beautiful portrait. Much of Adam Cullen’s behaviour is repulsive, and there are scenes of violence. But the way the ugliness is captured is striking, matching Cullen’s art.

A thought-provoking work executed powerfully, Acute Misfortune is an artistic, no holds barred depiction of madness.

Also screening at the Adelaide Film Festival, October 10 – 21, 2018

 

 
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Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?

For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.

Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.

It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.

However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.

The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.

The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.

 
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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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11 year-old Mexican Estrella (Paola Lara) finds herself living on the street when her mother is kidnapped by the terrifying Huascas criminal gang. She is soon taken in by a gang of homeless young boys, but their lives come into peril when one of the boys impulsively steals a gangster’s mobile telephone and handgun. With the Huascas now hunting the children down, Estrella’s only hope may be her mother’s ghostly voice whispering in her ear.

The bleak lives of children orphaned by Mexican gangs collide with supernatural horror in Issa López’s confident and boldly directed Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film has already gathered widespread acclaim at film festivals around the world, as well as comparisons between López and fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. It’s an easy comparison to make: not only for their country of origin, but their manner of tackling human emotions via allegory. Here, the dozens of victims of a runaway criminal gang literally haunt the streets. The lives lost are visible, and they beg Estrella to avenge them. It is an uncertain haunting, however: are the ghosts real, or are they only in Estrella’s mind? Does she really have three wishes, or do her desires coincidentally align with real events? López plays her cards very close to her chest in answering that question.

Where López differs from Del Toro is in the much grittier and realistic world that the supernatural invades. Unlike Del Toro’s baroque environments and lyrical photography, López utilises a bleak and naturalistic aesthetic. Her ghosts are rotten cadavers. The environment is broken-down and unpopulated. It is a distinctive look that, when paired with the film’s urgent pace, makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a particularly original and effective slice of urban horror.

The representation of the dead is one of the film’s strongest assets. They are barely seen, most often represented as a soft voice and a thin stream of blood that follows Estrella along floors and walls. When they are more directly seen, they have a visceral impact. At the same time, some of the non-supernatural events provide the stronger horror. The gangsters mean business when tracking down the children, and not every child necessarily emerges safely by the film’s end.

López has found an exceptional juvenile cast for her film. As Estrella, Paola Lara delivers a superb protagonist and combines grit and vulnerability. The real highlight, however, is Juan Ramón López as “Shine”, the de facto leader of the abandoned children. Despite his young age, he shows off exceptional bravado in leading his friends. When Estrella joins the group, he is immediately resentful and makes certain she knows his feelings about her. It is a great performance, packed with resentment and a cocky front, and Ramón López is quite simply superb. Shine does not simply act as a leader either; he is effectively acting as father to his three younger friends – and particularly to the vulnerable Morro (Ney Arredondo), a traumatised four-year-old who wanders the streets tightly clutching a tiger soft toy. With Estrella’s arrival, the Peter Pan and Wendy comparisons become obvious.

Short, sharp and to the point, Tigers Are Not Afraid is an excellent work of supernatural horror with a distinctive setting and an uncompromising story. It is packed with powerful imagery. It does sensational work with a juvenile cast. It deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

 
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Climax (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Not enough people are going to talk about the dancing, but we will get to that shortly.

French film provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with what feels – at least on the first viewing – as the strongest feature he has directed to date. Climax does not deviate too far from his earlier works such as Love, Enter the Void and particularly his 2002 film Irreversible, but it certainly showcases how much his technique has been refined. Noé has always pushed boundaries of mainstream taste. His various scenes of graphic violence or sexual activity have earned him a reputation for controversy, and the discomfort created in those scenes leave his audience at a queasy crossroads between shock, inappropriate laughter – even anger at the director himself. He exploits an audience’s prurience and its desire to rubber-neck violence, and punishes those desires by lingering on them to interminable lengths. Then he will perversely break the horror with an absurd moment of levity and fool the viewers into lining up to be horrified again.

The remarkable part is that Noé only needs to present something horrifying a few times for the audience’s paranoia to do the rest of the job for him. One spends much of Climax in a state of constant rising dread. It is a hugely uncomfortable place to be. The film is enormously uncomfortable and tense. In one middle sequence, you feel actively nauseous. For a film to generate such a physical response in the viewer is a remarkable achievement. Most viewers likely will not enjoy it. Some will probably object to its having ever been made at all. For those with an interest at just how far motion pictures can affect the viewer, Climax is the best horror film of 2018 to date.

