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Francis Lee: Breaking the Mountain

Sundance, Berlin, Sydney, now Melbourne, film festival hit God’s Own Country has dazzled audiences. We spoke with the film’s writer/director, Francis Lee, ahead of its cinema release.  
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The Butterfly Tree

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Following the death of his mother, 13 year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) has retreated into a fantasy world of butterflies and other insects. Meanwhile his father Al (Ewen Leslie) drowns his sorrows in a sea of one-night stands and ill-advised short-term relationships. When Evelyn (Melissa George) moves into the neighbourhood to set up a new florist, she becomes the object of affection for both Fin and Al – and ultimately brings their own bitter conflict to the surface.

The Butterfly Tree is a new Australian drama, marking the feature debut of director Priscilla Cameron. It is a bold and promising work, rich in imagery and led by uniformly strong performances. The visuals are the most arresting aspect of the film, grabbing the eye with a bold use of colour and occasional sequences of magical realism. Fin’s dream world is rendered very effectively with a combination of live-action and animation. Many directors seem afraid of using colour. Cameron is absolutely not one of them, and despite its limited budget this is one of the most eye-catching and beautiful Australian films in in some time.

The film’s narrative has a pleasing intimacy to it, effectively working as a four-hander. As Fin, Ed Oxenbould delivers a very strong performance. He expresses the most awkward sort of teenage sexuality and frustration, as well as a badly buried grief and rage over his mother’s death. Fin undeniably makes very poor choices over the course of the film, but it is Oxenbould’s acting that ensures he remains sympathetic and ultimately very easy to identify with.

Melissa George gives her career-best as Evelyn, who seems almost an unrealistic romantic fantasy at first before the film digs a little deeper and reveals the real person underneath the surface. She is a particularly well-crafted character, and George is equally strong in both the romantic and the more grounded scenes. Her character grows in importance as the film develops, which is a very good thing. She may start as the pointy-end of an odd love triangle, but by the film’s conclusion she absolutely has her own central role.

The cast is rounded out by Ewen Leslie, one of Australia’s most reliable and watchable actors, and Sophie Lowe, who plays Shelley: Al’s latest and most inappropriate girlfriend so far. In many respects Lowe is burdened with a stereotypical character – the evil ex-girlfriend – but thankfully Cameron does provide her with a few key moments in which a more rounded and believable character emerges. For his own part Leslie is excellent, and like Oxenbould develops an identifiable and sympathetic character despite his own poor choices and behaviour.

If there is a key drawback to the film it is that the screenplay relies a little too heavily on well-worn territory, with plot elements that have been run over and over again in countless previous dramas. The treatment of those elements is rarely short of excellent, however they do create a slightly unwelcome familiarity as the film goes on. In the end it is not the story that viewers are likely to remember: instead it will be the strong performances, and particularly the engaging and memorable visual images. This film may be narratively unadventurous, but it is aesthetically wonderful.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Butterfly Tree

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Ghost in the Mountains (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Lao Liu returns to his home in Yunan province for the first time in many years. The town is all but abandoned now: of his friends only A Jie still lives there. An ex-girlfriend is by chance passing through on her way back to Shenzen to get married. With no children left to teach, Lao’s old school teacher has moved up to the mountains to become a monk.

Ghost in the Mountains, from Chinese director Yang Heng, is an enormously frustrating film through which to sit. It is intelligently plotted, and deals with a very powerful theme in contemporary China – the rural-to-urban migration, and what it does to the small communities that get almost entirely vacated by residents seeking a better life. It also makes tremendous use of its vividly green, misty landscape. It is also structurally quite inventive, telling its story through a series of incredibly long, slow takes. It is filled with prolonged moments of silence that stretch out to a meditative degree.

While there is certainly plenty to admire, actually sitting through the film from beginning to end proves a challenge. It is slow: really slow, of such an interminable length and pace that it simply stretches patience beyond breaking point. It is also incredibly repetitive. Scenes open in silence, eventually revealing two characters sitting or standing together. Inevitably they will light cigarettes and begin smoking. At some point, halfway through a long and sparse conversation, somebody’s mobile phone will ring and they’ll excuse themselves to take the call. So despite it being fair to describe Ghost in the Mountains as a clever and thoughtfully composed arthouse drama, it is also just as fair to describe it as two hours and fifteen minutes of bored Chinese people lighting cigarettes.

It is nominally a crime film, although it takes a ridiculously long time to build up to the central crime. At some point in the middle of the film it becomes clear that the first lengthy scene takes place after the bulk of the story, and that the viewer has been watching a flashback. Once the story actually catches up to and then moves beyond that critical scene, the film actually picks up to some extent with a small amount of drama and a fitful line in absurd comedy. It does not last. The film ends on a fairly dull, unsatisfactory note.

It is difficult to judge the cast’s performances because they have so little to do. Like most independent Chinese dramas it does away with a musical score entirely. The photography is inarguably beautiful, and given the lack of action in most scenes it is often easiest to simply turn off and soak in the slightly unsettling atmosphere. There is a growing fan base for ‘slow cinema’ that may find an enormous amount of worth in Ghost in the Mountains. It is definitely a film crafted by talented people. It is also such a chore. It makes you work very, very hard for what is ultimately a rather small amount of entertainment.

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The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta), Tokyo’s worst police officer, was rehired as an undercover mole sent to infiltrate Japan’s most powerful yakuza syndicate. Now accidentally installed near the very head of the clan, he is tasked with taking down the Dragon Skulls – the Chinese triad making a move on yakuza territory.

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (2014) was a raucously funny comedy from director Takashi Miike, adapting the Noburo Takahashi manga with a fast pace and a gleeful sense of the ridiculous. Two years later he returned to direct the sequel, Hong Kong Capriccio, which plays at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s a solid indication of Miike’s rapid career pace that this is the second of his films to appear at this year’s festival. The other, Blade of the Immortal, was released in Japan earlier this year. Yet another manga adaptation by Miike, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, is already playing overseas.

Hong Kong Capriccio begins with a frantic helicopter ride with Reiji dangling naked over Tokyo, as he breathlessly recounts the entire events of the original film. From there it is a breakneck jump into a story of kidnapped heiresses, Chinese assassins, yakuza traitors and human trafficking across Japan and Hong Kong. There is a new anti-corruption police chief hunting Reiji down, his yakuza master’s daughter to save, a pretty girl to romance, and underneath it all the continuing goal to trap and arrest the yakuza from within. This is not a film that wastes time.

Toma Ikuta is a gifted comedic actor, and his exaggerated performance provides many of the best comic moments. Reiji is an idiot, but he is a loveable idiot, and Ikuta sells that charm with immense skill. By contrast Shinichi Tsutsumi is wonderfully calm as the absurd and unflappable yakuza leader Crazy Papillon. Together they make one of the best comedic pairings in recent cinema history.

The humour varies from over-the-top slapstick to simply absurd weirdness. A group of rival yakuza are captured and tortured inside a cage on fire. The torture sequence comes with its own DJ, who plays folk music. This inspires the other yakuza to dance while their enemies get burned. That is within the first five minutes, and is not even close to the most surreal moments Miike and screenwriter Kankuro Kudo include. Rather a lot of comedy is drawn out of Reiji’s unsuccessful sex life as well. Often a turn-off for many viewers, the sexual content largely skates free by focusing on Reiji’s failings over any Carry On-style tittering about female nudity.

Hong Kong Capriccio is a perfect sequel and an excellent companion to the original Mole Song. One brief musical number even hints at a third installment. It is something I – and, I suspect, many other Takashi Miike fans – eagerly welcome.

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Blade of the Immortal

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Mortally wounded after an epic-sized duel, the master swordsman Manji (Takura Kimura) is supernaturally revived to walk feudal Japan as an immortal. 50 years later he is called upon to aid a young woman (Hana Sugisaki) seeking revenge for the murder of her father.

Takashi Miike is one of the most prominent and unique figures in Japanese cinema. He is one of the most eclectic filmmakers in film history, applying his immense talents to pretty much any genre one could imagine. Outside of Japan he remains best known for his chair-squirming thriller Audition, but his career spans comedy, drama, horror, period epics, arthouse, a western, and even a growing line of children’s films. He is also jaw-droppingly prolific. At the most breakneck period of his career he was known to direct up to six films in one year. He has slowed down somewhat recently, but slow for Miike is still dizzyingly fast for everybody else. Blade of the Immortal is his 100th film as director, and the first of two features he has coming to cinemas this year.

The film adapts the popular and long-running manga of the same name, which was written and illustrated by Hiroaki Samura from 1993 to 2012. Many film adaptations of such lengthy properties often collapse in the attempt to squeeze in too much material in too little time. Miike wisely keeps his adaptation simple: a lengthy prologue introduce Manji and his immortal curse, and the subsequent two hours set him off on a single sword-fighting adventure.

Take the fantasy elements out and Blade of the Immortal is a brilliantly effective throwback to the “chanbara” sword-fighting films of the 1960s. The film begins in black and white, which combined with its extra-wide aspect ratio makes it immediately recognisable as the same kind of film. Miike takes inspiration from Hideo Gosha, still one of the great action directors of world cinema, whose samurai films and television dramas were among the most popular in Japan 50 years ago. The action looks good, and is presented on a wonderfully over-the-top scale. The film’s first sword-fighting sequence pits Manji against about a hundred or so mercenaries and bounty hunters. That is the first fight: the film manages to top it for scale before the credits roll.

Structurally the film falls into a very episodic narrative, with Manji having to fight against a series of talented adversaries on the road from his home to the criminal martial artist Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi). Each enemy fights with a different weapon and style, which makes the entire film feel very true to its serialised manga origins. Rather than become repetitive, however, these duels form a spine along which Miike lays a sense of conversation, character development and comedy. There is a surprising amount of humour in the film, whether it comes from the dialogue, an absurd situation, or simply the sheer excess in the violence depicted on screen. Unlike some of Miike’s films it is not an especially gory work, but the number of on-screen deaths is formidable. Takuya Kimura brings a wealth of rogue-like charm to Manji, supported very well by Hana Sugisaki as the earnest but immensely likeable Rin.

Blade of the Immortal is pretty much a pitch-perfect manga adaptation. Miike does exactly what he is required to do: turn a long-running comic work into an effective and entertaining Summer blockbuster. This is possibly the most mainstream work he has ever made, and showcases just what a talented and enormously versatile director he is. Fans of action cinema and particularly those of samurai flicks are going to have a whale of a time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Blade of the Immortal