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Sci-Fi

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.

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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.


Deliverance

This week: blue-collar Antarctica. And aliens.

So far in this series, we’ve explored the triumph of science in the South Pole, looking at the ways in which Antarctica has been a frontier for advancing the human endeavour and a deeper understanding of our planet, both in fiction and genuine footage of a famous expedition. Time for a change of pace now. Antarctica isn’t a place of eternal wonder for all who have worked there, or, as with Virus: Day Of Resurrection last week, a land where the nations of the world put aside their differences for the greater good. Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.

Neither is Antarctica universally seen as simply a giant laboratory for altruistic science. Even during Byrd’s time, there were many who saw the South Pole as new land to conquer, its position more of strategic than scientific value. The U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1939-1941 had as much to do with establishing an American presence there as it did exploration. Today, when the major nations have indeed become a permanent fixture at McMurdo and other base camps, many who work there simply see it as a job – one they are even taxed for – and certainly bound by government and commercial interests just as with anywhere else. Add to that the fact that Antarctica is a hostile environment far from most of the basic comforts, where holding onto one’s sanity is a very real concern, and where one is frequently trapped for months on end with people they don’t necessarily like, and the rose-coloured lens through which the Byrds of the world viewed Antarctica become mottled.

This rather sobering perspective forms the ethos for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing From Another World, itself an adaptation of the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr, published in the August 1938 edition of America’s longest-running science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories. In terms of cinema, it is Carpenter’s version of the tale that has most famously – and most effectively – depicted the blue collar perspective on Antarctica, using the science fiction and horror of the novella as allegory for the difficulties they face there.

The Thing

(1982) Screenplay by Bill Lancaster          Directed by John Carpenter

(You can find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)

“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”

Far from being a wondrous, unexplored outpost of Earth, the Antarctica of ‘The Thing’ is a dangerous and claustrophobic wilderness.

In the story, a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed within three years.

One of the ways in which The Thing succeeds so well in its genre is the careful minimalism of Lancaster’s script and Carpenter’s direction. At no point do we ever truly learn, for example, of the alien’s origin, the reason it crashed to Earth, why it landed in Antarctica, whether or not it is sentient, or indeed its true objective in taking over other life forms. Even the title of the film makes this ambiguity plain and if anything, underscores not only the mystery, but the anti-intellectualism of the base personnel: it is simply a threat to be dealt with, its extra-terrestrial identity more of an irritation than of interest. Unsurprisingly, any survivors might argue that its lethality renders any such disinterest entirely justified.

“Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.”

Single carrier: the base is infiltrated by a husky. Or something that looks like a husky.

Nor indeed do we learn a great deal about the characters themselves or the purpose of their presence in Antarctica. There seems little, if any, significant research being conducted there and what work does take place is of supreme indifference to the staff. They are simply filling out a contract and counting down the days to its completion. The base staff in turn appear merely to tolerate each other akin to Adamsian office workers, albeit office workers forced to see their colleagues round the clock and to the exclusion of all else. Conversation is stifled by familiarity, contempt, and lack of stimulus (until the drama begins) and entertainment takes the form of alcohol, months-old off-air television recordings, ping-pong, and a well-worn record collection.

Embodying this seemingly-pointless, isolated existence is the classic antihero and main character of R.J. MacReady, very convincingly played by a young and hirsute Kurt Russell. The perpetually Stetson-wearing, hard-bitten and cynical time-server is purposely constructed as a cowboy of the modern age, able to fit quite easily into the seedy saloon bar of some Tombstone-like frontier town of over a century ago. The anti-intellectualism inherent in MacReady and his fellows is expertly summed up in an early scene where his response to losing at computer chess is to pour the remains of his whisky into its circuitry.

Explorations of the Norwegian base suggest the inhabitants may have had good reason to reduce the local dog population.

