Exploring the world through global cinema

Independant

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part II

July 2012 saw the 16th edition of Pifan, or the Puchon International Film Festival, held annually in Bucheon, South Korea.  I was there and you can read about the first half of my experiences in the previous post. Here, then, is the second half.

I’m sure it would surprise precisely no-one that a Korean international film festival is principally for Koreans. Even the Busan International Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia, makes little more than a perfunctory effort to provide English to international visitors most of the time. I still haven’t forgotten the debacular mockery inflicted upon non-industry ticket purchasers at BIFF 2011, forced, thanks to the virtual impossibility it was to purchase online, to be herded like sheep along a rubber-ribboned maze toward a hastily-erected festival ticket booth outside the world’s largest department store only to be told the tickets had already been snapped up by everyone who’d arrived 30 minutes earlier.  “Wow, thank you BIFF for selling 80% of the tickets online to everyone in the film industry and local government officials who probably won’t even turn up – not to mention relocating the festival to one single city block so this ocean of human slave puppets can fight like dogs for jacked-up hotel prices before standing in a queue on the street full of frustration and broken promises. This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.” Meanwhile, darting around the line of disillusioned faces like bright red sheepdogs, barked a zig-zagging group of festival volunteers wielding portable whiteboards onto which were scribbled a bizarre series of numbers possibly denoting how many dumb suckers were letting themselves be robbed of their dignity, but were in fact a rapidly-growing list of number codes for all the films selling out before you reached the booth. None of which was explained in English, and so became a time experiment wherein one determines how long it takes each mystified member of the cattle run for the penny to drop.

“This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.”

And again, this is the biggest film festival in Asia. It’s meant to be a big-name brand event designed to attract niche tourism. The more diminutive and less-funded Pifan, meanwhile, can be forgiven for lacking many of the needed resources, not least the ability to pave the streets next to the venues. Not only can the regular masses actually purchase tickets online, but also the staff is actually trying to make it possible for them to enjoy themselves. How else to explain BIFF’s red-shirted counterparts actually walking around with bilingual signage, or the fact that I was at one point assigned a personal interpreter so that I could enjoy a post-screening Q&A session?

Pifan is also trying to make a big name for itself, evidenced by the foreign film-makers and press I met there, and needs to be properly bilingual if only to draw that kind of crowd. I apparently cut an incongruous figure, being asked three times if I were “industry or press”, as though those were the only two options. Sure, there’s this blog, and I did act in a short film recently, but that wasn’t the point. I was there as an enthusiast. I can’t have been the only one. To me, international film festivals are an incredibly important service, offering average citizens a (relatively) rare chance to see something beyond the strong-armed monopoly of mainstream cinema. For half the price of a normal ticket.

Ironically, the mainstream played a much larger role in the rest of my Pifan experience, to mixed results.

The Shining

(1980) Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ’em was good.”

Seriously – could *you* tell this guy was going to go nuts by the end?

Yes, I know – surely Stephen King wrote The Shining? Not this version he didn’t. King’s celebrated novel tells the story of a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues trying desperately to do the right thing and hold on to his damaged family by accepting the winter caretaker’s job at remote Colorado mountain lodge, the Overlook, as a last-ditch chance to avoid poverty. However, his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are completely disrupted by the hotel’s evil spirit, its power accentuated by his telepathic son. The story is a strong blend of the supernatural and King’s usual exploration of blue-collar family relationships put to the test by forces beyond their control.

Contrast this with The Shining, a story about a barely-under-control malcontent seemingly saddled with a family he doesn’t especially want taking a job at the Overlook in order to gain the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel. Quick to begin losing his sanity long before the hotel asserts its malign influence, this version of the character is the principle catalyst for the Amityville Horror-style rampage that follows, with the Overlook simply tapping into a pre-existing madness. While wrapped in similar packaging, the two stories could not be more different – and the above comparison barely scratches the surface of their asymmetry. Stephen King clearly agreed with this assessment, overseeing a televised adaptation of his book in 1997, which is, aside from the story’s climax, about as faithful as a four-hour miniseries can be.

“This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it.”

And yet while The Shining both largely dismisses and tramples upon the source material, it has the kind of unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere coupled with the trademark eye-catching cinematography and editing that make anything Stanley Kubrick does so compelling. This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Add to this yet another force of nature in front of the lens in the form of Jack Nicholson, very much at the top of his game and with the kind of presence that superglues your eyes to the screen, almost afraid to see what he’ll do next. Jack Nicholson could perform the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Those of us still clinging to the remaining tatters of King’s original story have little choice but to declare him completely miscast as Jack Torrance – not because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I for one haven’t even seen it) – but because every nuance of his performance, every arched eyebrow, every glint in his eye and every cynical tone drawling from his lips telegraphs Torrance’s impending madness like flashing, ten-foot-high neon. Yet none of those people would actually say what he was doing on screen wasn’t interesting.

Then there’s that softly-disconcerting soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind intermingled with various classic found tracks of a different lifetime, the imposingly-dark brown visage of the Timberline Lodge-as-Overlook, the threatening majesty of Mt. Hood, and a whole raft of elements that make this psychological base-under-siege melodrama work so well. For King fans, it is an exercise in doublethink, where they must put aside the author’s middle American melodrama and enter Kubrick’s realm without any preconceptions. Imagine if King’s version of ‘The Shining’ was a true account of events, and The Shining is the fast-paced Hollywood thriller based on those events. Except that Kubrick was clearly seeing the story through an entirely different lens.

Room 237

(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher

If you thought ‘The Shining’ ought to consist mostly of this opening shot over and over again, ‘Room 237’ is the documentary for you.

So imagine that you’re a fan of The Shining, and you’ve watched it over and over again in the 32 years since it was released. You know every line of dialogue, you’ve consciously studied every one of the set props, you’ve been struck by the symmetry of cross-fading shots, and you’ve stared at that opening shot of a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary until the idea of it being just a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary is patently absurd. Because you know Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick the perfectionist auteur who once made Shelley Duvall swing a baseball bat over and over again until she lost her mind. Stanley Kubrick the obsessive-compulsive director who turned a 17-week shoot into a 46-week shoot and had Jack Nicholson demolish 60 doors for the “Here’s Johnny!” scene.  This is not a man who does anything by accident. Every one of those Spherical 35mm frames has been planned to the Nth degree.

