Archive for the ‘Film&TV’ Category

Film and Time Travel

March 9, 2011

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…


For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.


The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…


Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.

Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.


The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.

“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)

Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.

Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!

Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.

Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)

“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…

A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.


A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.

While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.


One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.


What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried.  Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong

Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)

Terminator (1&2)

Time After Time

Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)

Los Cronocrimenes

Primer

12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).

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The Tree of Life – Trailer

December 21, 2010

As I think I’ve alluded to several times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Texan film maker Terrence Malick. I say Texan, but biographers can’t even agree on his place of birth, a sign of a man sticking to his privacy…  It is safe to say that he has not been overly productive in a career spanning more than 35 years. So far he has directed only four films, with a fifth and perhaps sixth nearing completion . Each of these four films is a masterpiece.

While vastly different in subject matter, all of Malick’s films share some narrative and thematic concerns to an extent that it is impossible to mistake his films for belonging to any other director. Badlands from 1973 was seemingly about the serial killer (or spree killer, if you want to be technical) Charles Starkweather, Days of Heaven (1978) about seasonal harvest workers in the American Midwest during the depression. Both these films feature frequent use of voiceover, and in both cases that of a young girl commenting in turns precociously, naively and philosophically upon the meaning of the action. Combined with the wonderful photography and a very particular focus upon nature as an internal as well as external force, the films take on a timeless quality not often found in films from the 70s. Let me rephrase: Where do we find morality and goodness when nature just exists without a care for us, where do we find meaning?

After taking a 20 year break from film making, Malick returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. The all male war film prohibits the female voice from the earlier films, instead Malick sticks with his voice overs, giving them to several characters as a way of getting into their heads, but also to create a polyphonic – if I can be excused a wankerish term – voice of a shared humanity. While containing plenty of action, it is perhaps the quiet, the sudden absence of human sound, that creates the strongest reactions, in this viewer at least. The Thin Red Line is so good that it hurts, and a film I’ll never grow tired of. This, by the way, is also the case with his – so far – last film, The New World (2005).

The New World must have been a commercial catastrophe, and I feel lucky that someone actually allowed Malick to make the film at all. It has everything that commercial films these days should avoid. It doesn’t spell out its theme, it is quiet and meditative for long stretches, and the few battle scenes are musically accompanied by Mozart rather than some generic nu-metal. It is seemingly a love story, but most of all it is a film about history and about humanity’s place in the passing of time. What is culture, what is society, what is good and evil, what is faith? At the end, there is an image of a tree allowed to grow as tall as it pleases, and that image to me is as exciting as any I’ve seen on film.

Anyhow, this leads me to the reason for this post. Malick’s latest project, The Tree of Life, was meant to premiere a year ago, but he didn’t feel the film was quite finished. A copy was delivered to Cannes in order to participate in this year’s contest, but again Malick decided he needed a bit more time to tinker. This is not unusual when it comes to Malick, (in)famously using much more time in the editing room than shooting his films. After Cannes, one was going for a November premiere, in time to participate in the Oscars, but the distribution company for the film was dissolved. The Tree of Life was finally optioned by Fox Searchlight, who has decided on a Cannes premiere in May 2011.

Much is still unknown about The Tree of Life. A tentative description would be that it’s about growing up in the fifties, where a boy is torn between nature and culture/society in the form of his mother and father. One teaches the eternal, the other the cruel ways of the world and how to get along in it. While this may seem trite to some, I have every reason to trust a director that has not let me down yet. That trust is not lessened by the trailer currently making its rounds on the net. I think I would have preferred this without the participation of big names such as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but then again it is doubtful that without them the film would have been made at all, so we’ll have to be content.
Find the trailer here or here.