The cynicism and mistrust is further exemplified and exacerbated by other common elements of Antarctic life. Not only is technology seen to cause problems rather than solve them, but so too other nations – a far cry from the spirit of global fellowship seen in Virus. It is the Norwegians – often derided by others in Antarctica for their prowess in polar climates (and derogatively dubbed ‘Swedes’ by the main character) – who bring the alien to the U.S. base, having failed ironically to deal with it. Even in Virus, it is the Norwegians who are quicker to succumb than their multinational counterparts. Elsewhere, in another role-reversal, an Alaskan malamute, typically used as a sled dog, is the initial carrier of the alien creature.

The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger. It is far from the warmth of civilisation, will quickly kill anyone who strays from their electric-powered shelters with its sub-zero temperatures, and the ground beneath harbours monsters who bring swift, painful oblivion. The ‘thing’ is the ultimate Antarctic allegory for the long-term resident – the near-unbeatable agent of death who threatens to rob them of their humanity, not with merciful swiftness, but by rotting them slowly from within. The South Pole is still the giant laboratory it has always been for those looking at the other end of the microscope: at the furthest frontier of civilisation, humans are unwittingly being tested to see how they fare in extreme conditions. In reality, British Columbia doubles for the frozen continent, but is visually no less convincing to all but perhaps the skilled geologist. The brooding atmosphere is strongly accentuated by Ennio Morricone’s evocative score, different in style from Carpenter’s own compositions and unsurprisingly smoother and more accomplished, yet still fitting quite well into the era of the early Halloweens and The Fog.

The veteran horror director had by this point established his expertise in suspense-filled, well-paced tales of the macabre. The two films mentioned above were both classic examples of highly-effective base-under-siege drama, and in The Thing, Carpenter finally takes the term to its most literal conclusion. The cold, functional, and labyrinthine Antarctic base we see in the film is a perfect counterpoint to the bleak perpetual winter of nothingness outside. The disillusioned denizens inside provide only a candle-flame of human warmth, serving not even enlightened self-interest, but simply the powers of inertia. This disillusion is Carpenter’s contribution to the story, with the original novella produced during the positivist golden era of Byrd-mania. As is typically the case, the remake shows the rising cynicism of the public since the time of the original, no longer so easily caught up in nationalist fervour.

“The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger.”

As the mysterious infection begins to spread, the protagonists discover that it may not be home-grown in origin.

Carpenter and Russell had already collaborated on the director’s earlier apocalyptic outing, Escape From New York, with the young star by now fully aware of what was required of him. Other standouts in the cast include Wilford Brimley as Blair, the scientist who realises no-one present should be allowed to get out alive, Keith David as disbelieving aggressor Childs, and Donald Moffat as Garry, the self-admitting ineffectual leader of the base. A great deal of credit at this point should also go to both Jed, the Alaskan malamute, and his trainer, who between them do an excellent job of creating the dog’s alien nature. Jed, who would go on to play the title character in White Fang, though obviously unaware of the script, is one of the best trained dogs in the business, his body language convincing the viewer of his alter-ego’s menace with every step.

Pushing the envelope for early-80s practical effects is master of gore Rob Bottin, who in The Thing really gives contemporary innards wizard Lucio Fulci a run for his money. Bottin, whose make-up effects work includes The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Total Recall, lived on set for over a year during the making of The Thing, working round the clock to create visuals that were so gruesome for the period that they polarised film critics worldwide. While from a modern perspective, the clunky movement and obvious puppetry of the alien invaders is evident, so too is the sheer amount of detail in their construction. They are still far more ‘solid’ than any CGI equivalent, and still just as horrific in their design, helped by the well-matched screeching sound design. It could be argued effectively that a number of sequences exist simply to serve the visual effects extravaganza and a more cerebral interpretation of alien metamorphosis might have been employed. The Thing, however, is not intended to be The Midwich Cuckoos, and thanks to good pacing, does not fall into a long, drawn-out visual-effects love-fest at the cost of a story, which is more than can be said for Fulci’s The Beyond of the same period. It’s probably also fair to say that time and familiarity have dulled the senses with my reading of the film, and its efforts seem tame compared to say, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.

Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, the anti-intellectual, time-serving helicopter pilot given yet another reason to get the hell out of Antarctica.

The somewhat forgiving nature for old cinema and a healthy suspension of disbelief also help in areas where The Thing does not accurately depict Antarctic life, allegorical or otherwise. Compelling though his performance is, Kurt Russell’s cool cowboy image is more 80s action hero than Antarctic expedition pilot, likewise Childs and Garry fit the typical formula of antagonist and weak authority figure, while radio operator and Jeff Lynne lookalike contest runner-up Windows clearly went to the Crispin Glover school of ‘We’re All Going To Die, Man!’ acting. The easy availability of firearms and flame-throwers to all personnel, along with the high population of open-standing fuel drums also tends to stretch credulity, even before the coming of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s easy to hold up the extra-terrestrial element as justification for action-genre fantasy, but every story should still operate within its own internal logic. Nonetheless, the abundant weaponry and especially flamethrowers are used to satisfying effect, the latter proving especially critical in helping contain the alien menace. Dramatic license is well-served, and the film reaches the type of satisfying ending one would reasonably expect of its horror shoot-em-up credentials, indeed concluding in Carpenter’s signature open-ended dystopian fashion.

And it seems that the story is not over. In 2011, viewers will discover just what happened at the Norwegian base prior to the events of The Thing in a new prequel due for release at the end of the year. Only time will tell if the exercise worthwhile. In the meantime, I encourage interested parties to rediscover the flawed, but entertaining ‘original’ in all its blu-ray glory. I had occasion recently to do just this and found it held up extremely well. It needn’t wash away all that optimistic Antarctic fervour, but perhaps the last word should go to Mr. Campbell himself in this extract from Who Goes There? as the alien spacecraft is destroyed in a mass of flame:

Somehow in the blinding inferno we could see great hunched things, black bulks glowing, even so. They shed even the furious incandescence of the magnesium for a time. Those must have been the engines, we knew. Secrets going in a blazing glory -secrets that might have given Man the planets. Mysterious things that could lift and hurl that ship -and had soaked in the force of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The human adventure continues.

Further Reading

  • Keep up to date with the latest news on the U.S. Antarctic program and the people who make it possible with the Antarctic Sun.
  • Serious Thing enthusiasts might like to read Robert Meakin’s in-depth analysis of the film here.
  • Learn more about today’s Antarctic program and meet the people who actually work there, as well as discovering how they view the place.

 *****

Next Time

Antarctica, February 1953: The first year of Japan’s new Showa Station has drawn to a successful close. The expedition team depart from the base to make way for the relief crew, leaving 15 huskies remaining behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished during the changeover. However, adverse weather conditions prevent landfall and the second expedition never arrives. The dogs are abandoned to their fate, forced to survive alone in the harsh, polar landscape. Antarctic Film Month concludes with the epic true story of Antarctica, when World On Film returns. Click below to see the original trailer.


Song Of White

Having established our historical credentials last week, the polar journey continues with a dramatic left turn into thriller with the epic international co-production:

Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection

(1980) Co-written & Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

The human race is nearly wiped out when a pandemic leads to global holocaust in 'Virus'.

(You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)

“I wanted my name to be entered into the history books, but I wanted it to be for something meaningful, something lasting. What could I have done that would have made the slightest damn bit of difference… wha… what could I have done?”

Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over.

Coming in at just over 156 minutes, Virus is a truly epic disaster movie from the days when practical and video effects were the only tools in the creative film-maker’s arsenal. At first, I found myself somewhat put off by the excessive theatricality of the production: there is enough ham in the acting to keep Smithfield Foods overstocked until the end of the Holocene epoch, while the unsubtle script, camera direction and film score give Virus a cartoon-like simplicity even Gerry Anderson would find over-the-top. Yet when I ‘clicked’ that this was in fact a pre-cgi precursor to a Roland Emmerich spectacular (fresh in my mind after having been recently silly enough to watch 2012), I found myself quickly shifting mental gears and relaxing into the cinematic pantomime that unfolded. The Emmerich comparison is no fleeting analogy either, as the future director of disaster and cheese must surely have worshipped at the altar of Kinji Fukasaku in his youth before inspiration told him to inflict a new ice age upon North America and play tectonic origami with the world’s continents all the while hand-cranking the cornball-o-matic up to ‘gruyere’. If anything, it’s only fair to give Fukasaku the credit for bringing the idea to the screen first – and I’ve always been a sucker for a fun disaster film.

