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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.

 

 
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Tigers are not Afraid

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Opening with alarming statistics of the drug cartel violence that has besieged Mexico (160,000 dead and over 50,000 missing), Tigers are not Afraid layers magic realism against a gut-churningly bleak landscape of the orphaned children of the dead, roaming the ruined streets of an unnamed city run by human traffickers and the assorted scum that exist on the periphery of the drug cartel’s battleground.

Young teenager Estrella (Paola Lara) is alone, her mother murdered. Having no family or means of getting food, she meets the wiley Shine (Juan Ramón López), a young boy who leads a small gang of children (in a very deliberate Peter Pan and the Lost Boys reference) that he protects as they evade kidnappers who hunt them, intent on selling them into child-sex rings.

The youngest child in the group, 4-year-old Morro (Nery Arredondo), doesn’t speak because of the horrors he’s witnessed. Estrella becomes something of a ‘Wendy’ to the group, looking after the younger ones, while lamenting the loss of her own mother whom she ‘wishes’ back to life and whose zombie-like visage haunts Estrella, who begins to believe that her wishes are corrupted, always manifesting in dark and unexpected ways.

When Estrella finds local criminal Caco (Ianis Guerrero) dead in his home, she tells the group she did it to gain their trust. This results in the group being targeted by Caco’s associates and the children find themselves running scared.

Throughout the film, there are moments of tenderness and subtle beauty, with flourishes of magical creatures, inanimate objects coming to life as well as communicating with the dead, whose spirits exist amongst the living. The unrelenting bleakness does shift the tone into horror territory on a few occasions though the young cast are all terrifically capable and engaging and its strange and terrible beauty never once compromises or yields to the safety of tropes or cliché.

Much like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in setting the fantasy world of these children’s imaginations against such a bitterly brutal reality, something else is created within the juxtaposition. It’s precisely the beauty this film finds in the unrelenting darkness of its subject matter that makes it so transcendent, so beautiful and so moving.

 
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Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

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If ever – or at least at any time in the ’60s – there was a woman ahead of her time, it was Barbara Rubin. Her short 1963 film Christmas On Earth, for example, was very sexually explicit and technically adventurous in areas from multi-media to installation and performance art. Her story is in some ways a mindbogglingly improbable one, and it’s well told here.

One of the astonishing aspects of Rubin’s life is the number of important artistic figures she befriended, knew and influenced. This is the person who took Bob Dylan to Andy Warhol’s Factory, and who introduced Warhol himself to the Velvet Underground (at the Cafe Bizarre). She then went on to create the visuals at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable… But she’s not well known. Amazing really! Oh, and she was a close friend of (and in love with) the great poet Allen Ginsberg. And then there is the big sudden change in her life which left her friends stunned and initially disbelieving. Mum’s the word about that, but it’s safe to say you’ll be taken aback too.

As if all the above were not intriguing enough, there’s a mother lode of terrific archival material in this film, notably rare footage of the Velvets. The interviews with her surviving friends and collaborators are all interesting, best of all being the recollections of venerable filmmaker and writer Jonas Mekas, still kicking and still sharp at 95. The use of period music on the soundtrack is sublime.

Not only is the subject matter of Barbara Rubin… absolutely fascinating, but the treatment is something of an object lesson in how to make a riveting documentary.

 

 
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The Guilty (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Asger Holm is a police officer under investigation for the illegal shooting of a suspect. While protesting his innocence, he finds himself restricted to working the emergency telephone lines night after night. On the last night of work before his disciplinary tribunal is held, a terrified woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) calls having been kidnapped from her own home. Asger is forced to rescue her and catch her kidnapper – all from the confines of his desk.

The Guilty is one of the freshest and most tense crime thrillers of recent years. It is tense because it features a whip-smart plot with several twists and surprises. It feels fresh because not only does Asger never leave the office, neither does the audience. The entire feature takes place in an emergency call centre, with the victim, kidnapper, witnesses and field cops only featuring via a telephone line. It creates something that almost feels like a hybrid of film and radio drama. It forces the audience to imagine the action by themselves, and there’s plenty of action to be imagined. As if often the trend with so-called ‘Nordic Noir’, the violence gets rather blunt and trends towards the actively horrific. It’s arguably even more savage than usual, since The Guilty doesn’t show you horrors so much as describe them to you for you to imagine by yourself.

