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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

You say that, because you’ve been here for a while ~ Rose

This is a review of La Plaga (The Plague) (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

25 February

This is a review of La Plaga (The Plague) (2013), seen at a press-screening at The Institute of Contemporary Art (@ICA) in advance of its series
Catalan Avant-Garde

The season opens on 28 February 2015, and, with La Plaga screening on Tuesday 27 October, runs until Friday 18 December, the full programme being (all screenings at 8.50 p.m.) :

Saturday 28 February
Sobre La Marxa (The Creator of the Jungle) (2013) followed by a Q&A with director Jordi Morató

Tuesday 28 April
El Cafè de la Marina (The Marina Café) (2014) followed by a Q&A with director Sílvia Munt

Friday 26 June
Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What's Best for Her) (2013)

Friday 28 August
Born (2014) followed by a Q&A with director Claudio Zulián

Tuesday 27 October
La Plaga (The Plague) (2013)

Friday 18 December
El cant dels Ocells (Birdsong) (2008) followed by a Q&A with director Albert Serra

The physicality of La Plaga (The Plague) (2013) is evident before the first frame is seen, there in the sound of what could – emerging from a blacked-out screen – have been energetic sex, but is another form of exercising, Iurie* wrestling in a practice session at the gym.

In fact, the notion of the tactile, or the substantiveness of matter and of action, could easily be perceived as the theme around which this film is built – and, on the natural-world side, we are (perhaps inevitably) reminded of Terrence Malick, with (in another era) undertones of The Book of Exodus and Old Testament judgement in Days of Heaven (1978) (or even, before that, in Ingmarssönerna (Sons of Ingmar) (1919))…

However, not least as this is in ICA’s series of films, grouped under the heading Catalan Avant-Garde, it is arguable that the film also, and more subtly, meditates on the nature of choices, whether or not our own : some of them do not always prove to leave us where we expected to be, but, in retrospect, we can still very clearly trace them back to where we started**. It is probably universal to experience the feeling that we have striven to get somewhere (or have been propelled towards it), and almost everyone in this film not only says states what his or her story is, but also has to address it in some way.

This state of knowing why we are where we are is by contrast with our casual, everyday decision-making, where we might easily have forgotten our motivation (or the impulse for change) – much as we might have discarded our rough working for a plan, or a calculation. Here, our original aspiration, what it was all for, has not been submerged, so, if asked to account for living in (or not living in) X, we can frequently say straightforwardly that we moved to this house, took this job, because of Y. Here, all the principal figures know why they are where we see them, even if that explanation no longer really works as a sufficient one for why they have to remain, or choose to remain.

On this level, one is reminded more than a little of another Catalan film in this series, which screened twice (both times with Q&As) at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (@camfilmfest / #CamFF) : Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best for Her) (2013). That said, director and co-writer Mar Coll comes at this question differently, and thus it is not from a choice that leads us elsewhere, but from other people’s expectations after a serious accident***. Here, Geni (wonderfully played by Nora Navas) is in the position of finding her relations to her life, her family, her job, her friends all in transition, because she desires what people want for her, but there are things about her now that they do not realize – or will not acknowledge : by contrast, La Plaga has several people on the verge of the unforeseen consequences of their actions, and of the plans that lay behind them.

A closer reference than that in Tots volem, although that film’s intense connection with the experience of the linked issues of physical and mental disability assuredly takes it out of the mainstream, is with the even more experimental film Sieniawka (2013), which also screened twice (with Q&As) at Cambridge (in 2013). The connection is largely in the blurring between acting and footage originally taken for pure (sic ?) documentary purposes, because we emerge from the unexplained happenings outside of a psychiatric institution, whose name (taken from its location) gives the film its title, to quiet, often almost painfully drawn-out sequences in it, before the film finally takes us out again :

One would have to be uncertain about calling Sieniawka a documentary, even in its long central part (where – one is told – it was filmed as it is seen), but one is likewise uncertain about what is captured, what re-created, in La Plaga. The distinction that one could perhaps draw is that it is of far less consequence, in the latter case, which is which****. Likewise because the performances / characters (as themselves), in particular, of Maria Ros and Rosemarie Abella are so strong, one feels for what is happening between them when one is in the care of the other, and more poignantly, since, as Rose tells Maria, neither really had wanted to be where necessity has taken them.