Climax features a group of contemporary dancers who have been assembled to perform on an American tour. In an isolated school building in the winter, they rehearse their collaborative work. Then they party, dancing and chatting late into the night while getting drunk on home-made sangria. The sangria has been spiked – whether with LSD or some other narcotic nobody knows – and trapped inside the building the party begins to go horrifyingly out of control.

The film is divided into two halves. The second, in which the drugs take effect and the paranoia sets in, is easily the half that everybody is going to talk about. The first, which kicks off with a series of interviews with the characters and centres on a bravura 15-minute dance sequence, is utterly remarkable and deserves as much praise as it can get. It is not just exceptionally performed, with choreography by Nina McNeely, it is also beautifully shot by regular Noé cinematographer Benoît Debie. It makes you long for the idea of a fully-fledged Gaspar Noé musical. It also does a tremendous job of developing the unexpectedly large ensemble cast; a process that continues with a sharply contrasting series of rapid-cut conversations between the characters as they party.

A second dance sequence, strikingly shot from above, cleverly shows the spiked sangria taking effect. The moves become more sexual and aggressive. The mood turns ever-so-slightly threatening. From here, the film descends headlong into a familiar Noé-esque Hell, in which the lightning changes to garish primary colours and the camera starts to pitch and yaw in a queasy fashion. The characters realise they’ve been drugged. Some sink into dream-like stupors. Others get angry – very angry – and for the two dancers that did not drink the sangria, the hunt for the one who spiked the drinks becomes genuinely terrifying. It is not the violence that makes Climax a harrowing experience, it is the potential for that violence. Every character becomes a potential victim, every character a potential assailant. As each shock incident assaults the viewer he or she becomes just as paranoid as the characters, imagining with every moment every potentially horrifying thing that might occur. Some of them do. Others come out of the blue. All of them arc up the harrowing, terrifying nightmare that is beginning to unfold. It is inescapable, unstoppable, and so seemingly unending that it begins to have a genuine physical effect on the viewer.

Climax is a film with niche appeal. It is unapologetic and pulls no punches. For many viewers it will be actively repellent, and even physically upsetting. When reviewing a film, however, there are always three key questions to keep in mind: (a) what is the director attempting to do, (b) do they succeed, and (c) is it well made? With Climax the answer to all three is a resolute ‘yes’. It is not just great at what it does; it is a provocative masterpiece.

 
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United Skates (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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For many, memories of skating rinks extend to gliding precariously around a well varnished floor to the sounds of the Top 40, whilst keeping one eye out for faster, bigger kids wanting to push you over. United Skates, the award-winning documentary from Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, will happily shatter your preconceived notions of what it is to skate.

Through the two filmmakers, we’re introduced to the concept of Adults Nights, evenings – often turning into mornings – where friends, family and strangers in the African American community get together and show off their moves. And what moves they are! Brown and Winkler capture truly spectacular acts, from ‘simple’ backwards skating through to numerous backflips and landing in the splits. That last one is called the nutcracker for obvious reasons.

However, it’s not all about watching annoyingly talented skaters, United Skates also highlights several issues that perhaps you wouldn’t imagine would be connected to this fun-loving world. Whilst skating is popular in the African American community, others are turning away. The land on which these rinks lie is being re-zoned to make way for wholesale stores who can afford the huge upturn in rent. One talking head within the film predicts that three rinks close in America every month. And as each one closes, it takes with it a community. In one of the film’s more emotional scenes, we witness the last night of one such rink, its patrons spilling out at the end of the night mourning as if having lost a friend. For some, this was a place where they went with their parents and where they took their children. This is history. If you didn’t think a documentary about roller-skating could make cry, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

From here, United Skates branches off into fascinating discussions which loop back to four wheels on shoes, such as the birth of hip hop, where Salt n Peppa, Dr Dre and Queen Latifah all made their names in rink-based gigs. The documentary’s more elderly subjects discuss their part in the civil rights movement and how their peaceful demonstrations simply to be allowed to skate with white people were met with fists thrown by surly, swastika carrying idiots. All of which sounds painfully relevant.

This brief dip into history may not satisfy those looking for more facts, but it does add weight to the stories of those we meet in the present day; highlighting why the skating rink is more than just a place to pass a pleasant afternoon. People like Felicia, who sees the rink as a way to keep her children off the streets. United Skates only touches upon why the rinks are being closed, but its insinuations are loud.

United Skates is an emotional film that will boil the blood. However, it is also a joyful celebration of a subculture many of us will not be familiar with.

