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Mirrors of Diaspora

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In the mid-Seventies, a group of young Iraqi artists – Arabs and Kurds – left their country to continue studies in the art academies of Rome and Florence. Things changed dramatically for the worse in the Eighties, and it became too dangerous for them to return.  It still is, and this documentary looks at their art, what they’ve done since, how they look at the world, and what it’s like to be in ‘voluntary’ exile from your homeland.

All the artists here have been successful to a greater or lesser extent, and have felt welcomed in their various adopted countries – Italy, Holland and Sweden – so this is not exclusively the litany of woe we might expect. But there are, inevitably, some sad elements, stories and observations. One of them admits, in fact, that he rarely paints these days precisely because of all the destruction in the Middle East, while another has created an installation in memory of his brother who was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

And then there is Kadhum Al Dakhail, resident in Sweden, who observes that blood-spattered reality is in a sense already a form of graphic ‘artwork’ which it would be superfluous to depict, so he tends to concentrate on less visceral subject matter.  Dutch-based artist Afifa Aleiby specialises in (beautiful) monumental art and representational paintings… Sculptor Fuad Azziz, in Florence, makes striking flat ‘two-dimensional’ figures, as well as illustrating children’s books … The eloquent Resmi Al Kafaji combines Iraqi and Italian memories by showing how the Tuscan hills resemble a woman in robes…  And there are snippets from a couple of theatrical performance pieces.

Mirrors Of Diaspora has a few moments of tedium, and could safely have been pruned a little. But it’s worth seeing – preferably on the big screen – and for the most part it’s illuminating.


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The Outbreak

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While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, it engages because of the character groundwork laid out in the first act.

A man runs through the snowy wilderness, protected from the cold by the furs on his back. Looking like the very definition of worst for wear, he stumbles into a river before vomiting blood. As far as openings go, it’s certainly one to make you sit up and take notice. It’s also a bit misleading to what The Outbreak is about. Titled Vongozero in its native Russia and based on the book of the same name by Yana Vagner, The Outbreak is less apocalyptic tale and more family-based drama. Think Stephen King’s The Stand but with fewer allegories about God and The Devil.

Set in modern-day Moscow, everyday man Sergei (Kirill Käro) is coming out of a bitter break up with his ex, Ira (Maryana Spivak) – who dangles their son over him like a prize – whilst maintaining a new relationship with his former therapist, Anna (Viktoriya Isakova) and her autistic son, Misha (Eldar Kalimulin). Meanwhile, businessman Lyonya (Aleksandr Robak) is struggling to keep control of his alcoholic and bitter daughter, Polina (Viktoriya Agalakova).

On its own, there’s enough quality melodrama for the audience to dine out on here for months. When Sergei and Lyonya bring their families together for a ‘friendly’ meal, the scene is brilliantly staged as a pantomime of polite small talk masking the disdain certain diners have for each other. It seems obvious that to avoid all future tension, everyone should stay away from each other, but then there’s the superflu that’s running through the country. A virus that sees the government denying all knowledge while simultaneously shutting down schools with children and staff still inside.

While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, The Outbreak engages because of the groundwork laid out in the first act. Having successfully set up the dynamics of this array of backbiters and genuinely good people, the narrative sees Sergei and his two families, along with Lyonya and his, having to work together as Moscow turns into a plague pit and mysterious armed men attack their homes.

Escaping to the countryside by car, director Pavel Kostomarov manages through the tight confines of their transport to crank up the tension and paranoia that comes with this new diseased territory. Before all this though, Kostomarov teases the oncoming plague in a way that makes it all the more surprising when it finally arrives at Sergei’s doorstep. Things happen in the background; news reports are cut off, and ‘drunk’ people stumble out into traffic. Hidden in their own disputes, the end of the world almost sneaks by our characters.

Perhaps the biggest issue with The Outbreak is the advert that’s tagged onto the end of the film’s cliffhanger finale. Like The First Purge, the film concludes with a promotion of the television series adaptation which presumably continues the adventures of our band of not so merry brothers. It’s certainly not as egregious as The Devil Inside, which ended with a plea to visit a now defunct website, but you may feel a little cheated that you’re not going to be getting any resolution any time soon. That said, what is on show has certainly done its part and shows great promise for future instalments.

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This is both a tense film and a rather understated one, with those apparent contradictions exemplified in its subdued and troubled protagonist. The immediate trigger for his distress is an incident in 2002 when a friend of Palestinian youth Ziad (Ziad Bakri) is fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. Shortly afterwards, a passenger in Ziad’s car responds by also shooting someone at random. Ziad takes the fall for his friends, and spends the next fifteen years in prison, where he evidently does it even tougher than we might assume. What happens after his release – and his complex but bottled-up feelings about it – are the meat of the matter in this involving story.