All of which you know, of course. Now imagine someone decided to shoot a documentary where uber-fans like yourself get to discuss all the hidden meanings and themes you know are what Kubrick was aiming for.

This is Room 237, a brand-new celebration to deconstruction peopled by individuals who know The Shining better than you do and possibly Kubrick himself. Some of the theories aren’t new: there is long-debated good evidence to suggest The Shining is in part recreating the destruction of the Native Americans by the “weak” white interloper, likewise the Holocaust allegory has been around equally as long, and ‘everyone’ knows the film is one massive allegory for Kubrick’s tension-filled assignment to fake footage of the Moon Landing for NASA. The ‘Obvious When Pointed Out’ file is well-explored also, in particular Kubrick’s tendency to mess with a passive movie-going audience with visual non-sequiturs and provocative props just outside the first-time viewer’s field of vision. The suggestion that Kubrick’s face has been superimposed into the clouds in the opening sequence however, that a standing ladder is meant to mirror part of the hotel’s exterior architecture, or that if you play the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, you’ll see all kinds of intentional thematic symmetry, definitely belongs at the speculative end of the pool. However, the various attempts to reach beyond reasonable lengths at the film’s discourse are welcomingly absurd interludes between the more serious – and in all likelihood more accurate – interpretations of Kubrick’s work. Ascher neither wants nor expects us to take all of Room 237 seriously, and in so doing ensures his documentary doesn’t bear all the stomach-tightening hallmarks of an Alex Jones conspiracy piece.

Consequently, what you won’t find in this film are musings from cast and crew, or indeed what they thought The Shining was about. For that, Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute on-set short is still the best bet. Room 237 is a light academic paean to the film which spawned it, and for fans, is definitely worth a look. Everyone else will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.

3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom

(2012) Written & Directed by Jordan Roberts

The Pifan Daily, freely available during the festival. Apparently I missed the meeting where the word ‘daily’ was redefined to mean ‘twice-only’.

Time now to unzip our parachutes and float down to Dick Joke Island, where relative newcomer to film Jordan Roberts, perhaps in a bid to prove our species really did evolve from primates, clearly believed the market needed another 90 minutes of genital-related humour, now that Harold & Kumar have annoyingly grown up. The infantile Frankie Go Boom also inflicts upon the viewer that other ‘essential’ element of frat-boy comedy, the intensely annoying main character one is supposed to find loveable and hilarious. Twenty years ago, it was the disturbing mental case brought to life by Bill Murray in What About Bob?; today, it’s Chris O’Dowd donning an American accent to play the sociopathic Bruce, a young man oblivious to the lifelong psychological trauma he has inflicted upon his younger brother Frankie by filming every one of his most compromising moments and screening them to a giggling public – a practice all the more destructive in the age of file-swapping and broadband. Add the obligatory ‘touching’ romance, ‘crazy’ and unsympathetic family and Ron Perlman sacrificing the last vestige of his dignity, and presto: another tedious trek through the teen mire. You know, maybe we could get Scorsese interested in that Yellow Pages idea.

Puchon Choice Short 1

Another collection of short films, of which the quality averaged slightly lower than last time. Things get off to an uneven start with the Korean black comedy, The Bad Earth, where office employee Seung Bum puts himself at odds with his co-workers by refusing to clap along during company presentations and after-hours reverie. Clapping, as Seung Bum, firmly believes, is in fact an insidious form of alien virus that makes the human race ripe for the plucking. I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore. However, the story’s premise is a little too ludicrous to be taken seriously, even if Seung Bum just might have good reason for believing it.

Very little credit, meanwhile, should be afforded Han Ji Hye, who in The Birth Of A Hero quite shamelessly takes the ‘Rabbit of Caerbannog’ scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail and transposes it onto a rooftop in downtown Seoul. The idea that he might possibly be ignorant of this hallowed source material evaporated once the otherwise docile white rabbit began flying through air towards its victims and gouging out their necks in precisely the same manner. If Han is lauded as a master of surrealist cinema after this unbelievable cribbing, he deserves to be fed to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!

Quality began to reassert itself at this point to the unusual Korean stop-motion animated short, Giant Room, in which a man rents out a space in a strange, colourless building. Told explicitly by the landlord not to enter the room marked “Do not enter this door”, the newcomer ignores the warning to his great peril. It’s always hard not to be impressed by the work put into old-style animation – just getting 10 minutes of useable material must have taken months. The claustrophobic miniature sets are also well-designed, and the decision to abstain from dialogue a good complement. Hopefully this is not the only feature we will see from Kim Si Jin.

“I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore.”

The drama finally moved overseas at this point for the dystopian US horror, Meat Me In Pleasantville. It is the near future, where overpopulation has finally used up all of the world’s meat reserves, causing the federal government to make cannibalism legal. Inevitably, some citizens agree with this decision more than others, particularly dependent upon who is at the other end of a meat cleaver at any given time. As the Pleasantville population’s taste for human flesh turns them all into murderous zombies, a father and his daughter fight to escape, though they too are only human. Fans of slasher horror will not be swayed too much by the gore of Greg Hanson and Casey Regan’s half-hour kill-fest, though the real-world basis for the story would, I think, amuse George Romero. It’s a little difficult to imagine a government making cannibalism legal, or that a population would ever go through with it, but anyone who thinks that humans couldn’t acquire a taste for their own flesh – or want to keep eating it after that first bite – ought to read the real-world story of one Alexander Pearce. Unfortunately, both acting and dialogue fail to match the worthiness of the concept, making Meat Me In Pleasantville a little hard to digest.

Pifan Ticket office at one of the many festival venues.

The theme of vampirism returns in fellow US horror short, The Local’s Bite, where a young woman traveling home via ski lift after a night out with friends tries to evade a stalker. Film-maker Scott Upshur puts the unusual transport system common to his local town to good use in this suspenseful drama, which squanders its build-up at the last moment for unrealistic fantasy in the name of plot twists and humour. And again, the acting is highly variable, with the horribly wooden appearance of a clearly real-world ski lift operator struggling like mad to deliver a single line. However, Upshur’s talent for rising tension, good location choices and decent editing cannot be ignored, and those are the areas he should focus upon in the future.