 

 

 

 
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Pig (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Wild Iranian comedy Pig is set in the world of Hasan Kasmai (played by Hassan Majooni) – a blacklisted director whose fellow filmmakers are being brutally slaughtered and having the word ‘Pig’ carved into their foreheads by an unknown serial killer.

Why are only movie-makers being targeted? Why isn’t the killer after him? What is real?

Pig, written, directed and produced by Mani Haghighi (A Dragon Arrives, Modest Reception), examines the life of the frustrated and vain filmmaker, who slowly begins to slide into an increasingly odd, filmic nightmare of his own creation, gradually losing touch with reality.

Our hero is banned from making films, instead directing commercials for cleaning products.

In one of many memorable visual sequences, an advertisement being filmed for bug spray has dancers lined up and dressed as ants in front of a green screen, in formation together. The scene is almost Stanley Donen-esque, recalling Singing In The Rain, and classic musicals like Gold Diggers.

Another striking scene portrays the character’s dream, in a black room with an electric LED tennis racquet.

Firmly fitting the tradition of films-within-films, the narrative is used to look at the art and process of filmmaking itself. With its wild visual sequences, and a look into the loose, insane world of a film director, Fellini’s 8 ½ immediately comes to mind. It’s not a long stretch to assume that the fictitious director is a stand-in for the actual director, Mani Haghighi, who turns a sombre subject literally on its head – into a darkly black comedy.

The film’s protagonist becomes an investigator, pulling away from his monitoring of social media to solve the mystery. Whilst he is affected by the deaths of his fellow countrymen, and suspicions that he’s the murderer, those around him are seemingly only interested in Instagram selfies.

Pulling no punches as it takes on fame and celebrity in the online age, including scenes of abject violence that might put some viewers off, the visually splendorous Pig is a meta-take which eviscerates the internet and social media.

 
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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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We could spill a lot of digital ink discussing the torturous and winding route The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating passion project, has taken to the screen. We could spend paragraphs on how he’s been wanting to make the damn thing since around 1989, and how his first shoot was scuppered by a Job-like run of disasters, as chronicled in the fascinating 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha.  We could dwell on the cast members who have come and gone, including Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Jack O’Connell, John Cleese, Jean Rochefort, Michael Palin, Robert Duvall, and John Hurt, over the course of the film’s development, or the legal issues that still surround the film.

We could, but while all that noise might add context to Gilliam’s film, none of it answers the most pertinent question: is it any good?

Well, yeah, kinda.

In the form it has finally taken, Quixote focuses on Adam Driver’s arrogant and dissolute commercial director Toby Grisoni (the character name a derivative of co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni), who finds himself in the Spanish desert filming a vodka ad that borrows iconography from Miguel Cervantes’ novel (drum roll, please…) Don Quixote. Coincidentally enough, this isn’t the first time our man Toby has brought Quixote to the screen in this precise area; he shot his film school thesis, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a black and white micro-budget opus, around the same patch of Spanish sand back in the day.

Stumbling across a bootleg copy of his old movie by chance (or is it? Gilliam, as ever, is happy to use coincidence, magic, and madness interchangeably to progress his story and themes) drives Toby, in a fit of nostalgia and dissatisfaction, to abandon his troubled production, along with his overbearing, gauche boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and his boss’s trophy wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), with whom he is having an affair, to go scope out the tiny village where he shot his film oh so many years gone by.

There, he finds that his past actions have had dire consequences. For one thing, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the innocent bar-owner’s daughter he cast in his film, seduced, and subsequently abandoned, ran away to Madrid to become an actress, and wound up a whore (the film’s words – Quixote has deep issues with women, using the contrast between Angelica and Jacqui to work the tired Madonna/whore binary to breaking point). For another, and of more pressing concern, the photogenic old cobbler (a wonderfully off-kilter Jonathan Pryce) that Toby cast as his Don Quixote is apparently still in character, the cracked actor still wearing his rusting armour and acting out the part for tourist pennies, all the while believing him to be the literary knight, whose delusions of chivalry led him on adventures in a time when notions of honour, loyalty, courage and heroism has become passe.

Which is precisely what happens here, more or less, with our ersatz Quixote deciding that Toby is Sancho Panza, his faithful squire. For his part, Toby grumbles but goes along with it; for one thing, he’s feeling a tad responsible for the old boy’s current predicament; for another, seeing the raw passion and creativity of his student effort has put into sharp focus how hollow and unfulfilling his current pursuits are. And so we’re off to the races.