Such a deliberately limited presentation places a lot of responsibility on both acting and writing. The screenplay is by director Gustav Möller with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and positively nails the tension required to make the film work. It is not a long film by any stretch, but it still wisely utilises a slow build as a kidnapping turns into a murder, and that murder begins to ratchet up Asger’s own tensions about the killing of which he has been accused. It builds the facts behind the kidnapping like a jigsaw puzzle, as each revelation forces the viewer to reconsider what they have already heard. Once events reach a climax, Möller is quick to exit the film while the audience is still reeling. It’s good that the film is as tightly edited as it is – much more of this level of tension and it would risk becoming unbearable.

Jakob Cedergren does a sensational job playing Asger. It is a hugely demanding role. The majority of the film is dominated by his face in close-up, requiring an enormously subtle performance to both maintain tension and avoid over-acting. It is a pressure-cooker role, with Asger being critical to Iben’s survival yet feeling powerless as a field officer stuck on the telephone, and not well-liked by his colleagues for being a hothead or widely trusted due to his shooting incident. The performance is as close to faultless as to make no odds.

This is a remarkable, must-see thriller, and one of the strongest narrative features of the year to date. It is remarkable the directorial debut for Gustav Möller. If his first shot is this strong, he is definitely a director to keep an eye on in future. The Guilty announces a major new filmmaking talent.

 
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Mega Time Squad (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

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John (Anton Tennet) lives in the sleepy town of Thames, on New Zealand’s North Island. He’s got no family to lean back on nor prospects for his future, so bad decision-making has led him to the dead-end job of being muscle (or rather the subject of abuse and derision) for low-grade criminal-on-the-make, Shelton (Jonny Brugh from What We Do in the Shadows).

John is also poised to be evicted from his current home in his landlady’s garage, so he sees a make-or-break choice in front of him: grow some balls and take life by the horns, or be ordered around by the whinging, derisive Shelton for the rest of his days. Prompted into action by his feelings for Shelton’s younger sister, Kelly (Hetty Gaskell-Hahn), John decides to pull his own robbery of a Chinese general store. In the process, he scores a large bag of drug money and goes on the lam to evade the vengeful Shelton, who’s annoyed that his employee has gone freelance and sprouted ambitions of his own. So, John’s alone but he’s aided in no small part by a sweet score from the Chinese shop he just robbed: a bracelet that’s inhabited by an ancient Chinese demon allowing time-travel and the resultant creation of multiple versions of himself.

It’s New Zealand filmmaker Tim Van Dammen’s loving (and ingenious) treatment of the inherent time-travel genre tropes that reveal his inspirational sources. He’s fused the low-level suburban criminal bungling of dim-witted recidivists in films like Two Hands or Gettin’ Square with the time travel loop-back intricacy of Shane Carruth’s Primer or Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, allowing this low-budget comedy to break free of its budgetary limitations and lay a puzzle-box foundation on which to build its enjoyably silly and (at times) gorily slapstick laughs.

The setting itself (in the town of Thames) invokes the New Zealand sci-fi classic The Quiet Earth, which also famously filmed in the town (though at the time the joke was, if you needed to visualise the sudden evaporation of a town’s populace, downtown Thames on a Sunday morning is probably the closest you could get).

While Van Dammen does everything he can to keep things decidedly low-key despite the genre he’s playing in, editor Luke Haigh (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and cinematographer Tim Flower (who shot Van Dammen’s previous film Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song) squeeze a lot out of the of the parochial small-town setting and its fantasy conceit, ensuring Van Dammen’s snappy, inventive tale is sure to see him graduate to bigger-budgeted sandboxes.