Adjusting to a changed outside world is one of Ziad’s challenges, but of course the sense of disorientation engendered by things like Facebook and a greater range of coffee pale into utter insignificance next to his deeper alienation. Traumatised, haunted by his past and unable to sleep at night, Ziad is unwilling – or possibly unable – to talk about it when approached by a well-intentioned female documentary maker. Nor he can he relate to his family, the friends who welcome him as a returning hero or the exigencies of holding down a job. In one of his less taciturn and more evocative moments, he describes himself as feeling “out of my skin”.

Screwdriver is an intelligently conceived and sustained mood piece, which manages to show the universal in the personal without – for the most part anyway – being an overt propaganda vehicle. (One character even says that such films “only make people feel sorry for us”.) And it’s got that rare virtue, a terrific ending.

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Blue Hour

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The trappings of independent cinema transcend cultural boundaries. The emphasis on intimate character studies, minor narrative setup that feels like an excuse for the characters to be highlighted, keyboard-centric soundtrack that sounds like it was written for ads playing in the background of pharmacies – even for the uninitiated in Japanese cinema, what appears in writer/director Yuko Hakota’s debut feature should still ring familiar. As much as all of this may sound like backhanded statements, Blue Hour does make for good drama, although one wishes that it carried just a little more emotional heft.

Centred on Kaho’s Sunada, a 30-something commercial director working in Tokyo, Blue Hour serves explores antisocial tendencies in the more literal sense: people who actively avoid other people. Between Kaho and Eun-Kyung Shim’s frequent moments of people-watching, their bonding over homemade comic books, and the numerous iterations of self-centred humanity, this all carries a certain Daniel Clowes social distance quality. Only it replaces Clowes’ plain-faced misanthropy with copious amounts of self-loathing, with Sunada claiming that she is doing everyone a service for not having to deal with her.

The way that relationships form the self, ends up containing the bulk of the narrative, as we see Sunada’s connection (or lack thereof) to others. Her strained relationship to her husband, her chalk-meets-cheese dynamic opposite Eun-Kyung Shim’s Kiyoura, her hesitant connection to her parents and grandmother, even down to her experiences with animals and insects. It echoes certain greener sentiments about how healthy connections to wildlife can lead to a more empathetic relation to living things as a whole, a trait that Sunada is shown to be lacking initially given her unsettling childhood recollections.

As backed by Ryuto Kondo’s sterile yet warm cinematography, Daisuke Imai’s editing that helps bring the intentionally jarring nature of the pacing to the forefront, and the combined efforts of Nao Matsuzaki and alt-rock group Shikanoichizoku on the soundtrack, Blue Hour is the story of a woman essentially growing out of her self-imposed shell and reconnecting with those around her. Again, it shares traits with Western indie dramas, looking like something Lena Dunham could eye for a remake, and part of that comes with the low-key emotional wavelength that some may have difficulty adjusting to.

But beyond that, this still makes for a resonate depiction of social isolation and 30-something ennui. Despite its main catch-call of tackiness is life, it resolutely avoids dipping too far into cliché and the production values are as far removed from being tacky as you can get.

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The year is 1945. World War II has concluded, and Russia is in the process of rebuilding. Set in the city of Leningrad, director Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature is the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two hospital workers trying to continue their lives in the face of widespread tragedy.

As captured by Kseniya Sereda’s sickly and jaundiced photography, the depiction of Leningrad is one of utmost dread. Watching this film is like seeing an entire country in the depths of suicidal depression, a void of numbness so pervasive and deadening that its inhabitants are in search of something, anything, that can make them feel again. It is almost crippling in how uncomfortable it gets, to the point where child death not only sets the tone for this over-two-hour golem of misery, we’re barely 20 minutes in when that moment strikes.

Against that backdrop, the story of Iya and Masha and their respective responses to their personal trauma almost feel like a domestic reprieve from what’s happening around them. Echoing post-war sentiment regarding women – both in terms of how employment drastically alters in war time and as their base biological position as part of the effort to continue life – their mere presence in the story seems to buck against social norms regarding gender.

Through their individual circumstances regarding child-rearing (Iya is capable of having children but struggles with conception, while Masha is infertile), what should be rather tragic in how bodily autonomy takes the backseat, almost turns into plain-faced domestic drama. The stance of putting one’s society above one’s own body is Soviet in its logistics, but when put in context with the protagonists’ histories as mothers and surrogates, it winds up being the most pleasant aspect of the story. That, and the surprisingly rousing bit of crisis management at its conclusion that sees the sickly yellow give way to a vibrant, life-affirming green.