Crisis point: unable to contain the virus, doctors follow the fate of their patients as whole nations succumb to its deadly impact.

With disbelief now firmly suspended somewhere in limbo, I found myself glued to the screen as the world fell to its knees. Here was a tale of incredible human tragedy, where a terrified population succumbs to a disease from out of seeming nowhere. Hospitals are overrun, military law is imposed, and scientists work frantically in search of a cure. As the urban crowds thin and the bodies pile up in the streets, the ghostly silence of millions of souls sets a deathly pall over the landscape. A lone submarine crew surveys the damage from their watery quarantine, before setting a course for ‘home’, which we learn is Antarctica. And this is only the beginning of the tale. Fukasaku’s sharply-tuned sense of melodrama is so powerful that you can’t help but see past the cheese and be caught up in the horrible futility of mankind’s desolation and sense of despair at every tear-stained effort to hang onto existence, knowing they will come to dust.

The political commentary of Virus is similarly not intended to be subtle, with the engineered disease in question the product of one power bloc, designed to give it an edge over its rival. The finger of blame points squarely at the Soviets, yet ironically should be directed in the opposite direction. In the film’s Cold War allegory, we have met the enemy on home turf, and the broadly-drawn caricatures with their fingers on the button encapsulate the fears of 1980’s terrified speculation.

[Director] Fukasaku’s sharply-tuned sense of melodrama is so powerful that you can’t help but see past the cheese and be caught up in the horrible futility of mankind’s desolation and sense of despair at every tear-stained effort to hang onto existence, knowing they will come to dust.”

"What could I have done?" The dying U.S. president resigns himself to his fate.

The Japanese sensibilities of Virus also make it interesting viewing, since the film attempts to tell its story from multiple viewpoints and through chiefly American as well as Japanese protagonists. The broad caricatures of the U.S. government, for example, with its heroic president acting for the good of mankind, loyal senators, and egomaniacal army generals, not to mention scientists hushed up for the ‘common good’, all fit the typical Western disaster film profile perfectly. Yet both script and direction paint them with stereotypical brushes clearly not wielded by someone indigenous to the culture. They are too two-dimensional, if such a thing is possible – created by someone who sees only what is on the surface but doesn’t quite grasp the inner workings of their nature. Hollywood of course paints other cultures with precisely the same preconceptions and limitations in every single entry of the genre, but only through seeing your own culture pigeonholed by another does it become especially apparent. The Japanese sequences are no less Godzilla-like in their melodrama, meanwhile, with certain extreme performances so expertly lampooned on South Park, it’s hard not to emit a postmodern laugh.

Although the script’s more altruistic approach makes heroes of Americans as well as Japanese, only one man from the very beginning shines through the perpetual pantomime to become Virus’s true star, that of Masao Kusanakari as Doctor Shûzô Yoshizumi, the workaholic scientist who, while not necessarily holding all the answers to mankind’s salvation, is clearly the heart-throb hero of the piece. The international cast include a number of well-known figures, including George Kennedy, Robert Vaughan, Chuck Connors, and Olivia Hussey, but none can truly escape the limitations of their cardboard characters – the death scene of presidential loyalist Senator Barkley, as portrayed by Robert Vaughan, a case in point, or perhaps case closed. Nonetheless, the gravitas the veteran cast are able to convey within these limits adds weight to the drama – they at least are not playing things for laughs.

Safe in Antarctica, the survivors of the global holocaust fight to save what is left of humanity.