It was the final entry in the collection, Antoine & The Heroes, that proved most enjoyable. In the French comedy-pastiche, B-grade film obsessive Antoine is forced to choose between two simultaneously-screening films at his local cinema complex, each showing his two favourite screen stars and each on their final showing. Unable to decide, Antoine decides to watch both, dashing back and forth between cinemas to catch the highlights. Hailing from the days when kung-fu couldn’t be achieved without a funky disco track and heroines screamed and screamed without ever needing Vicks Vapodrops, cool cat Jim Kelly beats up the baddies without messing up his bouffant in his latest piece of kung-fu cinema, while long blonde silver screen star Angela Steele dodges groping zombies in her new horror blockbuster. At first, Antoine manages to alternate between the two spectaculars with ease, but a small accident results in the blending of realities, films and genres to comedic effect. The best thing about this film is Patrick Bagot’s excellent pastiche of 70’s style kung-fu and B-grade horror – both very much in-vogue during that hirsute decade – realized by some great acting, costumes, sets, and appropriate period soundtracks. Anyone with childhood memories of 70s pop culture will feel more than a little nostalgic by the end of Antoine & The Heroes, reminded of why it was all so much fun – even if it does look ridiculous four decades on.

*****

Next Time

“From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”

World On Film pays a visit to Christmas Island and comes face to face with its most colourful inhabitants – a sidestep from the usual film fare, next time.

Advertisements

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part I

In this edition of World On Film, I look back over my visit to the recent Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (Pifan), and give quick takes on the screenings I managed to catch.

I’d been wanting to catch Pifan for a few years now, but always somehow managed to forget when it was on. However, after the complete debacle that was BIFF 2011, it was time to get serious about it. For those wondering, Pifan takes place in Bucheon, a city in the Korean province of Gyeonggi, located roughly halfway between Seoul and Incheon. There are eight categories, including World Fantastic Cinema, Ani-Fanta, and Fantastic Short Films. Only one category, Puchon Choice, is competitive, with the winners being screened on the final weekend of the festival. This is Pifan’s 16th year, making it almost as long as its counterpart in Busan.

Physically-speaking, Pifan is smaller than BIFF, and organised much the way BIFF used to be, ie – with screenings sanely distributed across in a number of cinemas throughout downtown Bucheon with one particular venue, Puchon Square, at the centre. It has yet to become the almost industry-only event that is BIFF today, which in practical terms means the average joe can actually get tickets for this thing both online or by simply turning up to the ticket offices in timely fashion. There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.

On the flipside of this, Bucheon is hardly the most exciting city to hold a festival, the main street seems to be in a permanent state of construction, and the more modest department stores in which the cinemas are located don’t have the greatest selection of cuisine. On balance however, I had a very positive experience, so I aim to make the best of Pifan until it inevitably becomes so successful that getting tickets for screenings will become as difficult as convincing Adam Sandler to stop making movies.

I managed to catch something from most of the categories mentioned during my visit. Here is what I saw:

Hard Labor

(Brazil, 2011)         Written & Directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas

Sao Paolo housewife Helena is about to realise her dream of starting her own business in the form of a neighborhood supermarket. Yet just as she is about to sign the papers for the property lease, her husband, Otavio, is fired from his job as an insurance executive after ten years’ faithful service. However, the couple decides to risk the investment and the store opens, though for some reason, business just doesn’t seem to be taking off, seemingly in direct proportion with Otavio’s failure to find work and mounting alienation from the family. As an increasingly-stressed Helena struggles to hold everything together, she finds her attention drawn to a crumbling supermarket wall and wonders whether it might hold the answers to her problems.

“There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.”

For much of its screen time, Hard Labor is more a drama about family breakdown than it is a horror movie, which is especially important for horror fans to bear in mind when going into it. Although there are definitely supernatural elements to the story, they are there to be allegorical, to act as a catalyst for the primarily human conflict which takes place. The problem for me at least is that neither of these elements quite reach the crescendo they could have had and there is a little too much stillness throughout. It isn’t really until the final scene that I felt the two strands really came together, but that does mean that Hard Labor has a satisfying ending. Anyone who’s ever had to face long-term unemployment through no fault of their own will appreciate the film’s central message that to get by in this ultra-competitive world, you sometimes have to unleash the inner animal. Good casting choices, lighting, and set construction also help to push Hard Labor over the line, along with the occasional dash of dark humour.

The Heineken Kidnapping

(Netherlands, 2011)           Directed by Maarten Treurniet                 Written by Kees van Beijnum & Maarten Treurniet

Rutger Hauer stars in Maarten Treurniet’s interpretation of ‘The Heineken Kidnapping’ (image: Pifan Daily)

As its title suggests, The Heineken Kidnapping retells the true-life incident when in 1982, Alfred Heineken, then-president of the family business, was kidnapped by four individuals for the ransom money. Based loosely on the events as reported by Peter R. de Vries, the film focuses on the careful planning, abduction, and aftermath of the event, in which the traumatised Heineken struggles to cope with his imprisonment as well as fight various legal loopholes in order to bring the criminals to justice.

Since its release, the film has been criticised for playing fast and loose with the facts of the case, as well as glossing over the highly meticulous planning the four young men undertook before making their move. I therefore probably had the advantage of ignorance, in that I had never heard of the kidnapping before, and simply took what I saw at face value. To me, The Heineken Kidnapping was a fairly compelling crime drama with a strong cast, most notably in the form of Reinout Scholten van Aschat as the psychopathic young Rem Humbrechts, for whom the operation is as much for sadistic pleasure as it is for financial gain. Meanwhile Rutger Hauer turns in a strong and sympathetic performance as Alfred Heineken himself, which, given that the audience is being asked to care about the plight of an extremely wealthy adulterer, is a testament to the actor’s longstanding talent. Those more familiar with the source material may feel differently, but for me at least, The Heineken Kidnapping was an enjoyable example of Dutch cinema, and proved to be one of the more talked-about entries at Pifan – at least going by some of the people I met during my visit.

 

Extraterrestrial

(Spain, 2011)         Written & Directed by Nacho Vigolondo

When a series of flying saucers begin hovering over the cities of Spain, most of the population takes to the hills. However, for Julio, a young advertising artist in Cantabria, the more pressing concern is to stay as close to Julia, the girl of his dreams, in whose apartment he has just spent a passionate evening. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the presence of Julia’s nosy next-door neighbour and the return of her longtime boyfriend. But Julio will do anything to be with the girl he loves – even if that means making up a convoluted series of lies about an alien invasion – just to stay on the premises.

“At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands.”