With all that said, there is a major barrier to entry, and it’s one that is rather synonymous with even the greatest entries of Russian cinema – the pacing. In-step with the dour numbness of the setting and tone, this film tends to drag in places, not helped by how it ends up relying very little on dialogue to carry the story. Those who thought that Leviathan was too slow should probably give this one a miss.

But for those with the patience to traverse it, Beanpole will provide with a dour and all-too-effective look at post-war collective depression, both in its debilitating effects on the populace and the kind of chasm-bridging hope that is needed to cure it. Bolstered by terrific performances and the kind of preternatural skill that makes Balagov a filmmaker to keep an eye on, it’s a depressing ride that might just make you thankful for the tears.

Beanpole won both the FIPRESCI Prize (critics) and Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2019.

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In urban Japan, there is a particular bathhouse. By day, it functions just like any other, a communal space for the unwashed masses to cleanse themselves. But by night, it becomes a Grand Guignol, where mobsters execute and dispose of bodies, turned to ashes in the water heater. ‘Business as usual’ takes on a whole new meaning in director/writer/editor Seiji Tanaka’s debut feature, and if this is his first step into cinema, he has a bright future ahead.

The matter-of-factness of the setting and main character Kazuhiko’s place within it gives the film a certain Scorsese-esque tinge, where the normality of such grotesque actions gives way to its own brand of quiet terror. The visuals make it a point not to linger on the blood spray for too long, treating it as routinely as the characters themselves.

Kazuhiko, a Tokyo University graduate who hasn’t managed to hold down a full-time job yet, finds himself venturing deeper and deeper into the bathhouse’s hidden utilisation, but it only briefly serves as a shock to the system. Beyond that, it becomes simply part of the job description, as he cleans up the blood and corpses before the day customers arrive.

It serves partly as casual horror, but it also gives way to a certain gallows humour. Watching Kazuhiko converse with his co-workers and his family, whether it’s talking around the specifics of his work or getting into the simple mechanics of why certain people meet their end at his workplace, it’s difficult not to notice the absurdity of the situation. It also potentially leads to cries of “why is he still there?”, but that turns into another avenue of dread, one far closer to home.

The truly messed-up part of this premise is that, even removed from its violent specifics, it’s a scenario that is all-too-frequent in the workforce across the board. The more a given employee knows about who they work for, the more likely they are to find certain… discrepancies. The people and groups that the work helps keep funded, the actions made to keep the work coming in and out, the blind eyes that get turned whenever something unsavoury pops up that may jeopardise the business; you don’t have to look far to find this going on right under people’s noses.

And much like Kazuhiko, most can’t afford to argue with it. Money is the oil that keeps the machinery moving, and since all humans need sustenance, lodging and a place to be made useful, rejection of the nitty gritty of the system is a luxury outside of the working-class tax bracket. Wrestling with one’s conscience to gather the funds needed to live is a sad state of affairs, but it’s reality. A reality that can be altered, but only through a possession of will, determination, and a willingness to change the system. That’s the weirdest part of all this: for as bleak as it is for its majority of screen time, it also contains a great big ball of optimism by story’s end.

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Moonless Dawn

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“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.

Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.

Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.

The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.

In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.

Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.

But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.

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Don’t Be Nice

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Slam poetry’s aim to communicate the hardships experienced by the marginalised, comprising of one-part confronting lyricism and one-part performance, becomes defanged thanks to a competitive poetry circuit whose round-robin nature resembles The Masked Singer. With no Lindsay Lohan or obscure Australian pop-star hidden beneath a mask in sight, this competitive world of slam poetry is explored in the honest-yet-doughy documentary Don’t Be Nice.

The film follows the journey of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team – a team comprised entirely of people of colour – in the lead up to the 2016 National Poetry Slam. The National Poetry Slam offers entrants more than just a soapbox to discuss inequality. For the competitors, it provides the opportunity to perform in front of large crowds and an entry point into the entertainment business.

Vulnerability is part of the game, with each competitor digging deep into their traumatic past to convey a confronting look at the current climate. It is not enough for these participants to say how they feel; they must bleed for it.

From ideation to fruition, director Max Powers invites the viewer to witness the creative process for these artists. For these vanguard poets, it is a journey that is equal parts rewarding as it is frustrating, with the fruit of their labour put under constant scrutiny by their coach.

Their handling of critique, whether destructive or constructive, allows Don’t Be Nice to introduce a discussion on criticism culture. To the detriment of the film, this theme is not explored further with the documentary unable to draw a satisfying point-of-view on the matter.

Don’t Be Nice is unafraid to question the legitimacy of its practice, with members of The Bowery Slam Poetry Team questioning those who ‘write good poetry’ with those who ‘write to win competitions.’ This question of artistic integrity versus crowd-pleasing is explored with thorough concern and demonstrates deep thinking on behalf of the filmmakers who remain committed to upholding the sanctity of slam poetry.

