Sunday, October 31, 2010

LFF 2010 - The Final Round-Up

Sawako Decides (Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa)

This quirky Japanese comedy occasionally threatens to get a little too quirky, but the film is kept in check by some deft direction and a charming lead performance. Hikari Mitsushima plays the title character, a character who is actually defined by her indecisiveness. In her fifth year in Tokyo, she is currently on her fifth job and fifth boyfriend, and while Sawako knows she is downtrodden and that her life is passing her by, she just accepts this state of affairs with her regular catchphrase, "It can't be helped." She believes she's just an average person who doesn't deserve anything better, but she has to get her act together when called back to the small town she grew up in, where her father is dying and the family clam-packing business is quickly going down the tubes. While the insecure and unassertive Sawako can be a frustrating character at times, Mitsushima subtly gives her a beguiling innocence and openness that keeps the audience on her side, even while Yûya Ishii's storytelling can get a little wayward. The director has a lively, sharp visual style and while Sawako Decides occasionally feels baggy, Ishii does build momentum towards the climax nicely in the second half, and there are a couple of very funny sequences along the way. He also neatly rejects some anticipated clichés by basing Sawako's triumphant final act around her embracing, rather than overcoming, her underdog status.

Essential Killing

Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban fighter in Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing, but that fact is only really relevant for the first twenty minutes of the movie. After he has been chased, captured and interrogated by US forces in Afghanistan – remaining stoically silent throughout – Gallo manages to escape and disappear into the snowy mountains, with troops closing in behind him. At this point, the character's loyalty or religious beliefs have little bearing on his actions; what we are watching here is a man desperately trying to survive, by any means necessary, in the harshest of conditions. With Gallo giving a riveting wordless performance, Skolimowski gradually forces his character into a primal state; kill or be killed, find shelter, eat whatever materials are available. The director frequently frames his actor against the vast emptiness of his surroundings, and some of the images captured by Adam Sikora's camera are staggeringly beautiful. Essential Killing is a striking, lyrical film, driven primarily by a raw animal energy, but also blessed with surreal visions, moments of madness and even a touch of tenderness (offered by Emmanuelle Seigner's kindly mute). This is a stunningly bold and enigmatic film, and I already want to see it again.

Dear Doctor

There's a touch of Ealing comedy about the premise to this beautifully measured Japanese film. In a small village, local doctor Ito (Tsurube Shôfukutei) is regarded as something of a saint, but what they don't know is that he's actually a fraud, with no medical qualifications whatsoever. Miwa Nishikawa's film operates on two narrative levels, cutting between Ito's story, as seen through the eyes of his young assistant Soma (Eita), and the later police investigation into his subterfuge. This director was a former protégé of Hirokazu Kore-eda, with whom she shares a light directorial touch and a deep humanism, finding a perfect balance here between comedy and heartfelt emotion. Shôfukutei has a great comedian's face, and he gives Ito an appealing, impish charm, but he also excels in portraying the character's gradually encroaching guilt and shame over his actions later on. Our attachment to him complicates the film's emotional aspect; what Ito did might have been wrong, but he has brought real joy and relief to his patients, in a way that a more conventional doctor may not have done. Dear Doctor is a really wonderful comedy, creating a group of strong, likeable characters and unfolding a story that successfully manages to amuse and move the viewer. The only time Nishikawa come close to stumbling is right at the end, when she threatens to drag the climax out unnecessarily, but when you see the way she finally does bring her film to a close, it's hard to begrudge her decision.

127 Hours

After closing the 2008 London Film Festival with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle is back as the festival's headline act once again with his latest effort. He has brought the same sensibility and visual style to a very different story, one in which the central character is static for much of the movie. 127 Hours tells the true story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), a thrill-seeker whose climbing adventure in Utah's Blue John Canyon ended with him being trapped in a crevasse, his arm pinned to the wall by a huge boulder. The title refers to the length of time that Ralston was trapped, a significant portion of which consisted of him slicing through his own arm with a small penknife in order to free himself, but what surprised me about 127 Hours was how quickly the film dealt with that particular part of the story. However, even if it's over quickly, the sight – or, more accurately, the sound – of Franco cutting the nerve in his arm is one that has stayed with me for days, and it was by some distance the most disturbing moment of the festival. Unfortunately, Boyle lets the tension slacken elsewhere, with his desperate desire to keep the film visually exciting at all times resulting in too many flashbacks, gimmicky shots, dream sequences and cutaways, all of which were less impactful than the simple reality of a man trapped and alone. Still, 127 Hours is moderately gripping stuff and it benefits greatly from both its genuinely stirring climax, and from Franco's outstanding performance, with his charismatic and emotionally charged display maintaining a sense of focus that Boyle sometimes lacks.


Well, that didn't last long. My appreciation for Gregg Araki, built up through his films Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face, slowly drained away as I watched his latest film. Kaboom is partially about pretty young people fucking, and it's partially about a cult that wants to bring about the end of the world. On the whole, I found it pretty tiresome. I won't deny that there are a couple of amusing moments here and there, and the actors are effective enough, with Juno Temple (despite a wavering accent) and Roxane Mesquida (as a sex-mad lesbian witch) standing out, but the film's strained attempt at wackiness never really takes flight. Araki's direction is too sluggish for the film to develop the kind of crazy energy Kaboom really needs, and instead it just plays out as a load of tedious random incidents. It's repetitive, empty and really rather annoying, and a disappointing step backwards for a filmmaker who was just starting to grow on me.

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)

What better way to end a film festival than with an insane tale of murder, sex and butchery in Japan's tropical fish industry? Sion Sono's Cold Fish is apparently based on a true story, although how much of this is drawn from reality and how much was invented by Sono's sick imagination is open to debate. Mitsuru Kukikoshi stars as Shamoto, a timid owner of a small fish shop who has a chance encounter with Murata (Denden), the proprietor of a tropical fish megastore that completely overshadows Shamoto's family-run business. Murata offers to help Shamoto, giving his rebellious teenage daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) a job as one of his scantily clad assistants, but soon he is involving the bewildered Shamoto in murders, and forcing him to assist in the very gruesome dismemberment and disposal of body parts. Cold Fish is the blackest of comedies, and Sono's twisted sense of humour is vital as it prevents the film from simply becoming a nihilistic wallow in human depravity, which it frequently threatens to do so. Sono doesn't hold back from exploring his characters' darkest sexual and rage-filled impulses, but his film remains weirdly compelling, thanks in part to the outstanding ensemble work. Cold Fish builds to an outrageous, blood-soaked finale that has to be seen to be believed, with Sono displaying no pity for these characters as they slowly destroy themselves.

Final Festival Thoughts

So, that was my London Film Festival 2010, and it was a great couple of weeks. The standard was generally high; from the 61 films I saw there were very few out-and-out stinkers, and I ended up with no walkouts and only one case of falling asleep during a screening. However, despite seeing more films than in any previous year, I was disappointed that I didn't get to see everything I would have liked. I'm not too worried about some of the bigger pictures, like The King's Speech and Biutiful because I know I'll have plenty of opportunities to catch those before they get released, but it was frustrating to hear friends and fellow filmgoers rave about 13 Assassins, Blue Valentine, A Somewhat Gentle Man, Taipei Exchanges or Cold Weather, and not know when (or if) these films will receive distribution. It's so hard to predict these days what festival films will receive a proper cinema release; in fact, I remember thinking that Balibo, one of my favourite films from the 2009 LFF, was a dead cert for a wide release, and yet it still hasn't seen the light of day.

Those disappointments aside, the 2010 LFF was a major success. I met some great people and saw some great films, and it's just such a pleasure to spend a couple of weeks watching an eclectic range of cinema surrounded by people who share your passion. Searching for common themes among the films I saw, there's no question that this was a particularly strong year for documentary filmmaking, whether they are straightforward documentaries or films that daringly experiment with the form. Otherwise, the most interesting trait I noticed in the films I watched was that many of them dealt with themes of loneliness or alienation, or of communities somehow cut off from the world at large: Meek's Cutoff, Adrienn Pál, Archipelago, Aurora and Of Gods and Men could all fit this loose description. Also, it was great to see so many filmmakers I admire stepping up their game with bold, ambitious films and, in some cases, producing the best work of their career. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kelly Reichardt, Olivier Assayas, Mike Leigh, Jerzy Skolimowski, Cristi Puiu and Peter Mullan all left the festival with their already considerable reputations enhanced.

And that's about it. Below you can read my final take on the best and worst of the 2010 London Film Festival. Roll on LFF 2011!

The Best of the Fest
1 - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2 - Meek's Cutoff
3 - Waste Land
4 - Essential Killing
5 - Carlos
6 - Tabloid
7 - Another Year
8 - Dear Doctor
9 - Poetry
10 - Adrienn Pál

The Next Best: The Arbor, Archipelago, Aurora, Boxing Gym, Catfish, Hunting and Sons, The Kids Are All Right, Neds, Of Gods and Men, The Tillman Story.

The Worst
1 - Brighton Rock
2 - Blessed Events
3 - West is West
4 - The Nine Muses
5 - Howl
6 - Film socialisme
7 - Miral
8 - Southern District
9 - Kaboom
10 - The Taqwacores