Simultaneously while making this coming of age tale, Malick also turned to special effects legend Douglas Trumbull in order to film scenes assumed to contain the beginning of the world itself, dinosaurs and so forth. Little is known about this, and while it has been rumoured that some of these scenes will find their way into the main tale, some reports also talk about a separate film meant for IMAX showings. I actually suspect a combination of these, and that The Tree of Life will indeed present the battle for the boy’s morality in a perspective going back to the beginning of time, showing how the particular story relates to an eternal struggle, so to speak. This is, however, pure speculation.

Enjoy the trailer! I’ve seen it quite some times now.

BIFF 2010: Tarda Estate

October 23, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. The Bergen International Film Festival offers a week long program of some 150 films. Due to work and the fact that I haven’t managed to finagle a free pass for this year, I won’t see as many films as have been my custom, so I won’t attempt any thorough report in these posts.


My first film of the festival was the Italian Tarda Estate, directed by Marco De Angelis and Antonio Di Trapani. It gives me no joy to say that this is a film that should never have been invited to the festival. It is ridiculously amateurish and incompetently made on just about every level. The writing is atrocious and the actors are given no service or, it seems, instruction by the directors. The film lasts 89 minutes, but every minute is so cringe worthy that it felt like a true ordeal. Seeing as the directors were present at the showing, I felt it would be rude to just get up and leave, so instead I tried to roll into a ball of embarrassment, shielding my eyes with my hands, trying to focus on the shape of the loudspeakers above me, anything to escape from a work that confirms and indeed strengthens any prejudice one might harbour against Independent European film making.

The film reportedly cost only a few thousand Euro. Still, I am sure the money could have been put to better use. I don’t blame the film makers, who I am sure have done the best they could. Rather, the director of the Film Festival, Tor Fosse, seems wholly to blame. He evidently saw the film at the Venice Film Festival, where it performed – naturally – out of competition, and deemed it the best film of the festival. While doing so, he gave the backhanded compliment of describing the film as “just as if he should have done it himself”. This is such a lapse of judgment that one must question the man’s ability to continue leading the festival.

As far as I can tell, the only professional actor of the film, is Hal Yamanouchi, who portrays the protagonist. He has himself spent his last 35 years in Italy, playing in various B-films and TV series before he was given a role in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as a pirate. The rest of the actors are unknown. Now, of course it is possible to create wonderful films with unprofessional actors, but I think there must be a plan behind their inclusion; why and how to use them. With such an artificial sounding script as this, neither a Toshiro Mifune nor a Laurence Olivier would have been able to give a credible performance.

Before attending the showing, I had certain fears upon reading what the film was about: An elderly Japanese journalist, having lived most his life in Italy, is diagnosed with a serious illness and coincidentally is asked by his editor to go back to Japan in order to write an article about how the country has changed in the last decades. With a story like this, told by Italian director-writers, I feared that the film would fall prey to exotism: Pretty pictures of the Japanese countryside, shrines, clothes, nature, etc. While all my fears were confirmed, I was not prepared for the added clichés and contrived language, to put a nice word to it. Neither did I expect the film to look as bad – or ugly – as it did, filmed digitally, with no more cinematographic qualities than what any amateur can manage on even a poor video camera. You know that soap opera look that you get on bad LCD televisions? Imagine that, just often out of focus.

It is not automatically art to film a scene behind a veil or putting the camera down on the floor to film peoples’ feet. In fact, it almost pains me to write this, as the film clearly doesn’t deserve any serious or long review. Again, I wouldn’t bother if not for the fact that the film is pronounced a favourite film of the festival director.

“It wasn’t the wind I was scared of, it was our love”. This and numerous other platitudes and embarrassing utterings litter the film. The film is a proper turkey, only there is nothing funny about it. I’m just sorry that it is almost impossible to give a real sense of just how bad the film is, as I didn’t bring anything to write upon, so most of the comments are forgotten. “I seem lately to feel at one with all of nature and see the world in a new way”, the dying journalist says at a point towards the end of the film. He says it because the film has been unable to show us. Everything is explained by the characters in gusts of talk so unnatural and artificial that they would never have been included had the directors been Japanese or, at least, possessed an ear for dialogue.

