Asako I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
2015 film Happy Hour won well-deserved plaudits for its complex examination of female
relationships and its collection of wonderful performances, but the
film's five-hour running time unfortunately meant its presence
outside of film festivals was severely restricted. Asako I & II
comes in at a much more conventional two hours, which should
hopefully increase its commercial prospects, but there's little that
is conventional about the film itself. After a beguiling meet-cute –
an instant connection amid exploding firecrackers – timid Asako
(Erika Karata) falls completely in love with the mysterious Baku
(Masahiro Higashide), but when he abruptly disappears (something he
apparently makes a habit of) she is bereft. Two years later, she runs
into his doppelgänger Ryôhei (also played by Higashide), and a
tentative romance begins between them, but is she in love with Ryôhei
or is she still dreaming of the one that got away? Questions of fate
and second chances run throughout Asako I & II, which Hamaguchi
has adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki's novel, and it's easy to imagine
some viewers being put off by its serendipitous storytelling or the
characters' quirks; particularly Asako's chronic indecisiveness and
introspection. But it's just as easy to imagine viewers falling in
love with this film, as I did, and being thrilled by the way it keeps
spinning off in unexpected directions. Although I adored much of Happy
Hour, I felt that Hamaguchi's focus on performance and character
dynamics sometimes came at the expense of his direction, resulting in
a number of poorly constructed and flatly lit scenes, and Asako I &
II is a real advance in this respect. His blocking and composition is
masterful, his touch with actors is as sure as ever, and he handles
the film's numerous tonal shifts with impressive grace. I'd have been happy to spend three more hours in the company of these characters.
Asako I & II currently has no UK distribution.
Lizzie (Craig William Macneill)
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” That's the Lizzie Borden story neatly wrapped up in a folk rhyme, although it's not exactly accurate. Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother, was struck around 18 times and her father a mere 11. The rest of what happened in the Borden household on August 4th, 1892 is open to speculation. Lizzie was cleared of the crime but in Craig William Macneill's Lizzie there'sno question who wielded the axe, with the film attempting to explain why Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) took this drastic step. Both women were dominated and oppressed by Lizzie's father (Jamey Sheridan) and Lizzie's inheritance and freedom was threatened by her shady uncle (Denis O'Hare). They took solace in each other, escaping to the woodshed for sex, and when their covert relationship was rumbled they saw no other solution to their predicament than to smash The Patriarchy in the face with an axe. This is a story of love, hatred, thwarted passions and revenge – so why does it feel so staid? Macneill has a good eye but his careful crafting of every frame leaches all sense of life out of the movie. The characters stalk around their creaky old house as if in fear of upsetting the mise-en-scène. The movie is a chronic drag. This might not be such a problem if we felt fully immersed in this time and place, but Lizzie never convinces. Sevigny and Stewart are strikingly modern performers (perhaps intentionally, to put them at odds with the world around them) and all of the characters and relationships are sketchily realised by Bryce Kass' uneven screenplay. The film finally explodes into life with the murders themselves, which are staged with a conviction that the movie never exhibits elsewhere, but this late flurry aside, I never got the impression that the filmmakers had a clear sense of how or why they wanted to tell this story.
Lizzie is distributed by Bulldog Distribution and is in UK cinemas on December 14.
Petra (Jaime Rosales)
I knew nothing of Petra before I walked into the screening, having not even glanced at the film's synopsis, and that was a wonderful way to experience Jaime Rosales' film. This is a movie that likes to withhold its secrets; in fact, Rosales withholds the whole opening chapter, beginning his film with “Chapter II” and saving the first instalment for much later in the film, when its dramatic import will be far greater. Rosales relishes dropping these revelatory bombs - arguably overdoing it in the final act – and another filmmaker could easily have dialled this material up into ripe melodrama, but instead the director dials it down. Petra is leisurely in its pacing and unfolds in long takes, with Hélène Louvart's camera (the film is gorgeously shot on 35mm) stalking around the characters and through the spaces they inhabit. Petra is a film about the legacy of secrets, the destructive power of men and the resilience of the women who are forced to withstand that power, and Rosales uses his exceptional ensemble to explore these ideas from a variety of angles. Bárbara Lennie is quietly superb as the title character – an artist attempting to unlock a mystery that has haunted her whole life – while Carme Pla has a small but heartbreaking turn as the maid who sacrifices everything for her family. But the film is dominated by Joan Botey as Jaume, the artist around whom all of these lives revolve. Jaume – an artist driven by acclaim and financial success rather than integrity and truth – takes evident delight in controlling and manipulating the lives of others, and Botey gives a magnificently loathsome portrayal of unchecked male ego and aggression.
Petra currently has no UK distribution.