The film appears to unfold essentially chronologically, and some developments (though they are not always explained, not even later on) are shown in a sequential manner. However, it often enough floats free of requiring a structure – for those who watch a film such as Amour*** (2012), and do not desire everything to be spelt out, it will pose no obstacles. None, that is, beyond those of relaxing into trusting one’s intuition, and of learning not to concentrate too much on the detail of some screen-time activity or specificity (e.g. wrestling, or dancing) :

For the more that, at such moments, one observes La Plaga in what seem its intended broad terms (and filters out what is extraneous to the scene), the less one may pose oneself a great effort for low yield. That may sound like a quite negative comment, but it is the truest way to watch kindred types of film to this one, such as Sacro GRA (2013) – with, also, its placing of the rural in relation to the urban (and hints of Aesop’s Fables, with that of ‘The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse’ ?) – or Leviathan (2012), or Samsara (2011).

In essence, then, one could regard these films as long narrative poems, rather than sonnets, which one can hear in under a minute (and almost mentally analyse as they are being read). For that reason, they need to be taken in, as a whole, and without anxiety about, or over-attention to, the content (save in relation to its place in the general form) – for some, perhaps a different way of watching, and of being with, a film ?


* Iurie’s name, in a sans-serif typeface, looks as if it begins with a lower-case ‘l’, and he was playing [a version of] himself. (Not that it matters much to an appreciation of the film, but so was everyone.)

** Quite a difficult read, in Samuel Beckettt’s canon from the early 1960s, but maybe one is reminded, in all this, of the schema of his Comment c’est (which Beckettt translated into English from the original French as How It Is) ?

*** I.e. that one can climb back and resume one’s life, and that, if one can, one should. In Amour (2012), Michael Haneke directs Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant in giving us the life after another (less clearcut ?) medical emergency, and, likewise, we have the hard kind of choices that Nora Navas (Geni) is seen making, under Mar Coll’s direction, in Tots volem.

**** The extent to which Sieniawka feels exploitative is one of the topics handled in the Festival review.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Strange transmissions

This is a review of Father and Son (2003)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

11 February

This is a review of Father and Son (2003)

Sokurov is often referred to as Aleksandr, but is here credited as Alexander. In any case, his directing gives us a screen-world that mixes (as T. S. Eliot has it*), memory and desire, except that it is memory and desire and dream… Dreaming, though, where son can talk to father from outside it (and vice versa), and ask what it is like, which Russell Hoban prefigured by publishing Amaryllis Night and Day in 2001 (hardly uniquely, since it is likewise the stuff of Ursula Le Guin and Earthsea, which has its roots elsewhere).

In no way repeating Mother and Son (1997), but not disappointing those who watch Father and Son (2003) by the strength of the performances or the writing, Sokurov dwells on the awkwardnesses in life that bring us so close or so far apart (as Peter Gabriel puts it**) : British and Russian politeness / society are not poles apart, and changing the subject is just as much part of (Chekhov or) this film as is suddenly talking about the weather.

A delirious moment, of nigh-febrile intensity, begins the film, bringing us at once inside the physicality of Alexei and his dad’s life and love, both for others and for each other. To this kind of soldierly behaviour, not only Britishness may not easily relate, and so find in it the homoeroticism that Sokurov seems to have wanted to dismiss [NB link is to a review that mentions Sokurov's reaction], even if there is quite intentional ambiguity about so much in what we see.

So, in a beautifully crafted and cut-together scene, where Aleksei Neymyshev (Alexei) talks to Marina Zasukhina through, and around, the narrow aperture of a window, we do not even know for sure though we may surmise, since this is in a barracks why the window cannot be opened more widely, let alone who they are to each other, or why Alexei’s father (Andrei Shchetinin) has also come to visit. Later, the script has Alexei almost stumble upon an encounter that almost mocks, perhaps, Shakespeare’s balcony scene, yet at the same time bringing out the tension and sense of daring in wooing, as in any interaction.

To say little more, because the film needs to speak for itself and to a willing recipient, the dialogue, and Sokurov’s tight direction of scenes, both keep at the human level. Even so, the filming introduces visual distortions, say, with the tram, or has us impossibly trying to follow ‘the action’ of Alexei with, and in the company of, his fellow military colleagues, wrestling and struggling in pursuit of exercise and expertise in hand-to-hand, unarmed combat watching too closely, or trying too much to follow, and missing what else is in the film-frame.