The film makes good use of extensive location filming, with the action taking place everywhere from Tokyo to Washington, stopping off at Macchu Picchu on the way to the Antarctic. Although Alaska and Canada frequently double for the South Pole, footage of the genuine article is intercut for added realism. In cinematic terms, Antarctica is frequently either the site of exploration and adventure of the battleground for man and extra-terrestrial. In a film powered by exaggeration, it’s certainly entirely plausible that a virus able to wipe out humanity would struggle to finish its work in colder climes, thus making the happenstance temporary residents of the frozen southern continent all who remain. That they would then be forced to put aside various national claims to slices of Antarctica is a very entertaining notion, with Fukasaku observing that even here, human nature would doom the remainder to extinction, not only due to power squabbles, but also the inevitable gender imbalance, all make for excellent post-war drama. It is very telling in these sequences who ultimately takes charge of the situation and what takes place as a result.

The ultimate difference between this very Japanese approach to storytelling and it’s Western disaster movie counterparts is the sheer bleakness of the piece. Over-the-top though it frequently is, Virus never succumbs to the nauseating Disneylike cheerfulness infesting the likes of Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow. To put all of this on cultural tastes is possibly unfair, since Earthquake, hitting the silver screen six years earlier than Virus, manages to conclude without the vat of schmaltz its modern counterparts are drowned in. Nonetheless, it too cannot compare to the trademark Japanese fatalism seen everywhere from Evangelion to Battle Royale, wherein since humanity is taken literally to rock bottom in apocalyptic fury, even two-dimensional characters can develop as they are forced to deal with overwhelming odds. Virus is no exception: just when the viewer has reached the conclusion that the worst is over, it quickly becomes clear that the tumult is only just beginning and the rollercoaster car has just found an-almost vertical slope, its wheels already starting the terrifying descent.

The gender imbalance of the survivors mean multiple partners for the women, however even bleak necessity cannot stop matters of the heart.

This is the structure and raison d’etre of Virus, and the reason it rises up above its flaws. While its Cold War ethos is now a distant memory for those old enough to remember and an alien concept for a whole new generation in which all the major political chess pieces have shifted around the board, the sheer power of the film’s dramatic juggernaut is enough to make it arresting viewing decades later. It pulls at the same fundamental fears within us today and makes a mockery of the test-audience de-clawed demographic formulaic fluff that are its successors. Nonetheless, it is with a working knowledge of Armageddon, 2012 and their cousins that a modern audience will be able to approach Virus in any meaningful way. Hopefully the viewer will quickly find that the irony of that situation will quickly become irrelevant.

*****

Next Time

The sobering blue collar perspective of life in Antarctica is taken to extremes as a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed in a matter of weeks. John Carpenter’s memorable interpretation of The Thing next time, when World On Film returns. View the original trailer below:


Laughing At The Rain

Sophie Ward gets dubiously Transatlantic in the generally-enjoyable adaptation of Clive Barker's 'Book Of Blood'.

“The dead have highways, running through the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They can be heard in the broken places of our world, through cracks made out of cruelty, violence, and depravity. They have sign posts, these highways, and crossroads and intersections. And it is at these intersections where the dead mingle, and sometimes spill over into our world.”

Aside from Sophie Ward’s bizarre American accent and the somewhat slow pacing, Clive Barker’s Book Of Blood is a different spin on the haunted house genre, and certainly ‘blood’ is not a word thrown in for abstract symbolism. Although it’s adapted from the novel of the same name, only segments of the original have been translated to screen. I’m still not quite sure why it took so long to get through those 90 minutes with such an intriguing storyline: a man on the run, his entire body covered with strange writing literally carved into his flesh supposedly by the spirits of the dead. And that’s only the beginning, in a tale where Clive Barker takes pains to avoid the stereotypes one might expect, and the confluence between the afterlife and the land of the living leaves an indelible (pun intended) effect on the psyche.

This week, World On Film reaches the country of Angola with the short film:

Momentos de Gloria, aka ‘Moments Of Glory’

(2008) Directed by Antonio Duarted

“I believe the government should invest more in good quality cellulite.”