 

 

 

 
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Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits

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Documentary Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits tells the story of all-woman / woman-led punk band The Slits, from their formation in grim mid-seventies London, through to their initial demise in ‘82, surprising resurrection in 2005, and eventual end five years later. The quartet of women who formed the best known ‘punk’ iteration of the band – Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive – come across as strong, fearless, and driven. In a deeply sexist world they rightly refused to be the kind of invisible, silent women that conservative British society wanted. Despite facing incomprehension from some and outright hostility from others – as Viv Albertine says, faced with the group on the street, men “couldn’t decide if they wanted to fuck us or kill us” – The Slits remained dedicated to their vision.

Through interviews and archive footage the group, their contemporaries, and friends tell The Slits’ story. It’s refreshing also to see the inclusion of early founder members amongst the better known interviewees, which helps locate the group in the chaotic world of punk London. Other contributions from the likes of filmmaker, DJ, and one-time Slits manager, Don Letts and punk professor Vivien Goldman offer a broader context.

Ultimately, The Slits created their own sound, combining the energy and attitude of punk, reggae, and even ‘world music’. As a subculture, punk offered The Slits, and many others, the possibility of a true alternative and a way out. Driven by its own punk-aesthetic – bold intertitles, archive celluloid, and so on – Badgley’s film is a celebration of the band and their achievements.

Disclaimer: Jack is an occasional programmer for Sydney Underground Film Festival, but this film was programmed by GrooveScooter, and is nothing to do with him.

 
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And Breathe Normally

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Iceland is a tiny country of about 330,000, and geographically isolated. Like many Nordic countries it is perceived as being settled and affluent with a good welfare system. However, like any European country today, it is implicated in the global refugee crisis and the mutual adjustments that this must entail.

All this is unstated background to this quietly powerful drama centred around two lives brought into relation by the new circumstances.

We initially follow Lara (Kristin Haraldsdottir). She is a thirty something single mum so down on her luck that she is scrounging for food and sleeping in her small car with her young teen son Eldar (Patrik Petersson). The bond between mother and son is close and it needs to be because there are so many things about the arbitrariness of the modern society/economy that she cannot fully explain to the trusting and sweet Eldar.

Eventually Lara lands her one chance at a stable job working in airport security. She spruces up and heads into the world of formal employment still unsure if she will make it. Quite early on in her apprenticeship she impresses her supervisor by spotting an irregularity in the passport of a refugee from Guinea-Bissau called Adja (Babetida Sadjo). Later, when we follow Adja’s story we immediately feel how scary it must be to live in the overcrowded margins of a society where fear and flight are the only constants. All Adja wants, really, like any refugee, would be the chance to relax and breathe normally.

Isold Uggadottir’s film is small scale and slowly-paced. It takes its time to show us the character development, not through dramatic or unrealistic big scenes, but rather through an accumulation of telling detail. The friendship (and later, possibly, love) between the two women carries the film engagingly. The natural performance of the wide-eyed Eldar is also a really important counterpoint.

The film is impressive for its ability to tell a near-universal modern story entirely through a close-focus view of everyday life.

 
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The Wild Boys (Brisbane International Film Festival)

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There are strong echoes here of numerous cultural forebears, many of them literary: William Golding, Jules Verne and William Burroughs for example. Then there are the cinematic predecessors, like Jean Cocteau and (relatively recently) Todd Haynes. And yet, for all that, The Wild Boys is sometimes striking in ways of its own – especially visually. The gorgeous cinematography – mostly black and white – and the beautiful lighting give the film a surreal quality over and above its strange content, and somehow render its nastier elements all the more disturbing.

The premise here is that five boys (all actually played by women) commit the pack rape of their literature teacher. In an ostensible attempt to reform them, they are taken on a long sea voyage by a mysterious man known as The Captain (Sam Louwyck) – who soon proves to be at least as brutal and savage as the boys themselves. What follows is nothing if not bizarre and polymorphously perverse. The ship’s sails are covered in hair. They end up on an island in which the grass ‘gropes’ them, much of the vegetation is phallic in shape, and they begin to find themselves turning into girls. All of which occurs to the accompaniment of effective music, some of it ironically sentimental or mock-heroic.

A lot of what unfolds is difficult to describe – but then, as with an unsettling dream, you wouldn’t necessarily want to describe it. What’s more regrettable is that the story drags on a bit, so that the most benign choreographed sensuality eventually starts to look and feel like a video clip – while the more unsavoury stuff becomes too cumulatively irksome.