If Chekhov is a struggle (because we cannot see, or relate to, what is unsaid in all that is said in, say, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull), or if Pinter’s wordy silences seem awkward (which serve a similar purpose, at times, of making us aware of the underlying sub-texts to our lives and actions ?), that may disincline us to watch Father and Son. Yet one could still try it, but by giving oneself to 83 mins in the undiluted medium of cinema without trying to understand how the reimagined musical scores or its interplay with the soundscape work, or the heightening and lowering effects with light : so, surrendering, as to a dream-world that is another’s life, to what the camera shows us, chooses to show us.


* In the very opening of Book I (‘The Burial of the Dead’) of ‘The Waste Land’ (although only a cursory look at the Faber & Faber facsimile and transcript that Valerie Eliot edited soon has one wondering whether it is Eliot’s poem, or that of Ezra Pound, to whom (in 1925) it was dedicated, and who is credited : Il miglior fabbro). Whilst we are contemplating Eliot, the fact that filming took place in St Petersburg and Lisbon has given something of the effect of his ‘Unreal City’ (via Charles Baudelaire) in Book III (‘The Fire Sermon’, heading the fourth block of lines).

** To quote the lyrics of the track ‘That voice again’ on the album So (or is it So ?).

*** Symbolically, does either desire it or, rather, to continue to peer through the crack, or through the bottom of the pane ? Cinematically, which is what is posing these questions to us, the effect caught is unnerving, electrifying, and perhaps infuriating both in and outside the action, as we try to address what we are seeing…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Un séjour avec soju ?

This is a review of A Girl at my Door (Dohee-ya) (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 February

This is a review of A Girl at my Door (Dohee-ya) (2014), watched at a special screening at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (@CamPicturehouse), on Thursday 5 February 2015

Introductory - other important Doona Bae roles :

As the Tweet (inevitably pithily) tries to say, there are some significant roles for Doona Bae (or, at any rate, those whose existence is easily known in the West) that appear to be linked (whether that reflects the nature of roles offered to, as well as accepted by, Doona Bae).

When Nozomi, the doll that Hideo (Itsuji Atao) buys in Air Doll (2009), comes to life (as played by Doona Bae), the doll itself / herself is a substitute for a failed affair, and Nozomi is rarely quite one with the world into which she emerges (and from which she ultimately departs) except to the extent that she makes a life for herself and finds others who understand her and her experience.

The idea of a doll come to life is, at heart, just as much a metaphor* – it is up to the viewer with what the metaphorical connection itself is being made – as it is in the case of the so-called fabricants in Cloud Atlas (2012), with Sonmi-451** proving the tenets of AI, in that these created life-forms do become wholly sentient, although only intended to be unemotional, robotic drones.

That said, setting apart The Animatrix (2003) (and its engaging depiction of The Rise of The Machines, desiring equality with mankind – as foreshadowed by Samuel Butler in Erewhon), it is one that the Wachowskis, elsewhere, largely wish to resist in the Matrix world (starting with The Matrix (1999)). For Neo appears to assert a primacy of humanness / humanity – although, in the eyes of The Architect (and on some other scale), Neo may just as much be [reducible to] a piece of code as, in Jupiter Ascending (2015), Jupiter Jones is considered to be genetically identical to the mother of Lord Titus.

However, in this film, Doona Bae (Inspector Young-Nam Lee) is not playing a doll who lived, or a replicant who discovered feelings (including sexual arousal), and became a rallying cry for generations to come, but is a woman, taking care of the girl of the title(not least in the original title, where she is named). Albeit at Lee’s door is not where we first see her, for she is being bullied, and there are some tensions built into that premise…***

In any case, the girl (Dohee) is a mirror to Lee, and she is played with such great plasticity by Kim Sae Ron that one could not believe that one or two other girls had not been sharing the part – an effect not accounted for just by make-up and hair. Lee’s identification with Dohee, and her concomitant compassion and malleability / indulgence, is obvious from the start, though not the depths of – or the reasons for – it.