The realities of everyday life in modern Angola are depicted with wry humour.

Moments Of Glory is an interesting series of vignettes depicting life in modern Angola, with the country’s many conflicts, from the recent civil war to rampant street crime forming the story lines to each segment. However, the subjects are handled with a degree of humour and irony, the brief 10-minute anthology itself presented within a comic-book framework, introduced by transitional animation, a la Stephen King’s ‘Creepshow’, and driven along by a jaunty soundtrack. The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications, and with a running time of only 10 minutes, is probably a good way of creating something memorable. Each subject is deserving of dramatic commentary, but when you live with such fear and uncertainty every day, finding the humorous side is not only healthy, it’s essential.

“The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications”

A comic-book framework is used to bring the unrelated story vignettes together.

This I also found desirable, since Moments Of Glory is my first Angolan film, and humour is an excellent way into a culture, with the subtle rather than overt approach washing over the end result with a good dose of maturity. Writer and producer Ze Du dos Santos is very much aware of the film’s brevity, paring each script down to its essentials, with director Antonio Duarted overseeing some good camera work and acting to match. I didn’t always see a connection between each segment, nor did I really understand the message of the final part (the Aldous Huxley-informed triumph of superficiality?), but this lack of coherence may well be due to my lack of knowledge on all things Angolan. However, with this sort of talent on display, and with the Angolan film industry fairly spartan at present, I hope the void will be filled before long. Moments Of Glory is certainly a promising entrée.

*****

In This Place I Call Home

Not forgotten: The picturesque Aland Islands.

Although the scope of this project is to try and cover film from every corner of the globe, inevitably, some autonomous regions simply don’t have a film industry. The Åland Islands, for example, the attractive Finnish archipelago of 6,000 islands and skerries populated by Swedish-speaking natives, are not a repository of cinema. Indeed, the once Westernmost frontier of the former Russian Empire is far more concerned with shipping than anything else, given that seafaring vessels are the lifeblood of its economy.

“The Åland Islands are not a repository of cinema.” [But very nice-looking.]

It would be a shame to ignore them altogether though, so while there’s no film review, I did come across a 30-minute video that serves as a good introduction to the place. Hardly Scorsese in its renderings, the video is a labour of love for one of the locals, and not a bad unsolicited promotion for an enthusiastic amateur more at home making clay animals. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there – anyone in Aland interested in employing a freelance film reviewer? To view the film for yourself, here is the direct link – http://www.aland.ax/filmeng.pbs

Elsewhere in Film (Yet More Compensation)

“Time travel. It’ll turn your brain into spaghetti if you let it. Best not to think about it. Best just to get on with the job in hand. Which is destroying the enemy before they’re even born and have a chance to threaten us.”

Three sci-fi nerds enjoying a drink at their local pub one evening find that time travel is far more entertaining in theory then in practice when the building becomes the focal point of a temporal paradox. But if three decades of watching Doctor Who hasn’t prepared them for the real thing, then nothing will.

Back to the future: three unlikely heroes get to grips with the vagaries of time travel.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sounds like one of those hip documentaries attempting to popularise science, a la Iain Stewart, but as the description implies, it’s a British comedy film that came out last year to little fanfare. This however has more to do with the obvious low budget involved (clearly ensnaring any serious attempts at marketing in its low orbit) rather than the quality of the work itself – the 83 minutes of running time being another giveaway. That said, for the script as written, FAQ doesn’t outstay its welcome. Obviously attempting the same tongue-in-cheek approach to its chosen subject as the highly successful Shaun Of The Dead, the film probably doesn’t try quite as hard, and lacks the same dramatic punch and comedic absurdity of that worthy precursor. That said however, writer Jamie Mathieson is careful to weave his temporal paradoxes together, clearly putting the time and effort into it that the mastermind behind Triangle (of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago) decided wasn’t too terribly important.

