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Assassination (Korean Film Festival In Australia)

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It’s 1933 and Japan occupies Korea as part of their overall plan to be horrible to everyone in Asia. A Korean resistance commander, Captain Yeom (Lee Jung-jae), is tasked with putting together a team to assassinate Japanese general, Kawaguchi (Park Byung-eun), and Korean business mogul, Kang In-gook (Lee Geung-young), a collaborator who has used the occupation as an opportunity to feather his own nest. Yeom selects three operatives – female sniper, Ahn (Jun Ji-hyun); gunman, Chu “Big Gun” Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong); and demolitions expert, Hwang (Choi Deok-moon) – and packs them off to Seoul to do the deed. However, two major complications are waiting in the wings to foul things up. Firstly, unbeknownst to all and sundry, Ahn is actually Kwang’s daughter, spirited away and raised by the resistance in the aftermath of an earlier assassination attempt, and she has an identical twin sister, Mitsuko, who has grown up in the luxury of the Hwang household. Two, Yeom is himself a spy for the Japanese, and contracts hitman, Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), and his assistant, Buddy (Oh Dai-su) to kill the three assassins before they can strike.

It is a crying shame that Assassination didn’t get a wider release outside of its native South Korea, because it’s simply a great action movie. Don’t flinch at the period setting or the language barrier – director and co-writer (with Lee Ki-cheol), Choi Dong-hoon, lays out his characters and scenario with admirably brisk efficiency. The film is packed with double crosses and revelations, but the characters are cleanly defined and possessed of clear, understandable motives, so the viewer is never left adrift, wondering why all this is happening. Assassination is not a soup to nuts fight sequence, though – it takes its time to lay out its pieces, so that when the guano hits the fan and the bullets start flying, we’re heavily invested in what’s happening. Tonally, the movie turns on a dime; it’s a rollicking period adventure one minute, a dexterous espionage thriller the next, then a high octane actioner, then a tragic melodrama. Fans of Asian cinema are used to this kind of thing, of course, but the tonal shifts in Assassination are drawn from its milieu.

While it never dwells on it, the film never forgets that a lot of its plot and character motives are rooted in the awful atrocities that the Japanese committed when trying to expand their empire. The occasional moment of horrible action or narration can be jarring, but it works to both raise the stakes – we have a pretty good idea of what horrors await our intrepid heroes if they’re caught – and strengthen motivation. Those characters are great, by the way: indelible and engaging, they’re the sort of figures that a less adroit filmmaker would immediately try and jam into a prequel or sequel. Hawaii Pistol and Buddy are a double act for the ages, sort of like a murderous Han and Chewie. There’s more than a touch of the Han Solos to Big Gun, too, whose repeatedly stated self-interest is cover for a heroic heart. Yeom is a great villain: a former hero of the resistance broken by torture and now endlessly conniving to save his own skin while he walks the razor edge between the occupying military and the (rightfully) paranoid underground world of the Korean resistance.

Jun Ji-hyun’s Anh is the heart of the film, though, a war orphan turned remorseless killer who has grown to adulthood during the occupation and known nothing but war and strife. Neither Choi nor Jun over-egg the pudding here. The weight of Anh’s pain and hardship is communicated subtly, but we never doubt its existence. It’s a great performance. Two great performances, actually – Jun also plays Mitsuko, and the contrast between the two does more to define their characters than a thousand pages of dialogue could. The action is spectacular: crisp, clean, and fluid but brutal, with each set piece topping the last. This isn’t the ballet of bullets that John Woo acolytes have come to view as the baseline for Asian action – if anything, Choi is a classicist, never letting style overwhelm clarity. Everything’s in the mix here: knife fights, hand to hand, tense gun duels, and a truck chase sequence that tips the hat to Raiders Of The Lost Ark while doing its own thing, building to a climactic shootout at a wedding that is just superb, with all the plotlines and characters converging in a staggeringly tense face-off that explodes into violence. Assassination is a truly great action thriller.