Whereon hangs the film, were it not that :

* Whether or not one’s constraints are budgetary ones (according to Wikipedia®, the film’s budget was just US $300,000), what the film presents as a small coastal settlement is even more obviously unpopulated than it would be compared, say, to shooting in Seoul – at least, what we see must be a small quarter of Yeosu (which research suggests is actually a city, not a town)

* Even if the script wants to explain that situation away, by saying that Koreans no longer want to live / work there, and that only the person keeping the workers there are in hand is local : in that case, what need a police station, with not a few officers, at which Lee is the ‘station chief’, if the only significant activity is aquatic in nature ?****

* In fact, the cast is so thin on the ground that, apart from the denizens of a hair salon cum village hub, and the group of people who are momentarily present when Lee moves into supposedly temporary accommodation, we have already met everyone else. (Although Lee apologizes to her landlady for the inconvenience of her unexpected arrival, conveniently there is no sign that she is ever going to be housed anywhere else.)

* The world of this film, then, revolves unconvincingly around only the workers, Dohee’s father (who is in charge of the workers, and is the somewhat erratically written and drawn father of Dohee*****), Lee’s fellow officers, and a cashier of a supermarket in an unspecified location (but, in the locality, a police officer does not even recognize Lee whilst she is busy with her bottles of water).

Doona Bae and Kim Sae Ron are both excellent in their roles. Sadly, theirs are the only ones with any substance, for not only is Dohee’s father a cipher (of parental drunkenness), but so is her grandmother – who seems strangely reminiscent of [a more aggressive version of] the one who is initially unsympathetic in Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket(2013) (which is set in Laos)…

NB Possible spoilers in this paragraph
As to Doona Bae’s character, it depends intimately, and even intensely, on that played by Kim Sae Ron, to the extent that it is questionable whether they are, apart from on the level of the attribution of dialogue, actually separable. That notion, if one were seriously encouraged to entertain it from the start to finish in the film, could have been its saving from its immersion in banality, as well as the need to believe that, although Lee is a police inspector, she is not only very naive in her personal dealings, but also lacking in being even plausibly streetwise.

By choice of film to appear in, Doona Bae seems in danger of not usefully claiming for herself the territory of the saintly fool, too good for this world, but forced to be in and of it [as in The Idiot (Idioot) (2011)] : it may suit her aesthetic to take such roles, but they do not ultimately flatter or, more importantly, use her talents. Yes, of course it is a delight to see her infectious smile break through, after sombre scenes where she is forced to be the celebrated guest at some grim event for her induction, but showing wearing ‘a mask’ can only be done so many times (even to the extent that spring water is turned into some sort of saké – or vice versa), however well Doona Bae carries it off, before it become stale.

This film, almost inevitably, reminded of Humbert Humbert (James mason) in Lolita (1962) and of the eye of the beholder, but also of many another scenario where one properly suspects that manipulation (masked by apparent innocence) is at work. For, no doubt for reasons relating to her own past, Lee trusts Dohee (for example, there is an un-ironic scene with tears, harp in the score, and Lee’s tender reaction), rather as Sean Connery does Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964). However, viewers of, say, Catalan cinema may be reminded more by Dohee of Nico (David Solans) in Son of Cain (Fill de Caín) (2013), and doubt the wisdom of Lee’s faith (however much, as heavily implied, Dohee may be the imprint of a young Lee).

The reason being that this is one of those films that opens with a car, clearly being driven a distance, with what we know – from looking towards the front of the car and through the windscreen – is literal baggage in the back. And that, perhaps, is the downfall of any sense of (surprise at) the unfolding of the story, on which it seems to have depended, whereas it all seems – without suggesting dramatic irony – so patent, right from seeing the arrival in a place with a small-town mentality. In Peter Gabriel’s words (from ‘Big Time’, on his album So) :

The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small, they use small words
But not me, I'm smarter than that,
I worked it out


* This has been a topos since, at least, Adam was fashioned from clay (Genesis 2:7), proceeding through the Greek mythology of Talos and of Hesiod’s Pandora, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and Pygmalion’s statue there, Paulina’s in The Winter’s Tale, Bernard Shaw’s reimagining of Ovid in Pygmalion (and its own reimagining in My Fair Lady (1964)), etc., etc.

** Doona Bae is also credited, by IMDb (@IMDb), as playing Sonmi-351 :

*** The (apparent) failure to envisage any consequences of the isolated example of intimidation by peers is one that the plot seeks to gloss over by, much later, having Lee stated to be such a feared force (this fear seems little evident at the), and by locating the main time-period of the film outside term, so that nothing comes of it.