Add to this the wry British humour of FAQ warmly brought to life through the film’s three leads, Chris O’Dowd, Marc Wootton, and Dean Lennox Kelly, names I didn’t recognise despite having seen Kelly in both Doctor Who and Being Human. Likewise guest star Anna Faris, whom I should have recognised in the excellent study of displacement in a foreign culture that was Lost In Translation.

Everyday life doesn't quite bear comparison to boldly going where no-one has gone before.

Ultimately, it is these two factors which make FAQ worth watching. It doesn’t try to reinvent sci-fi or push forward a new discourse on time travel, but rather simply attempts to have fun with it, and for the most part, succeeds. I hesitate to say that there’s a strong Bill & Ted element to the story, but don’t let that put you off- the delivery of this plotline is handled quite differently. I will contradict my earlier point slightly though by saying that as a long-time science fiction fan myself captivated by the idea of exploring different points in history, FAQ did make me realise it wouldn’t be quite as glamorous in reality – especially if you mess things up and try correct the mistake. Although if scientist and writer Stephen Baxter is correct, and the grandfather paradox wouldn’t actually happen due to the weblike structure of time (as opposed to it being a single straight line you can travel up and down like a highway), that’s the least of your problems. If you’re interested, read his 1995 sequel to The Time Machine, entitled The Time Ships, to explore the concept in question – a book I heartily recommend anyway.

And that stretching noise you hear is the tangent I appear to be going off on.

Up Next

My apologies for the short foreign film reviews over the last couple of weeks. These were written in the distant days before the blog was little more than a passing thought. Next time, however, I have far more to say about Hooked, the rather painful first feature-length offering from independent film-makers Tropical Films (Antigua) – which also tells you where in the world we will be visiting. ‘Painful’, you ask? Just you watch the trailer:


Second Coming

Sean Astin and Miranda de Pencier in the 1995 adaptation of 'Harrison Bergeron'.

America in the not-too-distant future: young Harrison Bergeron is a constant source of concern to his parents. Despite his best efforts, he continues to display above-average intelligence in a world where everyone is expected to be equal. For some reason, his government-regulated headband isn’t suppressing his higher brain functions the way everyone else’s does. Fortunately, the local physician has the answer: lobotomy. Bergeron is then given one night to enjoy his natural talents before they are surgically removed for good. That evening, he discovers the truth of the world around him – not so long ago, the world was a very different place, where intelligence was not regulated and people were free to be different. More disturbing than that however, is the reason why everything changed.

Harrison Bergeron is a 1995 adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut short story of the same name. Purists decry it as an unfaithful interpretation of the original, but in fact, it has much to recommend it, providing a strong social commentary on state control and media manipulation. When watching it, I was reminded of everything from Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, The Stepford Wives and even The Matrix. It’s worth a look.

“I was reminded of everything from Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, The Stepford Wives and even The Matrix.”

Last week, World On Film went amorously Catalonian, but not within the borders of the one country that claims the culture for its own: Andorra. That, however, is rectified this week with the short film…

Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain

(1999) Director: Josep Guirao

“I seem to remember Sherlock Holmes telling Dr. Watson that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth. If we apply that to Jeremiah, the one thing that remains is that there’s no way in hell that he can be a normal man with normal abilities–if he’s a man at all.” Excerpt from The Branch by Mike Resnick

Grim assembly: shadowy religious leaders recreate the Council of Nicaea.

In Andorra of the year 2046, a powerful gang lord assembles a group of religious leaders, demanding to know what it takes to be a true messiah. Meanwhile, lying imprisoned in a garage somewhere nearby is a man who claims to be the son of God. But is this really the messiah everyone was waiting for? Such is the premise of the short film, ‘Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain’, which in the very beginning, claims to be “Dedicated to those who died in the name of a god, even though his name was never spoken.” The effort is based on the 1984 sci-fi novel ‘The Branch’ by Mike Resnick, something I have yet to read and therefore am judging the film purely on its own merits.