Assassination plays at The Korean Film Festival In Australia which screens in Sydney (August 10-18), Brisbane (August 23-29), Melbourne (September 1-8), Canberra (September 3-4), Adelaide (September 15-18), and Perth (September 22-25). To buy tickets to Assassination, head to the official website.

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Alice In Earnestland (Korean Film Festival In Australia)

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Alice In Earnestland begins as Soo-nam (Lee Jung-hyun), the Alice in this particularly peculiar rendering, enters the office of the local psychotherapist, who she gags and binds. Soo-nam then begins to detail the events that have led the pair to the situation in which they now find themselves. A series of cruelly comedic misfortunes has led to her husband (Lee Hae-young) being comatose, and the normally vivacious Soo-nam descending further and further down a rabbit hole of desperation to set things right. It’s a path that results in a film that is delightfully dark and, at times, brutal, but one that doesn’t forget to add a dash of humor to make the ride a little smoother.

Directed by Ahn Gook-jin, Alice In Earnestland imbues its decidedly intense subject matter with healthy doses of quirk and dynamism. Early sequences in particular benefit from this approach, and move at a snappy pace thanks to some terrific editing; Soo-nam’s transition from a bright and precocious recent graduate to a calloused-hand overworked laborer, having perhaps more in common with Cinderella than Alice, is a particular highlight. Nevertheless, Gook-jin accentuates Soo-nam’s vengeful tipping point and provides copious amounts of violence and bloodshed to balance the scales. The violence may put some off but shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of South Korean cinema.

A satire of economic conditions and bureaucracy, Alice In Earnestland does a solid job of presenting the harsh realities of achieving the South Korean “dream”, where hard work and dedication don’t necessarily lead to results, and women are often merely sought for their bodies. Lee Jung-hyun is a key part of this success, and is easily endearing as a woman who just wants a better life for her and her husband.

Alice In Earnestland plays at The Korean Film Festival In Australia which screens in Sydney (August 10-18), Brisbane (August 23-29), Melbourne (September 1-8), Canberra (September 3-4), Adelaide (September 15-18), and Perth (September 22-25). To buy tickets to Alice In Earnestland, head to the official website.

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Newtown (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Gun crime, particularly in America, constantly dominates the media. It’s gotten to the point where it can feel like literally every day there’s another report. The documentary, Newtown, seems quite timely now. Not that it’s overtly political, though it certainly doesn’t sit in the pro-firearms corner. No, Newtown shines a spotlight on the residents of the titular town in Connecticut. A town which holds the not-too-auspicious honour of being the site of the largest shooting at a high school or grade school in the US, when Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six staff members at The Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Director, Kim S. Snyder, offers no narration herself; instead, she leaves it to the townspeople, through talking heads, photos, videos, and even text messages, to recount the events of the tragic day, and the steps that they’ve all taken to try and move on. Newtown is a succinct but shattering film that never feels like it’s bathing in the tragedy; it’s not made for the prolific rubberneckers. Snyder gives her subjects the dignity that they deserve.

In particular, we meet three parents who lost their children that day. Snyder paints a sombre and distressing portrait of mourning as the three adults share their grief. What becomes apparent as they try to move on, is the fear of time passing. The film captures a potent moment as one father confesses that he doesn’t like growing old as each new day takes him one day further from the life that he had with his son. The aforementioned Lanza is never mentioned by name, and with good reason. Four years on, his shadow hangs long and heavy over the town, and this story is about the children, their parents, and their neighbours. The people that matter.

Newtown plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1. To buy tickets to Newtown, head to the official website.

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Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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If ever a film called for a SPOILER ALERT, it’s this one. The film’s very raison d’etre is also pretty much its ending, so read no further if you wish to remain in the dark. Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old TV reporter who committed suicide in 1974 with a handgun, live on air in Sarasota, Florida. This is her story, or at least the final few months of it.

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck, and her performance is absolutely superb. It’s nuanced, naturalistic, and (when appropriate) understated. Chubbuck was evidently a mess of contradictions: likeable and intelligent, but brusque and in some ways immature; self-deprecating yet also self-assertive to the point of being pushy; desperate for closeness but inclined, in her own words, to “push people away.”