Maybe, but it did seem, at one point, as though the serious incident that we witness, where Lee’s mere show of authority is not taken seriously until it becomes referable to their middle school (and whether she follows it up seems doubtful – the plot just seems to have her forget about the issue) : Lee does not, at any rate (which seems to indicate a late shoe-in) raise the question with Dohee until it is unconscionably late, if something had been continuing…

**** It is hardly to be referred to on account of being a better film, but My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) at least avoids one feeling that Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), its police officer, is on anything other than a perilous, corrupt frontier (happily joined there by Govend (Golshifteh Farahani)). The world of A Girl is actually such a world, but with an implausible veneer of law enforcement, and of seeming to be a home to generally law-abiding folk…

***** Regrettably, both note-taking and IMDb let one down on crediting the actor and his role ! However, we are saved NB Link is to a summary of the plot by Wikipedia®, which tells us that he is Park Yong-ha (played by Song Sae-byeok).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Elixirs of youth, utilitarianism, and Sonmi-451

This is a partly completed review of Jupiter Ascending (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

This is a partly completed review – it will certainly spill over into another posting – of Jupiter Ascending (2015)

5 February

Someone (whose Tweet cannot now be located) was replying to an invitation from BBC’s Film 2015 (@BBCFilm2015) for comment, and described Jupiter Ascending (2015) as ‘baffling’ and / or ‘confusing’ (in such a way that made clear that this / these description(s) was / were not commendations) :

Well, if one watches a film such as Father and Son (2003), and expects it all to be explained and tied up by the end, then that ‘just ain’t life’, so Screen 3 at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse) this afternoon at 4.30 would have been the wrong place to be (if one thinks that this film (or, say, Caché (Hidden) (2005)) should not baffle or confuse, even though life can and does)…

Before Jupiter Ascending (#JupiterAscending), Cloud Atlas (2012) was a long, hard look at repeating patterns, and the related potential for our kindnesses and cruelties to reverberate beyond our own time. (Although that is also, in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), the explicit message at the end of the trilogy – even if some resent even the existence of the two companion films to The Matrix (1999).)

Almost necessarily, Jupiter Ascending (2015) does not seek to cover that ground again, but trust, deceit and betrayal, and the nature of reality, have been integral parts of The Wachowskis’ screen-worlds since The Matrix, and they are here, too. We may tend to call what used to be ‘personnel’ by the name HR. If so, we overlook what these film-makers keep returning to, the behaviour (and morals) of those who see their fellow human-beings as ‘resources’ (thus, the earlier film has Jim Broadbent (as Timothy Cavendish) exploited by his family, and David Gyasi (Autua, a free man in slavery))…

Yes, The Wachowskis have 'delivered an action film', but what and where is the action, and what levels of reality (mirrored by different grading of CGI versus live action) are we meant to perceive ? :

That said, the amount of undiluted action is far greater, and it as though the proportion of threat, pursuit, and rescue in the time-period of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Chang (Jim Sturgess) had expanded proportionally to fill out the rest of Cloud Atlas. One will have to come to the action (and the nature of what action depicts / denotes on a cinema screen) at a later date, but it is not as if Lana and Andy Wachowski, always wearing their cine-literacy easily, have deprived those less keen on it of plenty of other insights.

Some key references (not exclusively to this one film of theirs) are :

* Metropolis (1927)

* Carry on Cleo (1964)

* Brazil (1985)*

* Akira (1988)

* Looper (2012) (mixed with that scene from North by Northwest (1959))

* Platonic Ideals / ‘The Theory of Forms’ / οὐσία (or ‘ousia’)

* Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) / The Makropulos Case (Leoš Janáček (based on Karel Čapek’s play)) / Bernard Williams’ essay of that name**

* Free will v. determinism / the craze for 'genetic screening'

* Etc., etc. – and one should not doubt, when The Matrix (1999) alluded to Lewis Carroll and The Wizard of Oz (1939), amongst others – that these references are any more than coincidental !

So what, also, about these possibilities (arising from that Film 2015 questioning / Tweeting) ? :

As to the film more than twenty-four hours later, it is still a fertile ground for reflection, because its makers’ knowingness should never be taken for granted.

Then again, one does not please everyone... :

More to come, but, for those who like spoilers, here are some Tweets in the meantime…


* With even a little cameo from its own Terry Gilliam, an influence to which The Double (2013) also nods*, with what it has become fashionable to call its steam-punk feel. [Also in Paddington (2014), though perhaps distilled through Gringotts Bank in the Harry Potter films (numbers 1 and 7 ?).]

** Williams, Provost of King's College, Cambridge, was also rather fond of opera...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)