The storyline is certainly an interesting one, and the premise asks questions some of the more credulous among us would do well to ponder. However, even at just 32 minutes, the execution is about 10 minutes too long and cheaply melodramatic. With a subject matter such as this, it certainly ought to be stirring. The script as executed feels slightly ‘Dan Brown’ – excessively didactic without ringing true, and having rather foolishly worked my way through The Lost Symbol recently, the overblown lecturing smarts all the more. The first half of the film is quite literally a group of two-dimensional stereotypes arguing about the qualities of a messiah, and it’s not until 20 minutes in that we finally see what the fuss is really about. It might have been better as a two-hander between the man insisting divine credentials and the one persecuting him, through which his claim to holy fame is slowly revealed. Or in other words, if you’ve only got the budget for a single set stage play, it’s probably best to be cautiously realistic. Pau Baredo as the chief antagonist is definitely reaching for the OTT trophy, when a more controlled performance would have been far more effective, although the rest of the cast are just as willing to yell into the microphone. It’s fairly apparent that all involved are meant to be caricatures, but this is a story demanding of greater subtlety. On the plus side, director Josep Guirao knows his financial limits and makes good use of low lighting and simple props.

An ancient battle re-enacted.

“The script as executed feels slightly ‘Dan Brown’ – excessively didactic without ringing true”

Nonetheless, while the Catalan commentary on the Second Coming may lack finesse, ‘Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain’ has inspired me to give ‘The Branch’ a spin. If it also treads the Brown path, I may just have to cut Guirao some slack. Having skimmed through the source material on Google Books, I do at least know that the film is a very truncated adaptation, budgetarily-challenged and depicting principally its interpretation of the climax. This paradoxically makes it seem both overlong and rushed at the same time – clearly a novel requiring more than just a couple of euros and a warehouse downtown to bring it properly to life.

Where I Live (Compensation for the short review above)

Where I live, the multiplex cinemas are exactly the same as yours – giant, self-contained enclaves filled with escalators and dim neon lights designed to banish the world outside. Within, you will find the same kiosks selling chocolate covered sugar bullets, caffeine and snow-covered popcorn at prices designed to belittle you for your weak glucose-dripping willpower. And yet, where you live, the owners of these cinematic honey traps take a very dim view of externally-bought consumables. After all, if you’ve already passed beyond their escalators and neon facade, they feel justified in securing exclusive rights to your wallets. Not that this stops many a visitor from secreting illicit outside snacks about their person never to be seen until the lights go down. These very words have been typed by the voice of experience.

The people have spoken: a typical snack bar in a Korean cinema complex.

Yet I was astonished to discover that where I live, people actually complained about it to the point where the nation’s cineplexes backed down. No longer did a Dunkin Donuts bag have to be hastily shoved under a jumper before the pimply ticket-tearer clapped his eyes upon you. It wasn’t a problem if you sauntered in with a bag of cheap popcorn unmolested by icing sugar from the local supermarket. Bottles of cola purchased elsewhere could be waved around with the stage-acted conspicuousness of Mr Bean and his pencils in the exam sketch, instead of those giant overpriced cylinders of ice cubes doused with only a slightly greater portion of fluid than is today allowable inside the cabin of a commercial aeroplane.

“Bottles of cola purchased elsewhere could be waved around with the stage-acted conspicuousness of Mr Bean and his pencils in the exam sketch”

Ah, but what of that overpriced selection of multicoloured plastic-wrapped caloric diabetes samplers from the cinema’s own snack bars? There I sat in the dim blue foyer, waiting to go and see Inception, staring in wonder at the completely unpopulated serving counter beyond which one solitary striped-shirted minion of cinematic side-dishes attempted in vain to look busy by scribbling ink onto a clipboard, while surreptitious slurping could be heard all around me. I knew they hadn’t pestered her for their sugar fixes. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

Where I live is South Korea and this is the power of collective complaint.

It’ll never last.

Coming Up Next

Snippets of life in modern Angola as World On Film investigates the long and short of the short offering, Moments Of Glory.