Possibly the directors wanted to make Lost in Translation with a Japanese protagonist. I’m sure they had ideas they wanted to put into the film. Unfortunately, any such ideas fell apart in the execution. Perhaps they will do better in the future.

Summer Reading: Part 7

September 2, 2010

The last book on this list of books I read this summer, mostly during my three week stay in Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Mallorca), is Franklin Jarlett’s biography of Robert Ryan. Ryan is, I guess, my favourite film star ever, so I devoured the book in a day.

This is the only biography of Robert Ryan that I know of, at least in English. Like so many, he eventually became more popular in France due to the re-evaluation by the Cahiers du Cinéma – gang. This was a fate he shared with one of his directors, Samuel Fuller.

The biography is pretty much what you would expect and is a solid presentation of Ryan’s life. Jarlett is understandably a very positive biographer, highlighting the generosity of Ryan and talking in some length about his liberal political and social activism. If you are going to write a biography like this, you have to be a bit admiring of the man you are spending time portraying. In Ryan’s case, I see no reason not to be admiring. He seems like a rock of normality in a Hollywood so often driven by fame and superficiality. Ryan was more the down to earth type, but Jarlett does manage to let us glimpse the man outside his films.

Jarlett writes about how contemporaries like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made big careers for themselves, partly by taking an active part in setting up their own production companies, but not least by actively chasing roles with star potential. Ryan always seemed too modest for this. After his breakthrough role in Crossfire, where he played a racist thug, he was often typecast as unsympathetic or borderline psychotic characters. Jarlett writes well about how this possibly precluded Ryan in getting the same kind of stardom as the above mentioned gentlemen. He manages to show us the few occasions where Ryan expressed a certain resentment or regret about this. While never bitter, he mostly regretted not being offered more quality films, for too many years having to play in films not worthy of his talent just to earn an income.

Unlike some biographies, in this case, I think you definitely have to be a fan to enjoy the book. I’ve read autobiographies by John Huston, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller that were all so well written and downright exciting, that the reader could enjoy them cold. For one thing a biography is not an autobiography, so the genius of the protagonist is not necessarily reflected in the tale. Jarlett’s biography of Ryan is sturdy and solid, but lacks perhaps some spark or reason to read for the non-Ryanist. The book is also split in two, where the first half is the biography, and the second part is a “critical filmography”. This latter part is very handy for scholarly purposes, but also for the above average Ryan-fan. All his films are included, with full technical specifications (cast list, company, year, producer, screenplay, etc.), followed by abstracts of contemporary reviews of the film in question.

Jarlett’s language is not particularly adventurous, but serves its purpose. I am, however, left with a feeling that there should be more to this tale, and all biographies are indeed tales. For one thing, the characters never really come to life under Jarlett’s pen. Just because one is writing about real persons, doesn’t mean that the text magically will transform them into full-bodied specimen on the page. There is enough here, though, to mourn both Ryan’s lack of roles and his premature death of cancer at the age of 63. Jarlett seems to have talked to all the relevant players and I guess that this is the only Ryan biography we will ever see, as many of the interviewees have since died, such as John Frankenheimer. (The book is from 1990). And I have to compliment Jarlett for having both the inclination and the stamina to write this book, as I can’t think of a single movie star more deserving of a biography and critical filmography than Robert Ryan. If you are a fan, you should definately read this biography.

I don’t think I’ll write much more about this book now, as I plan to write a longer post about Robert Ryan at a later date. If you are at all curious about the man and what he was able to, I’d suggest the following films:

Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann 1947)
The Set-Up (dir. Robert Wise 1949)
On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray 1951)
The Naked Spur (dir. Anthony Mann 1953)
Inferno (dir. Roy Baker 1953)
House of Bamboo (dir. Samuel Fuller 1955)
Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov 1962)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)

I could mention many more, but in these, at least he is given a bit to do and they are all very good films. Inferno is a personal favourite of mine, but should be caught in 3-D. It is still the best film I have seen in that format. For once, the technology actually worked to enhance the story, letting us experience the desolation and aloneness in the middle of a brutal unforgiving nature. Act of Violence is another favourite. It is one of the best and truest Noirs I have seen; instead of a femme fatale, though, there is a histoire fatale, to put it a bit wankerish. I will, I hope, explain these choices, together with his other roles, in a later post.