With dramatic shots of a saucer hovering above urban skyscrapers and dire warnings by the authorities to stay out of harm’s way, one could be forgiven for thinking that Extraterrestrial might be another District 9. However, as with Hard Labor, the fantastical elements of the script serve merely to push a group of individuals together into a confined space and add colour to the background. At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands, and the unusual setting little more than an elaborate misdirection. That said, it is a pleasing enough 90 minutes with some enjoyable humour, and Julian Villagran makes for an unconventional romantic lead. Nonetheless, would-be viewers are advised to set their phasers on ‘low expectations’ for the best result.

Spellbound (aka Chilling Romance)

(South Korea, 2011)        Written & Directed by Hwang In-ho

Ballot card that ‘Extraterrestrial’ viewers were asked to submit. Guess which score I gave it.

Yuri, a shy young woman living in Seoul, is haunted by the ghost of her dead schoolfriend who lost her life during an ill-fated class excursion. Desperate for human company, Yuri has resigned herself to the fact that she will never enjoy close friendships or romance as long as a malignant ghost frightens away anyone who comes near. Hope comes in the form of Jogu, a wealthy stage magician who becomes intrigued by Yuri after he hires her for his illusionist act. With everyone else running from her in fear, will Jogu’s affection for his star performer be strong enough to overcome resistance from the Other Side?

I’d been warned before the screening began that Spellbound was something of a corn-fest, and by the end credits, felt so overdosed on saccharine, I nearly checked myself into a medical clinic for a diabetes test. In a country where clichéd melodrama is so popular it’s a major international export, Spellbound does not stand out from the crowd. With every passing minute came cliché after tired cliché about ill-fated romance, and every stomach-churning line about love and dreams meticulously welded to a truly nauseatingly-twee soundtrack had me twisting in my seat and groaning like an old man putting Viagra to use for the first time. If Extraterrestrial was formulaic, Spellbound was the formula, right down to the wise-cracking but experienced friends and sidekicks of the lead characters. All of which was so overwhelming that the horror element to the story, and raison d’etre for the whole situation was never adequately built up to be anything especially convincing and had me longing for the Dementors to float in on special dispensation from Azkaban and suck everyone’s souls into oblivion. Son Yeji gave a creditably agonised performance as the long-persecuted female lead, but frankly, the entire cast could have simply sat in a pool filled with corn syrup and elicited the same drippy performance. That, at least, would have been more honest.

Fantastic Short Films 7

Postcard for the Korean short film ‘The Metamorphosis’, handed out to patrons as they entered the cinema for the ‘Fantastic Short Films 7’ collection.

The great thing about short film collections is that if one film proves awful, you don’t have to wait long for the next one. FSF7 however started strong, with the Korean entry Delayed, in which a young middle-aged woman waits patiently at a near-deserted train station for her husband to arrive. Yet as she strikes up a conversation with an inquisitive man claiming also be expecting an arrival, nothing seems to be quite as it appears. Cast and crew of this very moving short appeared live on stage at the end, where director Kim Dong-han explained his desire to connect lost souls with lost train stations. My thanks to the Pifan personal interpreter who sat with me during this unexpected bonus event!

Next up, the Japanese parody-pastiche Encounters, wherein two very good friends look for adventure in the countryside and find more than they bargain for with giant monsters roaming the streets thanks to the machinations of an evil professor. Shot entirely using plastic action figures and some deliberately wonky props and sets, Encounters is a tongue-in-cheek Godzilla-like comedy, complete with lame action sequences and bad dialogue. I’d like to think the English subtitles weren’t meant to be quite as poor as they were, but if so, mission accomplished!

“The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened.”

The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened. Two long-time friends out hiking in the forest suddenly find themselves kidnapped by a crazed religious fanatic who begins torturing them in his secret underground lair, replete with bad lighting, corpses and handy tunnel system. The pointless and gruesome tale offers no depth in terms of the reasons behind the mad psychopath, nor indeed the ridiculous twist at the end. Which is an interesting coincidence, because I can offer no reason why anyone should watch it.

The macabre continues – though in a very different style – in the form of the Korean silent film, The Metamorphosis, a shadowy sepia affair with the disconcerting performances of Eraserhead and the visual echoes of Nosferatu. Claustrophobic static shots combine with heavy industrial clanking and retro white-on-black dialogue text inserts to tell the story of a family beset by vampirism. In truth, it’s a great example of style over substance that adds little storywise to the genre and comes close at one point to mobs with burning torches. Yet it’s the style that proves the most compelling here, so that while I’m not entirely sure what I saw, it was impossible to take my eyes off the screen. There are plenty of music videos like that.

Rounding out the collection was the light-hearted martial arts/crime spectacular, Pandora, in which taekwondo trainee Jeong Hun arrives in the city of Chungju for a performance, only to accidentally switch his cell phone with that of a man on the run from a gang intent on seizing the secrets the identical device contains. The film is a fairly unremarkable, reasonably-paced runaround that could not possibly satisfy fans of martial arts films, offering nothing new by way of story or visuals. When a story is full of clichés that have been done better elsewhere, you have to wonder who the intended audience really is. As a 30-minute romp in a film festival, Pandora is sufficient eye candy, but on its own, it swims in crowded waters.

*****

Next Time

The second half of my Pifan retrospective. I finally get to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on the big screen, watch the over-reaching new documentary about the very same, entitled Room 237, find myself underwhelmed by the new Harold & Kumar-style American feature, 3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom and sit through another short film collection with mixed results. That’s World On Film next time.


All That Is Real Is You

In this edition of World On Film, we follow a young man caught between two worlds and who goes in search of his roots all the way to Cape Verde, where he happily discovers that he has –

Cabo Verde Inside

(2009) Written & Produced by Alexander Schnoor

“What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Being a good dancer? To not stress one’s self out?”

Half-German, half-Cape Verdean Alexander Schnoor gets in touch with his ancestral roots in ‘Cabo Verde Inside’.

I’ve long believed that people don’t give nearly enough thought to the way in which their inner yearning for identity shapes their every interaction with the world around them. In a sense, the narcissist is the most honest of human beings – they consciously assert that everything within their world is ultimately about themselves and proceed through life with that premise as the lens through which everything is viewed. The narcissist only becomes a figure of dislike when they interact with someone who doesn’t share their parochial assertions – someone who is consequently offended because the former does not validate their own sense of self-worth, like a rhinoceros unconcerned by the existence of an ant.