The period detail here is fairly accurate, and Chubbuck’s professional context (a small-town TV news station) is well delineated, and so too are her often fraught relationships with her workmates. She has a serious but thus far unrequited crush on anchorman, George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), and an ongoing struggle against her boss’ pressure for a more “If it bleeds, its leads” approach to choosing stories. The irony in that could not, of course, be more bitter. And then there are her health problems.

Suicides are not always entirely explicable, and the mode of dispatch here made this tragedy rather more mysterious than many. But Christine – with its subtle depiction of inexorably rising stress and despair – at least succeeds in turning established fact into convincing drama.

Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 6 and August 12. To buy tickets to Christine, head to the official website.

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Kate Plays Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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On July 5, 1974, newsreader, Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide live on air. The footage exists, albeit only one copy, and like Chubbuck, has become the subject of interest for the macabre corners of the internet. This year, Chubbuck also became the subject of two films at The Sundance Film Festival: the Rebecca Hall-starring biopic, Christine, from director, Antonio Campos; and this documentary from filmmaker, Rob Greene (Actress).

In Kate Plays Christine, Green follows actress, Kate Lyn Sheil (Queen Of Earth, The Girlfriend Experience, Outcast), as she begins preparations to play Christine for a film that ostensibly doesn’t exist, in a documentary which is less about Chubbuck’s final moments and more about the idea of trying to understand the unknown and the shaping of a narrative. Despite the reporter’s dramatic ending of her life, Chubbuck’s home town of Sarasota has moved on, and her family is unobtainable, leaving her to almost become an urban legend with no weight or purpose. With little to get to grips on, Greene shows Sheil’s frustration as she tries to establish some connection with the ill-fated woman, outside of wearing a wig and brown contact lenses.

And whilst Chubbuck has become an enigma built on some truth, so too is Sheil’s journey to become her. Greene doesn’t hide that there is an artifice to his work, keeping in scenes that most documentarians would leave on the cutting room floor. On camera, Sheil admits that what she does is only because Greene has asked her to: a dip in the sea to find her inner Chubbuck contains Greene’s off camera comments on how to behave, and overwrought re-enactments replete with emotive score deliberately shape Chubbuck into a dead-eyed tragic hero. Throughout the film, it’s hinted that Sheil may re-enact the suicide, and when the moment finally arrives, it’s delivered in a manner that would make Michael Haneke proud, concluding the film appropriately by making the audience evaluate their reasons for taking this journey in the first place.

Kate Plays Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31 and August 2. To buy tickets to Kate Plays Christine, head to the official website.

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Fear Itself (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Although Fear Itself takes virtually all its onscreen material from other films, its unifying idea is interestingly original. What we have here is a succession of clips from innumerable horror movies, stretching all the way through from 1922’s original (silent) Nosferatu to the 2012 Mexican flick, Post Tenebras Lux. There’s an ongoing voiceover, in which the narrator discusses not only the genre and its many variations and themes, but also the nature of real-life human fear…not to mention its “sibling”, anxiety.

The aforementioned narrator has a monotonous delivery, which itself suggests not so much fear as dispirited misery and lifelessness. But never mind the form – some of the analytical content is thought-provoking, though disturbing: “If horror movies are built to take advantage of who we are and how we work, what does that say about us?” Of course, it’s the clips themselves which are the main attraction here, and what a cornucopia they comprise. You might imagine that they would lose some of their power when divested of their original contexts, or that the impact would lessen as the excerpts pile up. But in fact, the doco gets much better – and heavier – as it goes on, and as some of the chosen sources get more esoteric. The commentary jumps a gear or two as well, sidelining theory and moving on to discuss specific flicks and their particular disquieting effects.

If you’re a horror buff, you’ll be familiar with many of the sampled gems, but you’re bound to find some promising obscurities to add to your viewing list too. If for that purpose alone, Fear Itself is worth seeing.

Fear Itself plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29 and August 1. To buy tickets to Fear Itself, head to the official website.

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All Things Ablaze (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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An on the ground look at a rolling riot in action, All Things Ablaze has a visceral immediacy that is at times difficult to endure, such is the intensity of the situation and the oppressive, crushing weight of the possibility of violence.

Eschewing narrative coherence and focal characters, directors Oleksandr Techynskyi, Aleksey Solodunov and Dmitry Stoykov track the 2013/14 Maidan Riots in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from their beginnings as a relatively peaceful protest through their evolution into a violent, flaming maelstrom of violence.

“Apocalyptic” is not too heavy a word to use here, and the title is barely an exaggeration. The fly-on-the-wall film depicts clash after clash between angry citizens and armoured cops, and certainly does not shy away from showing that these events had a massive body count. Nor is it overtly polemical or partisan; agitators are shown eagerly trying to stir up violence on both sides, while more sober voices urge peace. There’s one fantastic moment where a former soldier tells a would-be firebrand that his best case scenario is a kicked-in head in a couple hours’ time; at other times we see Molotov cocktail-hurling dissidents blithely dousing the flames after they’ve accidentally set themselves on fire (again).

It’s confronting stuff, but there are moments of humanity and warmth: a matron ladling soup out to protesters from the boot of a car, sleeping citizens rugged up and sprawled out on the floor of a church, a makeshift field hospital tending the wounded. Also, moments of sheer surreality: an Orothodox priest taking a sledgehammer to a statue of Lenin, frozen stalactites covering every eave and ledge the morning after the firehoses have been deployed.

The value of a film like All Things Ablaze is that it puts you in the middle of events that are all too easy to ignore or dismiss through the lens of the news media. While the lack of context provided may be offputting and confusing, that’s kind of the point: this is the ugly, street-level side of politics, and a must-see.

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Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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German director Thorsten Schütte has combed through countless hours of concert and interview footage to assemble an electrifying, provocative and utterly entertaining account of the life and work of musician Frank Zappa. Eschewing memorial testimony and modern interviews, Schütte lets the man speak for himself, creating a portrait in montage.

And what a portrait it is. Zappa was an instinctive, unrepentant iconoclast, a radical free thinker, a counterculture hero who didn’t do drugs or drink and was smart enough to go toe to toe with pro-censorship forces at a senate hearing (that’d be Tipper Gore’s odious Parents Music Resource Centre, who wanted warning labels pasted on albums with “offensive” lyrics). A cynic with a dry, self-deprecating and cutting sense of humour, Zappa carried himself with a sense of authority and intelligence no matter where he was or who he was being questioned by; indeed, some of the funniest scenes of the film are of him deadpanning his way through interviews with MOR TV pundits who never seem quite sure what to make of him.

And let us not forget, Zappa was also a stupendously talented musician. There’s some fantastic live footage here, from Zappa’s early ’60s TV appearance using a couple of bicycles as instruments (he looks so clean cut!) to his long run with his band, The Mothers of Invention, to his orchestral work (known chiefly as an avant-garde rocker, Zappa was an accomplished classical composer as well). It’s a wealth of material, demonstrating Zappa’s incredible range and disdain of convention.

That disdain extended, at least to a certain degree, to the mores of his fans, or at least the culture that spawned them. Politically, Zappa could probably best be described as libertarian, and in interviews he repeatedly voiced his loathing of being labeled a hippie. A self-described small government conservative, Zappa’s devotion to the ideal of personal freedom saw him refuse a number of high profile shows that could see him linked to various political ides and institutions (he speaks of being invited to play by both the Vatican and the French Communist Party).

The picture that emerges is one of a true maverick, whose contrarian views seem at odds with, well, almost everyone to some degree or another. In an age where we hold out artists up to stringent political and moral criteria, Zappa is an incredibly contentious figure. Obviously Eat That Question is a slam dunk for extant Zappa fans, but it’s bound to mint a few fresh converts as well. A fascinating look at an important artist, this is an essential piece of cinema.