Well, that was that for this year’s Summer Reading. I hope against reason, that these posts have not been boring to the point of suicide. I think I’ve written about 10.000 words now, in about a week, so that was a bit more than the quick overview I had planned. Perhaps these books are not all what one would consider suitable for lazy days at the beach or slumbering afternoons under the shade, but all in all I’m satisfied with my choices. This year, I actually aimed for readability and more or less accessible literary works, rather than the more convoluted narratives I’ve sometimes brought with me on my vacations. Maybe this means I’m getting even more lazy…

Satoshi Kon’s Last Words

August 28, 2010

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the sad, sad news of Satoshi Kon‘s passing. Kon-san was one of the greatest Anime directors in the world. He worked for the Anime production company Madhouse. Before he died, he composed a farewell letter meant for his blog as a way of saying thank you and actually explaining himself, as if anyone would demand such a thing! His family has posthumously published the letter. I came across it today in a translation by another blogger.

Before giving the link, I’d like to give a warning that if you have no particular interest in the director, or feel that the subject matter is too morbid, don’t press the link! In the post Satoshi Kon writes about how suddenly the cancer developed, about his wish to die at home rather than in a hospital and shares some of his thoughts about leaving his family. The reason I write this post is that while of course the letter is sad, it is not sentimental, and Kon-san himself meant for this to be published. He ends the letter with these lines:

“So, to everyone who stuck with me through this long document, thank you. With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.

Now excuse me, I have to go”.

The letter is also interesting as it gives us an insight in not only Kon-san’s mindset, but perhaps also what for me seems a wider Japanese mentality, although I’m hesitant to generalize. I perceive a profound sense of duty and also shame not to live long enough to fullfill that duty. When his mother sees him for the last time, she asks his forgiveness “for not bringing you into this world with a stronger body”. But enough of me. The letter can be found here. And I’ll cease my comments now.

On a brighter side, Kon-san also left a list of his 150 favourite films, or films that had influenced him. It is a good list. Of course, I don’t agree with all the choices, but it is nice to see his love of John Ford, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and quite some cult films. Of Japanese directors, he mentions of course Akira Kurosawa and Yasuhiro Ozu, but also Shohei Imamura and Kon Ichikawa are represented, to mention some. Anyway, the list can be found on the same blog as his letter, in this post.

Satoshi Kon; A Sad day for Anime and Film.

August 25, 2010

This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.

The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.

I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.

A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.

Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.

Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.

Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.

Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.

Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.

As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.

At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”

Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.

New TV. The New World,New Edition.

August 6, 2010

Well, I have finally bought a new TV, thank God! I’ve been searching for half a year and gather I must have studied every Audiovisual forum known to more or less civilized languages. I couldn’t be happier with my final choice, a Sony LCD that sports better picture quality than sets costing the double of my new friend. Most people seem to want ultra-thin sets, and this is where their money goes. Me, I couldn’t care less whether my set is 3 or 10 centimetres deep, as long as the TV doesn’t turn David Lean into Aaron Spelling.


Anyhow… The first two Bluray films we saw on this 7th wonder of the world, were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The New World. Best to feed the TV some quality films, so it doesn’t pick up bad habits or thinks it can just begin to slack off! I think this was the third or fourth time I watched The New World, and this time in its Extended Edition.