The Wild Boys doesn’t go anywhere interesting, or build sufficiently on its surreality, but there are enough imaginative elements in it to pass muster.

 
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Love Sonia (Indian Film Festival of Melbourne)

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In 2002, a young Indian woman was found in a shipping container on Long Island along with four others who hadn’t survived the voyage from Hong Kong. The imagined backstory of this tragically displaced woman is the substance of Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia – a hellish journey into the world of sex-trafficking.

Shot predominantly in India, using Hindi as its language, Love Sonia is based on Noorani’s work with NGOs and interviews with victims. Seventeen-year-old Sonia (Mrunal Thakur) follows her sister to Mumbai not realising that the latter has been sold to a brothel to pay off their father’s debt. There, Sonia is ensnared in a web of perversion, exploitation and drugs that has a global reach.

The film’s authenticity has won the approval of India’s Censor Board which normally insists that explicit language and sex scenes are cut.

Despite a worthy message and truly gripping scenes in the Indian portions of the film, Love Sonia falters towards the end. Scenes shot in Hong Kong and the US (featuring Demi Moore and Mark Duplass) lack the vigor of the earlier Indian portions of the narrative. Tonal shifts are necessitated by Sonia’s changing circumstances, but the problem lies in amping up the global perspective which has the effect of distancing the viewer from Sonia.

We see the world through her eyes, so the loss is keenly felt. She is the film’s pulse; to break away is to lose a certain intimacy.

Noorani, who worked as a line producer on Slumdog Millionaire, imbues Love Sonia with familiar themes – the separation of siblings by the forces of poverty and corruption, the loss of innocence, and finally, heroism from unexpected quarters. This is not to say that the film is cliched. There is too much attention to detail for that to be the case. Fine characterisation and performances from the Indian cast make the brothel scenes, in particular, stand out; starting with Sonia’s descent into a rabbit warren of tiny cubicles and corridors – each revealing horrors of increasing intensity. This is uncomfortable viewing because her innocent belief in the normality of life is being assaulted, and through her eyes this translates into alarm and disorientation.

The power play in the brothel is built around the character of the pimp – Faizal played with disturbing menace by Manoj Bajpayee. The strategies he uses to break in the new girl are chilling. The intimacy is often hard to take. There is almost too much information, making the viewer a reluctant voyeur to the spectacle of human degradation. In fairness to Noorani, he has decided to play it real – to do justice to the stories narrated by the women interviewed. It is a difficult balance to strike and for large part of Love Sonia, Noorani has managed to pull it off.

 
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Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith

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Jack Smith (1932-1989) was a pioneering and influential filmmaker of the underground (though he disliked the term) – as important in certain ways as Warhol or Kenneth Anger. So, he’s a potentially great subject for a film. This one is a “film essay” rather than a biography or linear documentary, which means that there are no talking heads, no critics, no friends… just extracts from Smith’s films and other archival visual material, overlaid by audio recordings of the man himself.

Unfortunately, Smith’s spoken delivery is monotonous, slow and riddled with “ums” and “ers”, while his conversational content veers between the embittered – “It’s a tale of nagging heartbreak” – and the oblique. And some of the ‘home movie’ stuff leaves a bit to be desired too. There is, for example, a point where successive stills of a man taking a toy penguin for a ‘walk’ around Rome on a leash cross over from the amusingly absurd into the tedious.

The good news is that some of the clips from Smith’s actual movies – shorts, for the most part – are terrific. Most impressive – and for many years quite notorious – is Flaming Creatures, a sumptuous and sometimes sinister 45-minute exercise in inspired high camp in which the cast seemed to be participating in some kind of ancient arcane ritual. The similarly titled Respectable Creatures (featuring Tiny Tim) is diverting too. And then there’s the comic androgyny of I Was A Male Yvonne De Carlo

Jack Smith’s cinematic world was an over-the-top one of drag queens, mummies, snakes, Cleopatra impersonators and operatic melodrama. It was also an intensely creative one.

Worth seeing for the movie clips.