Yet we are all narcissists at heart by design: we anthropomorphise the world around us and find nothing more fascinating than the actions of our own species and how we feel in relation to those actions. Reality is entirely shaped by how we focus upon those elements of the world that validate who we are, and consequently blind us to everything else beyond. Only through social evolution have most of us learned to internalise our selfishness through recognition that our survival works better as a group, which means acknowledging the needs of others. Read political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s most well-known book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, and see the way in which his proposition that democracy is the final evolution of society must first be understood in terms of thymos, the Greek word loosely translated as ‘self-identity’. Even beneath the sexual drive, argues Fukuyama, is the base need of the individual to have their sense of being recognised and agreed upon by everyone they meet. We befriend those who do and find reasons to dislike those who do not for reasons that are not necessarily connected with our underlying discomfort with them.

The quest for the self, however, is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories. Hence the common practice by people whose identities are more complex because they may be migrants, or the children of migrants, raised in one society, but strongly informed by the ethnicity and culture of another – a society of which they may have no direct experience. At a certain point of their development comes the yearning to visit the land of their ancestors, typically justified as a spiritual journey. More telling however is when their reason is given as a need to “find themselves” and we see the true root cause.

“The quest for the self is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories.”

The journey of self-discovery includes meeting fellow migrant offspring, who champion pluralism and adaptability as the Cape Verdean’s greatest strengths.

The time spent in the ancestral homeland is frequently an ambivalent success: on the one hand, the individual feels the joy of finally being able to connect with the other half of themselves, nothing less than the validation of an identity not understood by the locals back home. Though largely experiential, the adventure seems to nevertheless answer questions never consciously made yet obvious – all pointing back to the two fundamental questions we all have of existence – Who am I? and What do I want? Yet it is also a honeymoon period: stay too long and the reality of the homeland punctures the elation, creating an internal conflict. From here, the person may be unable to reconcile their ancestry with the values instilled by those with which they were raised or find them more compatible with those back home. Here then, is the point when they really have to decide who they are.

Alexander Schnoor, half-German, half Cape Verdean, decided to identify his own inner yearnings back in 2009 when, armed with a video camera and a creditable skill for film-making, he set off for his ancestral homeland for the very first time hoping to answer the question, What does it mean to be Cape Verdean?

To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself. Cabo Verde Inside begins in Schnoor’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and spends time both framing the voyage to come and the process by which it took place. Schnoor doesn’t simply hop on a plane to Boa Vista, but first explores the Cape Verdean influence closer to home. Economic hardships on the islands back in the 1970s resulted in a mass exodus from the islands, with the result today that more Cape Verdeans live abroad than do within its 10 islands. Thus Schnoor searches for answers first in the local expat community before moving on to Maastricht where he meets a Creole woman of similar ancestry. The latter goes on to suggest that diaspora and racial mixing are the underlying reasons for the Cape Verdean easygoing amiability. The sentiment is oft-repeated by others throughout the film and unsurprisingly, is much to Schnoor’s liking.

It is through this perception filter that Cape Verde is presented. From the quiet, agrarian-based communities of Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau to the comparatively bustling main settlement of Santiago, the island nation is the very model of a developing world Eden. Locals almost uniformly speak of their social stability while reaffirming its mixed racial demographic and tolerance as the root cause, with one interviewee even suggesting that Cape Verdeans are the model for the future of humanity.

“To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself.”

Upon arrival, Schnoor finds exactly the kind of people he hoped to find, validating his voyage of self-discovery.

And the islands themselves are fascinating and beautiful. Geographically, Cape Verde is a kind of North Atlantic Hawaii, formed by the same shifting hotspot volcanic activity. The mountains are jagged and dramatic, the beaches long stretches of shimmering sand, and the waters a rich azure blue. Couple this with the island chain’s isolated character and you have the textbook resort getaway for the rich and the appearance at least of a Brigadoon-like simplicity. In addition, Schnoor clearly has an eye for visuals and better still, a good understanding of editing, and thus turns out a appealing video postcard of his trip that never feels overlong.

The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!”

Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so. We are viewing not so much what is actually there, but the happiness of Schnoor’s psyche made manifest in rose-tinted brilliance as long-held desires within him finally connect with the one-and-only people who can mirror their need.

The real Cape Verde, long a Portuguese colony with a turbulent history, is never explored. Even the economic hardships mentioned above go without mention – the locals just seem to have left because they’re open, highly-adaptable people who can live anywhere. The roughly 20% who live below the poverty line are presumably content to make do on land with few natural resources.

A former Portuguese colony, Cape Verde is strongly dependent upon agriculture, fishing, and tourism. The underlying mechanisms of the country are not, however, especially germane to the film’s raison d’etre.

It isn’t that I don’t believe Cape Verdeans are warm, welcoming and happy. They have a reputation for being just that. Even the Wikipedia entry makes this point. They live in a warm climate, the population is low thanks to the mass exodus so everyone has the space to be comfortable, and life is uncomplicated. I just didn’t learn a great deal about them in this film. The population is low because people within living memory were starving following the collapse of the slave trade and the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial masters. People have the space to be comfortable because most of them left. Life is uncomplicated because Cape Verde has been neglected for the last 40 years and again because most of the population left. What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Living almost anywhere else.

Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so.”

All of which is ultimately demanding too much from Schnoor, when by now, we understand precisely where he was in his life while making the film and why it couldn’t be anything less than Disneyfied. Meet anyone of mixed origins who has grown up in one place and later visited their ethnic birthplace and ask them how things were those first two weeks. Very likely this will be their experience. Had Schnoor left Germany behind and actually relocated to his ancestral homeland, what might he have to say of it today? The title itself is explicit enough – it is not ‘Inside Cabo Verde’, but Schnoor finding Cabo Verde Inside. I’m glad he had such a positive experience, but I’ll have to look elsewhere to discover Cabo Verde For Real.

But enough from me. You can watch the whole thing free and legally for yourself right here:

*****

Next Time

“The Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Nonetheless, the damage to Paradise has been done, the Western world have destroyed the local society by raising it to a level of modernity that benefits only those who colonized it and who now leave the resulting cultural mish-mash to its own, poorer ends. Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight.”

Paradise lost in the 2004 melodrama Haven, up next on World On Film. To see a trailer, click below.