While often just a marketing ploy, in the case of this film, I have to say the extra minutes – each 41 of them – contributed positively to an already very, very good film. Whereas before actions and motivations had to be surmised or guessed at, I felt that with its new running time of almost 3 hours, the film seemed a fuller and even more immersive experience. The director, Terrence Malick, never one to leave the technical aspects of his films to chance, re-edited the film and oversaw every nuance of colour and sound in the new high-def mastering. Do yourself a favour and seek out the new version if you have the means. That last long shot of the tree broke something inside of me. In a good way. If you have paid attention and are not a stranger to yourself, it will break something inside you as well. In a good way.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Malick’s new film is called Tree of Life. It was almost premiering this year in Cannes, but Malick decided last minute that he needed more time with it. This can, of course, mean anything from a couple of weeks more to a couple of years. Malick has only made four films, all of them masterpieces. Needless to say, I’m awaiting Tree of Life with baited breath and a slight fear that perhaps this time I will be disappointed. I never am, though. No, sir. I never am.

Incidentally, while watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it struck me that Snow White never calls her male companions dwarfs, rather Little Men. Political correctness in 1937?  The film itself has no qualms about calling them dwarfs, both in the narration and in its title…

Speaking of BluRays. One of the companies that has not immediately begun to flood the marked with more or less high definition editions of their back catalogue, is Studio Ghibli. Most expected that with the release on BluRay of the studio’s latest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the rest of the companies’ titles would follow suit. This hasn’t happened. Disney, who owns the Western distribution rights to Ghibli, has been in frequent contact with the company, requesting titles for the BluRay market. Ghibli, however, seem to take their time, hopefully because they want to protect their many masterpieces from fast and shoddy releases.

Former president of the company and leading producer, Toshio Suzuki, said that he suggested Ghibli’s break through film, Nausicaa, for the Blu Ray treatment, but sensed hesitation from the Disney side, who evidently wanted more commercially viable releases. Still, Suzuki has continued to digitalize Nausicaa, deciding to clean up the original print, but still taking care not to make it more clean than the original once was. Director Hayao Miyazaki only demanded that they not change the imperfections of the film: A film is an element of its time, it grows old like everything else, and perhaps herein lies its value. Any imperfections are signs of the process, and has as big a place in the history of the product as anything else. No artificiality!, the old master demanded. After having seen the near finished result, he only wanted they stress a bit more green in the colour spectrum. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two…

Suzuki ends the interview with this: “Okui-san came (to) my room (the) next day (after the screening). He said “Miyazaki-san cried, didn’t he?” I answered in this way, “Nausicaa is not yet over.” Both I and Miya-san remember all of the events and every cut“.

Nausicaa is supposed to be released on Blu Ray in Japan one of these days. As for when it and other Ghibli films will reach “the West”, we have to wait and see. Amazon has put some titles on its web pages without suggesting any date.

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

October 28, 2009

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

BIFF, Day Five

October 27, 2009

The festival is beginning to take its toll on me, especially as I also have to work during these afternoons, so I only managed to fit in two films in my schedule. By shear chance, both of them were South Korean and both starred the always good Kang-ho Song.

song-kang-ho-in-thirstSong is one of Korea’s biggest moviestars, but he also is a very competent and versatile actor, often adding a touch of humour in his roles. I first became aware of him in Swiri (from 1999) by Je-gyu Kang, who five years later made the good war film Brotherhood. After Swiri, Song did J.S.A. Joint Security Area, which was his first collaboration with Chan-wook Park. Park used Song in his next project, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as well. Park went on to make the internationally acclaimed Oldboy, without Song this time. He gave him a cameo in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance before granting him the undisputed lead in Thirst, which is the first film I saw today.