This degree of complex thinking is most evident in the slam poets’ performances, with each participant using every opportunity on-screen to leave an impression. They are performers who use words and expressions to provoke strong emotions; their everyday fears coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement being some of the prevalent themes in their work.

Slam poetry is an art-form that draws its intense power through a frenzy of provocative right-hooks that speak to the human experience. It is when the filmmakers decide to incorporate visual elements, the output having the same quality as a YouTube video, where Don’t be Nice breaks its neck trying to enhance the medium. It becomes an indie effort wanting to turn mainstream that ultimately clashes with the underground nature of slam poetry.

All sizzle and little pop, Don’t Be Nice offers a fascinating yet unfocused glimpse into the world of competitive slam poetry.

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JK Rock

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The latest from director Shunji Muguruma (Shadow Kids, Oh! My! God! Kamisama kara no okuimono) is a tune made up of familiar notes. A trio of high school girls form a band and, when discovering that their favourite hot spot, Tero’s Rock Café is at risk of closing down, they enter a band competition to raise the money needed to keep it open. The trio are mentored by Jyo, a former musician who felt he missed his chance at stardom while his former bandmate raked in the glory, learning to rock again through the youthful energy of his proteges.

Of course, like the best music in the genre, cliché is part of what makes it work. The music itself, courtesy of Koji Endo strikes a heartful chord through its simplicity, allowing the infectiousness of both the tunes and the performance thereof to flow in and out of the frequently melodramatic narrative. It’s almost unfair how catchy the music is, making ‘humming the baseline’ into less of a suggestion and more of a foregone conclusion.

While Kaori Tanimoto’s scripting toys around with the tropes of the genre, which makes for an uneasy but ultimately successful blend of the expected and the unexpected, the real shining moments come from the framing. Between the teenaged band Drop Doll, Jyo and his experiences as part of JoKers, and café owner Tero’s own past history as a musician, the story essentially contains three generations of musos. The vigorousness of the teenagers just starting out, the brooding on what could have been from Jyo, and the nostalgic satisfaction of Tero that he ever got to play at all. Between these three is the blueprint through which all rock and roll resonates.

Rock and roll is a driving force in pop culture for a reason, and whether you’re from the land of the rising sun or the house of the rising sun, the shared experience remains.

JK Rock may be held back somewhat by its familiarity, but the delivery and frenzied glee makes for a very fun feature. Watching these musicians put their heart and soul into their playing, it’s hard not to get lost in the euphoria of it all, and if film is meant to make an audience feel more than anything else, you’re most certainly going to get that here.

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

The Soska Sisters, comprising Canadian identical twins Jen and Sylvia, have been notably absent from genre filmmaking for a little while. Certainly, they directed the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 in 2014, but their last original work was body modification-infused, Katherine Isabelle starrer, American Mary in 2012. It’s fitting that their return is a remake of a work by another bonkers Canadian, David Cronenberg and his 1977 body horror Rabid.

To be blunt, Rabid is far from Cronenberg’s best work, making it perfect for the remake treatment and the Soskas rise to the challenge, bringing their comic book-esque sensibility to the proceedings to mostly positive results.

Rabid tells the tale of Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a timid woman who has issues about her appearance and seems unable to break into the world of fashion design. After Rose gets into a terrible accident, she is hideously disfigured, and pretty much thinks her life is over until Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) offers to give her a radical treatment, on the house.

Post operation Rose looks and feels fantastic, imbued with a fresh face, new found confidence… and a new hunger that seems impossible to sate. From there Rabid kicks off in splattery style, featuring a bunch of engaging gore and body horror moments that will likely have all but the most hardy audience members squirming.

It should be noted the Soska Sisters are not trying to ape Cronenberg’s style at all. Whereas Dave’s vision was icy and slowburn and full of slow building menace, the Soskas’ take is more like an adult comic book. All the characters are broad and just this side of camp, with muscular hunks, heavily accented fashion designers, bitchy models and scientists that feel one stiff drink away from cackling at the heavens, roaring, “it’s aliiiiiiive!” Cronenberg’s stubby armpit stinger has been replaced with a lengthy, whipping pit-tentacle and the overall story is generally bigger and goofier, although in a mostly entertaining way.

Ultimately, Rabid is a solid, engaging horror remake with an unapologetically over-the-top tone that slips frequently from the visceral to the farcical and back again. If you can forgive the occasional ropey moments where the Soskas bite off just a little more than they can chew, and you like your movies with a bit of body horror, you’ll likely find yourself foaming at the mouth over Rabid.