Eyes Of A Child

World On Film returns after a slight absence (did anyone notice?) with a trip to Cambodia, where proof that our species is highly selective about its morality is cast in the stark light of hypocrisy as the child sex trade and those who perpetuate it form the basis for:

Holly

(2006) Written by Guy Moshe & Guy Jacobson               Directed by Guy Moshe

“There’s crime, and there’s crime. These people already have a reservation for Hell. They care about nothing. Your life, maybe $5 and I will miss you.”

It's hard to be objective about a film that deals with child sex trafficking - you'd think for everyone, but then, that's what the story's about.

An American expat in Cambodia, deadened to the realities of life there after many years of living in the country and dealing in stolen artifacts, is suddenly awoken from his torpor when he encounters Holly, a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold into sex slavery. Attempting to rescue her from her fate, he discovers that saving even one of the millions of victims to child trafficking in South-East Asia may be a lot harder than expected.

A co-production between the U.S, France, Israel, and Cambodia, Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry, with over 2 million unwitting minors sold into sex slavery every year, according to the U.N. Although a fictitious account, the film is part of the producers’ K11 Project (http://www.myspace.com/priorityfilms), an attempt to raise public awareness of the issue. Jacobson chose Cambodia for his setting following an eye-opening visit to the country years earlier, where he found himself repeatedly approached by young children on the streets of Cambodia offering up their bodies.

Indeed, the real power of the film lies in the extensive location shooting in the country, including many scenes shot in actual Phnom Penh brothels where trafficked girls end up after having been sold by destitute parents unable to provide for them and not given the full picture as to their offspring’s fate. It is implied in Holly that a fair portion of the underage children facing this tragic future in Cambodia are often smuggled from neighbouring Vietnam. At one point, the eponymous victim explains to her would-be rescuer that parents like hers were forced to balance the cold equations of basic survival, and had little chance of making a living other than by selling her off. Such is a decision that anyone not of an impoverished society (ie, you and I) may struggle to fathom, and therein underscores the truly desperate nature of the Third World. This is even assuming that the children were not simply abducted in public.

Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry.”

The pre-pubescent title character is by no means the youngest forced into selling her body on the streets of Cambodia.

Holly also makes the obvious, but oft-overlooked point that the only reason the trade exists is because there are adults willing to pay for it. Artifact dealer Patrick is to an extent Jacobson himself years earlier, discovering the ridiculous ease with which sex tourists can find underage girls to sleep with or to buy, simply by venturing into the red light districts of Phnom Penh. The easy manner with which those handling their human commodities in the presence of a potential customer belies how frequently it occurs, the sex tourists in the film originating from wealthier nations or even from within local government – the latter becoming a major source of conflict as the story progresses. For the former group, the Third World is like the internet, an unmonitored realm where they believe their anonymity gives them the right to abandon the social mores they observe in the ‘real world’ of their home countries. Nationalist rhetoric programs them to believe that only ‘their people’ are truly human like themselves, while the foreigner, falling outside this narrow fiction, is little more than an animal to be consumed when the appetite demands.

Beyond the activist groups working to combat the underage sex trade, it isn’t surprising that so many turn a blind eye to it. That there are those capable of treating the young of their own species in this way is tremendously hard to face in the developed world, and just one of a billion other problems to live with in the undeveloped world. The power of the film itself relies on getting across this sickening reality.

At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such. It is rather clichéd in places, depicting as it does the rugged, white American male swooping into the chaotic Orient to save the poor Asian girl from her own evil people. Ironically, Jacobson is far too aware of the realities of the problem in Cambodia to ignore this, with Patrick encountering volunteer campaigner and women’s refuge worker Marie who explains to him that what he is attempting to do in reality flies in the face of all manner of legal and psychological problems, not to mention mafia-related retaliation. In short, it will create more problems than exist already.

“At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such.”

Rock and a hard place: being a moral crusader can sometimes cause even more damage for all concerned.

The need to create a dramatic storyline with the usual elements of rising action, major conflict and so on also undermine the reality of the situation. Characters all too often just happen to run into each other in the right place at the right time despite the size of the setting in which the story occurs, leading to the CSI effect, wherein crimes are solved every episode as opposed to real life, wherein unsolved crimes are the norm. All of which criticism may sound a little unfair if Holly is taken simply as a drama. However, due to the concerted effort on the part of the film-makers to be as realistic as they can, whether it be real location shooting or the script’s dissemination of the hard facts about child trafficking, any attempt at unreal melodrama stands out all the more.

Ron Livingston is also very-much the stoic, square-jawed, good-looking hero who somehow cares about the situation more than anyone else we meet and is inevitably prone to emotional outbursts in all the right places. His checkered past is therefore easily forgiven and indeed simply makes him the classical dark and damaged hero that the Hollywood formula has proved works well with the audience. He’s on the run from justice in a world that wants him silenced. He’s not trying to save the everyone – he’s just trying to save one person, thereby reducing the conflict to the level of interpersonal melodrama.

And the formula works. Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side. Behind him, the whole cast is a perfect fit for the exercise: Pen Sopheap, for example, plays with conviction the vicious gang leader and smuggler, while Montakan Ransibrahmanakul is all too believable as the horribly cruel Madam of the first brothel in which Holly finds herself. Thuy Nguyen as Holly most definitely has an acting future ahead of her if she so chooses, imbuing the title character with pride, fear, stubbornness, confusion, and a whole range of emotions that convince the viewer utterly. Between them, Livingstone and Nguyen carefully confront the ultimate tragedy of their association, that of attachment which, in the twisted world they find themselves in, can only lead to their downfall.

“Ron Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side.”

Vicious cycle: the local authorities are seen to be part of the problem.

Finally, Cambodia itself, colourful, chaotic, otherworldly, and on the precipice of civilization, is a powerful character in its own right. While the film’s message could ultimately be delivered in any country, the uniquely Cambodian flavour of the setting indelibly stamps Holly with its own very particular identity, making for a very rich visual experience.

Where it can be legitimately argued that the film’s problematic Hollywood-ised nature should be secondary to its raison d’etre, I will agree up to a point. While the dialogue of the White Man’s Burden is long past its sell-by date, it is very much a reflection of the writer/director’s attempts to come to terms with the horror he has discovered. It is a horror very real to a young and silent multitude for whom the adult world around them treats with a dismissiveness only they are immoral enough to live with. Where Holly fails elsewhere as a patronising cliché, it succeeds in making clear this last point. In all the ways in which it is an exercise in generating awareness and fuel condemnation of the child sex trade, it is a gut-wrenching success.

