Wednesday, October 02, 2019

London Film Festival 2019 - The Antenna / Axone / Beanpole / Öndög

The Antenna (directed by Orçun Behram)
The installation of a state-sponsored television antenna in a crumbling tower block is the catalyst for all manner of strange and disturbing occurrences in this slow-burning Turkish horror film. When the man hired to install the dish plunges from the roof to his death, it's a bad enough omen, but soon a mysterious black substance is emanating from the antenna and oozing its way into the residents' apartments. Initially I admired the way writer/director Orçun Behram was unfolding his narrative at a steady pace, but that pace never wavers, and given the way The Antenna is allowed to bloat to a two-hour running time, it's astonishing how little we learn about these characters. Our protagonist is Mehmet (Ihsan Önal), the passive and morose building superintendent who – in a move viewers may empathise with – keeps falling asleep on the job. The only person who gives Mehmet the time of day and treats him as more than an underling is Yasemin (Gül Arici), a teenage resident, whom Mehmet has encouraged to leave and start a new life elsewhere, even going so far as to buy a train ticket for her. What she is supposed to do after leaving her family is never fleshed out, and this relationship feel like nothing more than a narrative seed planted so Mehmet will have somebody to care about when things go awry.

The Antenna is obviously intended as a commentary on the pervasive power of authoritarian control, with the aerial in question being installed expressly for the function of government announcements, but this metaphor is obvious and feels tired long before Behram bluntly hammers it home in the third act. As a horror movie, The Antenna is a total bust. Behram sets up a few set-pieces that feel like classic genre death traps – such as the ooze seeping into a woman's bathtub shortly before she steps into it – but the staging and editing is way too slack to generate any suspense, and Behram leans too heavily on musical stings, pumping the score up to an ear-splitting crescendo every time something supposedly shocking is taking place. There's simply nothing to cling onto with this collection of paper-thin characters and haphazard threats, and while Behram does serve up some of his more interesting imagery in the last twenty minutes, most viewers will surely have checked out by then.

Axone (directed by Nicholas Kharkongor)
Axone (pronounced as akhuni) is an ingredient created from fermented soyabeans and is most readily associated with Naga people of northeastern India, and Wikipedia also tells me that it is judged to be ready when it “smells right”. The smell of axone is a running theme in Nicholas Kharkongor's film, with a group of friends trying to make a special dish for a wedding, only to be run off from one location to the next when the pungent aroma of their food becomes too much for the neighbours to handle. That's about all the plot there is to speak of in this low-stakes comedy, which trundles along amiably enough without ever being particularly funny or exciting. Given the race-against-time narrative – with the wedding set to take place that evening – it's strange how lacking in energy and forward momentum Axone is. The film has a stop-start, episodic rhythm that involves the central group running from one location to the next before some new obstacle drops in their path. There is comic potential in some of these situations – such as the attempts to deceive an old woman who keeps a keen eye on all all comings and goings – but the central narrative keeps getting disrupted by soapy theatrics, including attempts to explore the racism experienced in Delhi by those from other regions of the country. The writing is too trite and the acting too uncertain (although Sayani Gupta is an attractive and charming lead) for these dramatic scenes to have any weight; consider the late scene when one character is angrily called a “fucking Indian” only for the two people involved to apparently be on cordial terms a couple of scenes later. It all feels a little too slapdash and glib.

Beanpole (directed by Kantemir Balagov)
Beanpole is an unnerving experience before any images have even appeared on screen. Under the opening credits we what sounds like a person choking and gasping for breath, and our imaginations might immediately leap to worst-case scenarios, but when we the film opens on Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko) we see that she is standing alone in a catatonic stupor. These PTSD-related episodes got Iya sent home from the frontlines of WWII and now, with the war a painful recent memory, she works in a hospital in Leningrad, where her lapses are so common her colleagues just let them play out and continue to work around her. Strikingly tall, blonde and pale, Iya also goes by the nickname Beanpole, and she is one of two central characters in Kantemir Balagov's astonishing film, the other being her close friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who is still at the front when the film begins. Both of these women bear visible scars, and Beanpole is a film primarily about the scars of war  the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds  and an exploration of what it means to survive and live in the aftermath of an immense trauma.

It's a bleak film and often hard to watch, and one might be tempted to dismiss Beanpole as a grim exercise in Russian miserabilism; but this is a film made with a disarming sense of tenderness and compassion, and a stunning level of artistry. The long takes expertly choreographed by Balagov and his brilliant director of photography Ksenia Sereda draw us into the world inhabited by these characters, and almost every scene of this film is visually striking, particularly the interiors in which the muted colour palette of the décor is offset by the flash of a green dress or a red jumper. He also uses his actors brilliantly, contrasting Iya's awkward and introspective demeanour with Masha's more vibrant and passionate approach, and the performances he draws from the whole cast are flawless. Aside from the two wonderful leads, I loved Kseniya Kutepova as the wealthy mother of a young man infatuated with Masha, who shares one brilliant scene with Perelygina that gets to the heart of one of the film's central themes. This is a film about women in a time of war – the roles they are expected to play, the things they have to do to survive – and the men in Beanpole primarily exist for what these female characters can get from them. Beanpole is a stirring examination of grief, guilt and solidarity, and an exceptional achievement from a very exciting young filmmaker.

Öndög (directed by Wang Quan'an)
Öndög begins with a startling discovery. As a jeep speeds through the Mongolian wilderness at night, with its headlights illuminating the treacherous path, a naked corpse suddenly appears in view. If this sounds like the beginning of a thriller, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. In the build-up to this discovery, we listen to two of the occupants of the vehicle as they have a rambling conversation about hunting, and it is this discursive chat rather than the discovery of the dead body that sets the tone for Wang Quan'an's film. The film gradually shifts its gaze away from the body and from the culprit (who is quickly apprehended) to give us more of an overview of the characters and their way of life. Much of the first half of the picture tales place at night, with a naïve young police deputy (Norovsambuu Batmunkh) being assigned to stand guard over the corpse until his colleagues return with reinforcements, and a rifle-toting local herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) is ordered to stand by and keep an eye out for wolves. This pair spend one night together before going their separate ways, and Öndög is largely viewed from their disparate perspectives.

Meanwhile, our perspective on the action is usually a distant one. For Quan'an, the barren landscape is as important as the characters, and he often makes them small figures silhouetted against the endless horizon and the ever-changing sky. From that headlight-lit opening sequence, this is a visually hypnotic piece of filmmaking, full of imaginative and witty widescreen compositions, but despite frequently keeping us at a distance from these people, Quan'an allows us some intimate moments with them too. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film consists of Batmunkh and Enkhtaivan (and her camel) keeping watch by a roaring fire, with the utter blackness of the Mongolian night surrounding them. Quan'an lets these scenes run for as long as they need to, and the pacing throughout the film feels attuned more to the characters' way of life than any conventional notions of filmic storytelling, but I was never bored or felt like the film was dragging. Öndög is a beautiful meditation on life, love, death and birth, and aside from all of that it also manages to be unexpectedly hilarious.