Or we would be, if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was interested in racing. Rather, it ambles, idling through the desert on plough-horse and donkey, as Toby and Quixote make their way from setpiece to setpiece, with reality becoming more and more permeable around them until we’re moving from the 21st century to the 17th, from reality to imagination and back again.

Not literally, and not in such easily demarcated terms; while Gilliam at one point conceived The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as a time travel story ala A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the film as it stands is set in a much less clearly defined conceptual space; we’re in Spain, we’re in the past, we’re in Toby’s mind, and maybe Quixote’s – is the old cobbler’s derangement infectious? And spreading? If not, where are these knights and monsters coming from?

We’re certainly in Gilliam’s mind, there’s no mistaking that, and the scars left over from the pitched battles fought over Quixote are as easily discernible as the toolmarks left over from the previous iterations of the script. This Quixote is largely about the slings and arrows that artists must suffer for their art, and also the fools they must suffer in pursuit of their vision (especially when they’re chasing millions to make a movie, eh Terry?). Capitalism is the villain here, and to underline the point a villain hoves into view late in the game in the form of Aleksei (Jordi Mollà), a Russian vodka magnate/mafia boss who is dangling the promise of future investment in front of Toby and his venal boss and, largely for the sake of narrative and thematic convenience, has taken Angelica as his concubine. The climax is set in an ornate and looming castle, because this is a Terry Gilliam film, after all, where Toby and Quixote must try to rescue the maiden fair, while reality pretty much disappears up its own event horizon around them.

But to what point? Indeed is there one? It’s not readily discernible. Gilliam retreads a lot of thematic ground, such as the seductive comfort of madness and both the price and the prize of unbounded imagination, that he’s covered in earlier works, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King, while his explorations of the compromised relationship between art and commerce seem at times churlish and self-indulgent, and never quite arrive at an intact thesis. There are ideas aplenty in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but they’re deployed scattershot; threads are picked up, followed for a while, then abandoned as the film scrambles to its next gorgeously designed locale or imaginatively mounted flight of fancy.

Not that we should cast aspersion on the film’s design and imagination – Gilliam remains one of cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, and his busy, baroque, cartoonish aesthetic is all present and correct. There are moments – the onrush of a trio of misshapen giants, a girl being sacrificed to a bonfire – that are among the most striking images he’s ever committed to film. The spectacle is, well, spectacular.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the film that Gilliam, ultimately, could make, rather than the film he wanted to, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels compromised and a little half baked as a result. There are moments of mad genius here, and a warrior-poet’s heart beats under the film’s tarnished armour, but that’s not quite enough to carry the day.

 
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Sen Sen (Taiwan Film Festival)

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A boy named Sen (Wu Zhi-Xuan) struggles to cope with the recent death of his older brother. While his mother works each night at a local convenience store, Sen rides his bike around their suburb. He does homework in a fast food restaurant, hanging out at a manhwa (comics) library, and searching through his later brother’s mobile telephone. Via the telephone Sen learns that his brother was a regular viewer of a streaming videocast.

Through the cast he contacts its presenter, an elderly woman known simply as Granny (Nina Paw). Granny is a taxi driver suffering from stage 4 lung cancer and has been given three months to live. She obstinately insists she will make it to day 100. Together she and Sen make an unexpected connection and develop a stronger acceptance of death between them.

Situated less than 200 kilometres off the mainland Chinese coast, and living in a diplomatic limbo for the past seven decades, Taiwan is a small country that punches well above its weight in the screen arts. It is the home of Hollywood darling Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) as well as arthouse darlings Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin), Edward Yang (Yi Yi), and Tsai Ming-Liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn). It also has profoundly active commercial and independent film sectors – from which most films fail to secure significant international distribution. Given the generally high quality of Taiwanese cinema, that is a failure that borders on tragedy.

Sydney’s inaugural Taiwan Film Festival will hopefully change that in future years. This three-day festival from 27-29 July presents a combination of narrative features and documentary that showcases Taiwan’s film at its very best. Its opening night film Sen Sen represents an excellent way to start. It is well-performed and written, and is told in a carefully restrained and gently emotive fashion.

The film is mostly told from Sen’s point of view. Wu Zhi-Xuan gives a strong juvenile performance. It is surprisingly understated, and it is a good direction to take because it makes his rare moments of vocal upset much more striking and effective. Nina Paw – a rightfully celebrated actor in her home Hong Kong – is tremendous as Granny, expressing a wonderful amount of humour and warmth. The chemistry between the two, via acting and direction, is very strong. While they create the focus of the picture, they receive strong support by Yen Yi-Wen and Hsuan-yen Tsai as Granny’s daughter and Sen’s mother respectively. Each get their own smaller, subsidiary storylines: one about a daughter accepting her mother’s stubbornness in accepting death on her own terms, and the other about a grieving mother reconnecting with one son after another has died.

It would be easy for the film to become too sentimental or even maudlin. That it does not do so is down to An Bon’s steady and uncomplicated direction, and An and Cheng Ying-min’s screenplay. A lonely boy forming a friendship with a charming old lady gives the film humour and brightness. That the old lady is terminally ill leavens that brightness and delivers something more akin to real life. The musical score is sparse and restrained. The photography is simple and direct. This is the kind of understated quality film that deserves strong recommendation.

 
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The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful

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This is a rare and perversely kind of cherishable film: one that attempts to slather its shortcomings in preposterously overreaching style. The setting is Taiwan in the bad old 1980s, when an eerily perfect family with their finger in every honey pot conspire to ram through a crooked land deal. Then murder intervenes. And family revelations. And a blind minstrel, to deliver said revelations in a Greek chorus-type approach to narration.

Fault director Yang Ya-che, perhaps, for turning a conceivably interesting puzzle of a story into a murky and incomprehensible wreck. Don’t fault him, though, for lack of ambition: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful may be batshit crazy, but it does craziness elegantly. The overwhelming impression is that Yang cared not in the slightest for the twistiness of his script nor its nods at political context, and instead treated this as a chamber piece, a hothouse to push his stylistic impulses to the extreme. What this looks like in practice is the crispness of Jiang Wen circa Let the Bullets Fly, mixed with the over-the-top formal precision of Park Chan-wook, particularly in its would-be risqué ‘sexiness.’ There are even hints of Kim Ki-young, in the unabashedly florid treatment of its female-centred material. Yang has a fine visual sense as director: the meticulousness of the colour and set design are stunning, and the cinematography is hard to fault. The dialogue is a sophisticated melange of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Japanese, suggesting a depth and complexity never delivered upon. Sporadically, these elements result in such a good scene that it adds to the disappointment that the film never coalesces, or begins to make sense.

As for the actors: the three superb female leads struggle against the thinness of their roles. Kara Hui, a Hong Kong action star in the ’80s, commands authority as the demented matriarch. Wu Ke-xi, fresh from her transnational indie film collaborations with Myanmar-Taiwanese director Midi Z, turns in a delirious performance that articulates her character’s neuroticism; and Vicky Chen’s star continues to rise.

This is ostensibly a family tragedy, but its post-modern remove leaves it with little meaningful to say about family. Character development is neglected across the board. In execution, it’s messy and misguided, but The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful at least delivers two hours of unfiltered opulence.

 
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Jirga

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After all the military and colonial interventions in Afghanistan over the centuries, one thing we can conclude is that the place is not easily subjugated. That doesn’t seem to have stopped various countries having a go. The problem is that the more you try to suppress a movement the more it hardens up. The Taliban have not disbanded or lost influence. Australia of course is implicated at a national level in this conundrum as we still have some presence there.

This is the backdrop to Benjamin Gilmour’s remarkable little film which has just played in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is also in competition at the upcoming CinefestOZ in WA.

Gilmour travelled in the country and mixed with both local people and Aussie soldiers. The heart of his screenplay was going to be about a soldier serving in Afghanistan who had shot a civilian and who had later traveled back to somehow make amends with the family of the victim. Gilmour cast the actor Sam Smith in the lead role.

They then went to make the film on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is where the story of the film rather overtakes the film itself. Whilst they were filming, the crew was receiving rumours that ‘various groups’ were none too happy about the project. This then escalated to death threats and the possibilities of IEDs being planted in the caves where they were shooting. Standing on the stage at the SFF for a Q&A, the director seemed quite relaxed about this in retrospect, but it clearly wasn’t a joke at the time. For those interested, Gilmour has just written a bestselling paperback about the making of the film called Cameras and Kalashnikovs.

The film itself is short and effective. Some will find it a moving anti-war piece. The look of the film is quite arresting; the large dusty vistas are contrasted with urgent hand-held, up-close action sequences. The acting and the plot have to take a back seat somewhat, but given that they had to improvise some of the story and sequences under extreme pressure this is understandable.

As noted, this film has a very particular provenance. To say that the back story is more interesting than the film would be dismissive. However, when the back story is this interesting and integral, it is more the case that they can work together.