*****

Next Time

“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”

Colonial collapse and myopic madness in Claire Denis’s Cameroon-based drama, White Material. View a trailer below:


Standing On Higher Ground

World On Film visits not one, but two countries this week, owing principally to the fact that I could only get short films for each locale and although this normally means a review accompanied by the usual side topic, there’s been more than enough deviation lately (your host is deviant enough as it is). Until the next episode, anyway. The combination turned out to be an interesting one in any case, with one entry proving that major topics can be too broad in scope for a short film, and the other entry proving the exact opposite. Read on to find out just what I mean as we travel first to the Bahamas for the romance drama Float, followed by a short sojourn in Bahrain for the black comedy, The Last Bahraini.

Float

(2007) Directed by Kareem Mortimer

Jonathan Murray and Stephen Tyrone Williams play two men who find love and truth in Kareem Mortimer's ambitious short film, 'Float'.

(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)

Float tells the story of Jonny, a nervous young artist trapped in a world where his homosexuality is condemned and his talents and timidity are unappreciated by his father. Only his art teacher seems to recognise the aptitude trapped inside and she sends him to Eleuthera to find himself. There, Jonny finds his identity through the help of Romeo, a young man confident of all but his sexuality, and discovers that he may have more courage than he realises.

Coming in at just under 35 minutes, Float does not have a good deal of time to explore its chosen themes and in consequence, the human voyage of discovery and transition seem to happen just a little too quickly and easily to ring true. That aside however, the characterisation is handled with understanding and warmth. The awkward, introverted and timid Jonny, as played believably by Jonathan Murray is someone you ultimately want to see triumph when that first spark of defiance becomes evident. Similarly, the carefree and affable Romeo, as played by Stephen Tyrone Williams, elicits appropriate feelings of betrayal when he is unable to live up to the very philosophy he seemingly preaches. They may not be Oscar-winning performances, but there is an honesty and a resonance to them.

“Coming in at just under 35 minutes, Float does not have a good deal of time to explore its chosen themes.”

Bahamanians protest against homosexuality - real-life footage is used to show the hatred.

While a culture of homosexual persecution is the film’s main theme, it is only really in the opening sequences where this is made manifest, through footage of anti-gay rights protesters. Although punctuated slightly further by a couple of scenes with some street kids, the real persecution, it is emphasised, is that which we inflict upon ourselves through fear. While these external and internal battles are worthwhile and form a strong basis for a tale of the struggle for personal freedom fought every day by many across the world, they are very tall pillars for such a short film to support – at least in the way the script was conceived. I’m fairly sure that many who are dealing with these very issues would argue that they are not overcome quite so easily. Doubtless budget was a constraining factor here, though it should have led writer/director Kareem Mortimer to consider what is achievable within the constraints imposed – yes, you can tell the story in half an hour, but will it have the same impact?

Nonetheless, while this leaves Float feeling at times like the edited highlights of much longer story, it is still an entertaining gallop through a moving and very personal struggle. Mortimer could certainly not be accused of slow pacing – indeed, we are missing none of the story’s crucial elements and each is constructed with the skill of a genuine film-maker. The dialogue is feels real enough and generates real emotion. This being the Bahamas, Mortimer is also blessed with a natural set that paints its own rich colours and only adds wonderfully to the human battle for freedom. You are almost left wondering how some people have time for such pointless persecution in the face of so much natural beauty – the human tragedy in a nutshell.

Thus, while Float suffers from a lack of depth and development borne of obvious budget limitations, the parts still hold together well enough to deliver its underlying message intact and in an engaging way.

The Last Bahraini

(2007) Written & Directed by Farid Alkhajah

Hamad Albinali plays a proud, yet not-so-upstanding Bahraini citizen.

Getting hold of a Bahraini film proved especially difficult, as at present, one is unlikely to see the few that have been made outside of film festivals, although that of course depends upon when you’re reading this. Happily, Burning Dream Films stepped into the breach with the humourous and telling short commentary on racial hubris and attitudes to immigration, entitled The Last Bahraini. BDF is actually no more nor less than writer/director and indeed crewman 1-200, Farid Alkhajah, but although his film betrays its amateur roots, it says far more in 6 ½ minutes than a certain Tropical Films (Antigua) struggles to do in 40 minutes.

The film is a two-hander, depicting the chance encounter of a rather nationalistic Bahraini citizen of dubious morals and an Indian taxi driver who manages to annoy him from the moment the two meet. One needn’t be especially aware of Bahraini social attitudes to enjoy the film, but simply live in a country with an immigration policy to see the same sheet music played out by the same kinds of bigots we know so well.

“One needn’t be especially aware of Bahraini social attitudes to enjoy the film.”

Storm brewing: hubris meets the hard-working immigrant, played by Amir Hussein.

However, Alkhajah injects his commentary with a great degree of ironic humour, which ultimately makes The Last Bahraini as good as it is. It may be nothing new to laugh off the absurdity of empty prejudice, but it’s always the best solution, although doubtless, those quickest to propagate their prejudice are also the first to miss the point.

Shot on location mostly at night, Alkhajah’s camerawork is obviously not Scorsese, but sufficient to capture the story in an effective manner. The film’s two stars, Hamad Albinali and Amir Hussein meanwhile, get the dialogue off the page convincingly and spark off each other well. Scenes where Albinali roams the streets look a bit unconvincing and self-conscious, but that’s more of a directorial issue than one of acting. Also, the subtitles are a little too fast and convoluted during scenes rich in dialogue and I had to pause and rewind a couple of times to catch everything. Overall however, the parts pull together sufficiently well enough and deliver as a whole, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Alkhajah in the future – a promising talent likely to go from strength to strength.

Burning Dream Films has a youtube presence, so you can watch The Last Bahraini for yourself right here:

*****

Next Time

A young Muslim boy struggles to make sense of the strange, contradictory world around him as East Pakistan battles for independence. A nation’s loss of innocence when World On Film returns to examine the moving Bangladeshi full-length drama, The Clay Bird. To view a trailer, click here.