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Atmo Horrox (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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One of the great delights of attending a film festival is the opportunity to expose yourself to screen art that would otherwise have never crossed your field of vision – to dip into the outre and bizarre, to test yourself against visions far outside the norms of mainstream commercial filmmaking. It’s a rush, it’s an edifying experience, and it’s a reminder that film is not constrained by what finds its way into the multiplexes – it’s a broad church.

Broad enough, indeed, to contain Atmo Horrox, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaker, Pat Tremblay. Atmo Horrox is a true oddity; a surreal, grotesque journey into an alien and abominable world where possibly inhuman figures stalk their victims through a garish landscape while we, the audience, are left to our own devices to puzzle out the meaning of what we’re seeing on screen.

And there is a meaning; like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, it’s an unconventional narrative that takes time and attention to parse. Catafuse (Laurent LeCompte), a bizarre figure dressed in stockings and balloons, hunts human targets, eliminating them by clopping a pair of ladies shoes on their heads. He is aided by Molosstrap (Roch Desrosiers, who feeds him information about his impending victims (presumably – all dialogue is unintelligible and we’re forced to gauge the meter of the conversations by other cues. As the film progresses, events grow more disturbing and unreal, culminating in…

Well, that would be telling. Atmo Horrox is clearly a low budget effort, held together with ingenuity and ambition rather than money, but its very cheapness allows it to do things and go places a more professional-looking film could not. Tremblay delights in transfiguring everyday objects and elements into something ominous and monstrous, combining disparate aesthetic pieces to create something fascinatingly ugly. That might be a good shorthand for the entire film, in fact.

In spite of its surface-level gruesomeness, Atmo Horrox demonstrates an excellent command of the visual language of cinema, and it demands the same from its audience. This is not a film to be treated lightly – you’ll need to bring your A game just to figure out what the hell is going on. If you’re willing to meet it on its level though, Atmo Horrox will shock and surprise you – something your more jaded stripe of cineaste should welcome.

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Fursonas (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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The geek may very well be inheriting the earth right as we speak, going by box office receipts and cultural trends, but there are still many pockets of fandom that are a long, long way from mainstream acceptance. Dominic Rodriguez’s documentary, Fursonas, expanded from his earlier short film, sheds light on one of them, and the topic is right there in the title.

A “fursona” is an animal identity taken on by a “furry” – someone who is into dressing up as anthropomorphic animal. Furries are pretty much the bottom of the nerd totem pole, looked down upon and derided by even the sweatiest of Magic the Gathering players, but Rodriguez attempts to show us the human faces behind the cartoon masks. There’s the guy who discovered his predilection in a flash of insight when he performed as a football mascot, the woman who wonders if her daughter will follow her into furry fandom, the guy obsessed with the early ’80s family TV show Here’s Boomer, and more.

And yeah, there are the people who are into the furry scene for sexual purposes, and that’s where the squick factor may kick in for viewers whose experiences of outre sexuality don’t go much beyond Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a lot of kink in the furry community, but the abstract knowledge of that fact may not stop your eyebrows from raising when you see the handiwork of sex toy manufacturer, Bad Dragon, who helps make furries “fully equipped” for after hours activities.

Where the film gets bogged down is in its investigations of the often fractious internal politics of the furry world, which seem to centre on the figure of Uncle Kage, runner of furry convention AnthroCon and self-appointed arbiter of the furry community and its interactions with the media. Kage is extremely protective of furry-doms image to the point of socially shunning furries who go against his wishes (our man Boomer earns his ire for a variety of reasons). What perhaps should have been a brief side excursion takes up far too much time, and for the uninitiated it’s pretty impenetrable stuff.

Which brings us to the key question: who is Fursonas for? Members of the furry community surely don’t need the Furry 101 explanations of the film’s first half (although a little balanced representation is a good thing) , while non-furries may be baffled or even bored by the minutiae of their social jostling. It’s definitely worth your time – if nothing else it’s a good litmus test of how accepting you really are – but its thesis is obscure and it’s perhaps not the definitive statement it could have been.