Thirst is a gorgeously filmed vampire story. For the first hour it is really good, at times exceptionally so. There are scenes we haven’t seen before and the protagonist is definitely not your typical vampire. Song plays a devout catholic priest who becomes a vampire through a tainted blood transfusion after having briefly died as a test subject for an experimental vaccine. He soon realizes his predicament, and not feeling it is a sin, as he didn’t ask for this to happen to him, he considers it an illness and not inherently bad in any moral way. There is initially no big change in his personality and he makes sure that he doesn’t harm anyone in order to procure the necessary quantities of blood, tapping blood from coma victims at the local hospital who are not likely to miss a bottle or two of the red stuff.

thirst-movie-posterSoon, however, he is introduced to Tae-joo, a young woman forced into servitude of her sickly husband and mother in law. The priest, soon to be ex-priest, and Tae-joo begin an erotic relationship which is very well represented in the film. The scenes of love making all seem natural and as a result comes off as truly erotic and not the silly wish fulfilment fantasies of countless Hollywood films. Unfortunately, it turns out that his love is a bit of a femme fatale who uses him for her own ends. From this point in, I felt the film became overlong, dwelling too much on its grantedly beautiful frames, but not advancing the plot in any surprising ways, or at all. I won’t spoil the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that for me, at least, the film didn’t reach its potential. I saw where the film was heading and it didn’t make any meaningful detours from that direction. As a result, a short trip felt far too long. What made this second half of the film worth staying, was the stellar work of Ok-vin Kim, an actress I’d never heard of before. She really made the character of Tae-joo a full bodied creature, upping the menacing aspects of her arc in the film. I’ll recommend the film with caution, as it is very well made and looks fantastic, with some really breath taking scenes. Just be aware that the recommendation is not unconditional.

Memories-of-Murder_press08The Good, the Bad, the Weird also stars Kang-ho Song. In this film he plays almost an amalgamation of the two characters he has played in the films of my favourite Korean director, Joon-ho Bong. I assume anyone with an interest in Korean films has seen Memories of Murder, in which Song plays a policemen with a temper and some intellectual shortcomings. I personally found this even better than David Fincher’s Zodiac, being a very similar story. Song also played in the environmental monster film The Host, which was a bit of a hit internationally as well. Here he played a well meaning buffoon, possibly short of some marbles.

As The Good, the Bad, the Weird gives Song the chance to essay a character who seemingly has two personalities, he can really let loose with his two most typical screen personas. Song, of course, is the weird one of the title.

tale_of_two_sisters_2003_posterThe film is directed by Ji-woon Kim, who among others has made the solid A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. Kim is a very visually oriented director, often presenting tableaus which are easier to admire than really like, but in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, he uses his considerable talents to give us the purest entertainment this side of Indiana Jones (disregarding the fourth near-abomination). The title of the film makes the countless nods to Sergio Leone quite clear, but more than a Spaghetti Eastern, I felt this was an adventure film, an action film like they don’t make em anymore.

goodbadweirdThe plot is all a bit of nonsense, with a treasure map serving as a MacGuffin for countless inventive chases and spectacular fight scenes, not with kung-Fu, but guns, cannons and everything that can be fired from a steel tube. In between the action scenes, we get to know the characters just enough to care about them. There is also a sub-plot regarding how Korea has been stolen by the Japanese, and as a result the three protagonists are men with no country, all now making a life lived in the eternal present in a soon to be mythic Manchuria. This gives them the chance to reinvent themselves, something Song’s character has done most successfully, gladly accepting the role as a happy-go-lucky small time thief and adventurer. Again, I can’t say more, as it would spoil a plot point towards the end.

The plot, however is not the important thing here. The unbridled entertainment on display is all that counts. I laughed out loud many times during the film and too often during the action scenes, I found myself sitting with my mouth open for a longer time than is considered proper in polite society. The only thing that was a let down was the ending, which I felt was too abrupt and disappointing in its stock situation. I felt that it was unnecessary to emulate Leone to such a degree at this point. That particular scene can probably never be bettered anyway, so it was a bit of a suicide attempt for Kim to try to get away with it. Be sure, by the way, to watch some minutes into the credits, as some resolution can be found there. Heartily recommended, but not for those who feel that all art should be slow moving, reflective and involve the deeper meaning of life, come hell or high water.