Poisonality

Michael Read, troubled by demons in 'The Boogeyman'

In the early 1980s, a number of Stephen King short stories were filmed on a low budget and subsequently released on VHS as Stephen King’s Nightshift Collection. Timewise, they fall in between two of the master of horror’s two big screen successes, The Shining and Cujo, though it’s more interesting to note that this is the time of Creepshow, the more celebrated anthology of King short stories that would go on to see two big-screen outings. I happened to catch two Nightshifts this week, namely The Woman In The Room and The Boogeyman. They are very much of their time in terms of pacing and characterization, and certainly not in any way lavished with financial beneficence.

At the same time, however, they are uncomplicated character studies requiring little window dressing beyond a basic set. Some King fans may be put off by the fact that they are more psychological thriller than horror, but they lack nothing of his familiar style. In The Woman In The Room, a young man watching his hospital-bound mother must come to terms with the harshest reality a filial son can face, while in The Boogeyman (directed by a certain Frank Darabont), a father has to battle the demons plaguing his family – but are they the product of a malevolent underworld or something far closer to home? Ultimately, the Nightshift Collection is no Creepshow (‘The Raft’ being probably one of my favourite of the stories), but it is still an enjoyable diversion.

“They are more psychological thriller than horror, but they lack nothing of his [King’s] familiar style”

This week, World On Film heads to the twin-island nation and former British colony of Antigua & Barbuda – St. John’s, Antigua, to be precise, for the independent film:

Hooked

(2009) Directed by Nigel Trellis

You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s entry. In addition to that, you can watch this film freely on the company’s website: http://www.tropicalfilmsantigua.com/ (go to the ‘Showcase’ section).

Rachael Steele & Dennis Hunt star in 'Hooked', a film unmolested by acting talent.

Hooked is the first quasi-cinematic offering from Tropical Films (Antigua), an independent group of film-makers keen to redress the imbalance caused by the vast wealth of Hollywood offerings compared to the trickle of Caribbean cinema. Indeed, IMDB lists only 5 films for the country of Antigua & Barbuda, where the group is based, and 2 of those are documentaries. In the words of TF(A), ‘Few Hollywood movies portray people that look like us or tell stories with which we feel a real connection.’

Certainly no argument there, which is why I found it rather odd that the unrequited love story that unfolded across the 40 minutes of Hooked was tremendously easy to connect with, despite my not being remotely of Caribbean ancestry, never having ever set foot in that part of the world, and the fact that it tells a very universal story. The plot essentially underpins Woody Allen’s response to media critics panning his relationship with Soon-Yi – ‘The heart wants what it wants’. This is indeed true for Penny Burns, whose heart is manacled uncompromisingly to former lover Damian, her rather violent ex set to be released from prison. The day of his release is her cue to end her subsequent relationship with replacement beau Benjamin, except that after devoting two years of his life and energy to her, not to mention being head over heels in love, he isn’t willing to let her go so easily. However, he soon finds himself engaging in a fight only he wants to win, the realization for which comes with swift and unmerciful punishment. I’m pretty sure people the world over will find ‘a real connection’ with this, one of the most basic of romance tragedies. After all that hype, I was expecting a penetrating study of the uniqueness of Caribbean culture and the way in which it differs from post-equatorial climes, not a glorified episode of ‘Neighbours.’ Perhaps the whole ‘people that look like us’ really means ‘people who are us’.

“After all that hype, I was expecting a penetrating study of the uniqueness of Caribbean culture and the way in which it differs from post-equatorial climes, not a glorified episode of ‘Neighbours.'”

The eternal triangle: Carl Christopher as Damian, a lethargic presence.

The second of TF(A)’s bold claims for their film-making is that they aim ‘To create stories that are exciting and that capture the imagination. Nothing will be produced by us unless it is based on a well written, absorbing screenplay.’ Yet Hooked suffers from some truly horrendous, clichéd dialogue (‘This is not over yet, jailbird. I promise you – this is not over!) that even dialogue disaster master Dan Brown wouldn’t touch. This might almost be mitigated with the presence of creative acting talent, however Hooked is not at any time populated with anyone skilled in the craft – simply enthusiastic amateurs either desperately over-the-top (Dennis Hunt), or so wooden, they could start a new forest (Monique Fairclough), with the cast never reacting to each other, but simply standing there blankly until the time comes to deliver their next line. In one scene, an actor playing a prison warden has so much trouble delivering his lines that there seemed a very real possibility of him passing out halfway through. All of which presents a major challenge for the audience if they are to find Hooked ‘absorbing’.

The production values, meanwhile, are a separate matter. While the location budget is virtually non-existent, the camera-work is accomplished and the picture treatment provides the ‘film look’ anyone in the industry knows is good for hiding a multitude of sins. It should do after all, since the producers make the point that they purchased top-of-the-range equipment for their projects. Yet their talents do extend beyond their pocketbooks. Nigel Trellis may not know how to write an original script with realistic dialogue, but he does know what he wants from a technical point of view – scenes are well-paced and only seem to drag because of the bad acting. Editing is competent and the soundtrack fits the melodrama. He fails to understand however that having even the technical budget of James Cameron cannot compensate for the lack of performance. As he says himself, his goal is to ‘portray people’ and with this the weakest element of the whole production, Hooked can do little but implode in upon itself – not the most desirable means of attracting television distribution within the region – the company’s ultimate aim.

“[Director] Nigel Trellis may not know how to write an original script with realistic dialogue, but he does know what he wants from a technical point of view – scenes are well-paced and only seem to drag because of the bad acting.”

Hope Burns as Monique, presumably horrified by her sudden lapse into genuine acting.

What makes this truly disappointing is that I am 100% behind their goals – to bring a greater Caribbean presence to the cinema, which is indisputably lacking. It was precisely because I wanted to see a film from Antigua & Barbuda (and having failed to get my hands on the efforts of Howard Allen – Antigua’s celebrated professional film director) that I was so pleased to discover that somebody wanted to do something about it (not to mention that their efforts were available to all for free via their site, not to mention Facebook and youtube). I’m on board – I want ‘stories that are exciting and capture the imagination’ from the Caribbean and hope its rich and varied culture will find new audiences. Hooked, however, isn’t going to be the conduit through which it happens. Tropical Films (Antigua) is a great idea, but if they want to tell stories about people, the people they use must be capable of telling those stories. Hopefully this is a reality they are willing to face.

*******

.

Next Time

From the terrible to the terrific. Genuine relationships, heartbreak, intrigue, murder and mystery in the excellent 2008 Argentinean film The Secret In Their Eyes. A subtitled trailer can be viewed below: