Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “crime

You Can Never Go Home

On World On Film this time around, greed and hubris combine to throw acid in the face of love over in the Cayman Islands as its inhabitants are forced to question its reputation as a

Haven

(2004) Written & Directed by Frank E. Flowers

“Fucking paradise is about money like everything else!”

(You can see a trailer at the end of the previous post)

It’s better to have loved…life is turned upside down for a small Cayman community in ‘Haven’.

Last time, the blog paid a visit to Cape Verde, an uncomplicated former Portuguese dependency once so poor that most of its population left for (literally) greener pastures. Today, things have stabilized, and its people live seemingly uncomplicated lives, the low population ensuring no fights over resources and the still-developing society untroubled by the many problems associated with ‘modern’ life.

Things couldn’t be more difficult on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems. Not, at least, in the Cayman Islands, very much a current British dependency only a couple of hours’ flight from the U.S. It would hardly be an act of cynicism to attribute these factors as the Caymans’ contrastingly more complex character.

Of course, the Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Changes to tax laws in places like the U.S and UK have more recently made this particular form of money laundering less profitable, with the local banks falling like dominoes as a result. 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. If there is violence and instability in the once-happy Cayman Islands, it is because of the White Man’s Greed, his every act of hubris sending irreversible shockwaves through the delicate framework of the native community.

Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight. Whether or not his melodrama could, in fact, be transposed to any Caribbean Island is something perhaps better argued by those who know the region better than myself. Nonetheless, this is the story and the setting Haven gives us in its modern retelling of the old saying about money being the root of all evil, with a good amount of Bertrand Russell anti-imperialist discourse thrown in.

The film explores the far-reaching impact of greed when it unravels lives. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t quite pull all the various strands together.

It’s not even out of place for once to be reviewing a Hollywood film in this blog. Though done for entirely practical reasons (the Caymans have no film industry), the fact that this is a story told through the lens of one of the Islands’ Western colonizers is entirely in tune with the story’s message.

Haven gives us in its modern retelling of the old saying about money being the root of all evil, with a good amount of Bertrand Russell anti-imperialist discourse thrown in.”

Told as a nonlinear narrative, Haven is the story of a group of individuals who are both the instigators and victims of a series of chaotic events initially spanning a period of 24 hours, but which ultimately have far-reaching consequences when we then pick up the tale four months later. Dodgy Miami businessman Carl Ridley (Bill Paxton) flees federal investigators to the Caymans where his former accountant, the coldly-titled Mr. Allen (Stephen Dillane), is desperately seeking new sources of income now that all his old clients have dried up. Meanwhile, Ridley’s reluctant daughter Pippa (Agnes Bruckner), upset at the sudden forced relocation, runs into local ne’er-do-well Fritz (Victor Rasuk), who owes money to Richie Rich (Rasaaq Adoti), the self-appointed local crime boss. Unfortunately, Fritz happens to spy Ridley Senior’s stash of banknotes – physical currency being the only way to hide his remaining assets from the authorities – and suggests to Rich that he rob the newcomer to pay his debts. A final major plot strand involves a star-crossed romance between young local fisherman Shy (Orlando Bloom) and wealthy school senior Andrea (Zoe Saldana), whose family is violently opposed to their union. Throughout the film, the different stories weave together into an almost Shakespearean tragedy until its players are forever scarred by their interactions with one another.

I have discussed previously about the challenge involved in pulling off a non-linear narrative well, especially when it involves telling a story from multiple viewpoints and characters. Haven is a good attempt at the craft, but not a great one, leaving viewers to wonder at times who the story is really about. I know I’m not alone here, as the IMDB entry for the film can’t even make up its mind (compare the submitted premise at the top to the plot summary elsewhere). Haven’s tagline suggests the romance to be the major arc (‘Can love survive the fall of paradise?’), which is not surprising, given that it is by far the most compelling. Yet this is clearly not intended to be the case, with so much of the film given to the machinations of Ridley, Allen, and others. Haven is meant as an anthology spearheaded by a single event – the destruction of the island community’s innocence by the selfish actions of unscrupulous Westerners. This however, is more obvious to me in retrospect. At the time, the whole was not greater than the sum of its slightly disjointed parts.

The orchestrators of the social collapse lament the passing of the ‘good old days’.

Another reason the romance storyline probably stands out the most is because it is very difficult to care about most of the characters. Ridley has caused his own misery, Allen is largely amoral, and the best excuse the gangsters of the film can offer is “I gotta get a piece, man. By the hook or by the crook.”

Ironically, this line is delivered to the most unsympathetic character of all. In wannabe gangster Hammer, the story underscores another reason why sympathy in the viewer is difficult to come by. As presented, it does not give us sufficient time to develop emotional ties with many of the characters, thus making it difficult to care enough about their plights. Frank E. Flowers attempts to circumvent this for the Romeo & Juliet segments by giving Andrea a brother insecure to the point of violent psychosis, and Shy an antagonist who doesn’t like him, not because of any class discrimination, but simply because he exists. Thus their story benefits from a villain sufficiently ‘evil’ to bring their tale to a dramatic climax, but by a very two-dimensional means.

Hammer, like many of the island natives, make it very difficult for us to feel sorry that Western imperialism has destroyed their original culture. Perhaps the closest the Russell argument comes to being successful is through Fritz, whose ancestry in the Caymans stretches back centuries yet in the halfway house of cultures that the Caymans have become, he is like a directionless pack-rat, grabbing at the material wealth he sees around him without really knowing what to do with it, much less understanding the laws that govern the world which created it. This is a highly-valid discourse one will see re-enacted by the natives of many a colonised environment – the Australian aborigines being one such example. A shame then, that Fritz’s story is simply window-dressing in amongst the many other plot strands jostling for attention.

“Throughout the film, the different stories weave together into an almost Shakespearean tragedy until its players are forever scarred by their interactions with one another.”

Mr. Allen is another good case in point. A greedy, opportunistic money launderer who brought his family to the Caymans to live a life of luxury in paradise, Allen is now a hollow shell of his former self, too consumed by greed to care for a son fighting to establish his sexual identity or his hopelessly neglected wife. This is practically a story in itself, but given only a few snippets of time to tell his story, Allen is little more than a cardboard rogue spouting cynical disillusionment as to the truth of the Cayman dream. Sorry, don’t care.

The lost and neglected souls are caught in the chaos, powerless even just to get on with their lives.

Lack of depth is ultimately the problem throughout, with Haven trying to pretend it’s there through multiple plot strands that affect a large number of people. There’s a lot going on, in other words, but zoom in on any of it, and you find only cyphers projecting unremarkable plot elements handled better elsewhere.

At the same time, Haven boasts a fine cast who do the best with what they are given. The stand-outs for me are Orlando Bloom as the downtrodden Shy, Zoe Saldana as the damaged Andrea, and Stephen Dillane as Allen. Allen may be two-dimensional, but Dillane excellently portrays his naked greed and world-weariness atop a sea of frustration at the decline of his fortunes. Saldana and Bloom work well together as the initially innocent young lovers who want nothing more nor less than to be together, forced to then grow up rapidly into a damaged adulthood by the interference of others. (There were times when I felt the tagline ought to have been ‘Can love survive the interference of total jerks?’)

Haven is also shot entirely on location – the main reason I chose it – and so benefits from the entirely authentic Cayman scenery. It’s not remotely difficult to understand why the West fell in love with the place, though very tellingly, Flowers keeps the really beautiful scenery to a minimum, so as to emphasize the great distance between the inhabitants and the paradise they supposedly came to enjoy. As director, he keeps the narrative well-paced, with an editing that indicates the rapid turning of events yet doesn’t ever feel like a lot of cynical jump cuts to appease the attention-deficit knuckleheads in the audience. Lighting is used to good effect – night time scenes make frequent use of yellows and reds to keep everything emotionally-charged. And, for the most part, Flowers does a good job of showing ‘resets’ in the drama, ie – when we loop back to an earlier event but from the perspective of another character – something I only failed to catch once.

As writer however, Flowers needed to give Haven another draft to get the balance between the various story strands right to make the overall aims of the narrative clearer, and perhaps even more importantly, add dimension to his cardboard characters. Or at least to put the same amount of effort he put into Shy and Andrea into everyone else. It was clearly a story he very much wanted to tell, but perhaps wearing multiple hats as writer and director muddied the waters come execution time.

Even now, I find myself still making up my mind about the whole thing, but on balance, Haven is not as clever as it thinks it is, nor as deep as it would like to be. Yet it shows there is a compelling story to be told in the modern-day Caymans, and offers a reasonable glimpse of how it might unfold.

*****

Coming Up

A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate. Today, life is little better for the people of the Central African Republic, and that’s where we’ll be going next time on World On Film.

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The Story In Your Eyes

This week, World On Film returns to the work of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan as his most well-known feature takes us through the trauma of loss and beyond to:

The Sweet Hereafter

(1997) Based on the novel by Russell Banks        Screenplay & Direction by Atom Egoyan

Ian Holm stars as Mitchell Stevens, a damaged man intent on inflicting his suffering upon a community with enough problems of their own, in ‘The Sweet Hereafter’.

And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, —
`It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!’

(You can find a trailer at the end of the previous post)

When I last ventured into the world of Atom Egoyan, he demonstrated his intimate understanding of human suffering and the gaping void that fills the lives of those who must carry on. The veteran auteur has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering. The sheer weight of that anguish seems to burden the passage of time until its hands slow down, bereft of mercy and conspiring to prolong the torture far beyond that which seconds, minutes and hours would claim has actually been endured.

The manipulation of time is very much an Egoyan trademark: his films often break up the linear narrative and present the viewer with a collection of events they must rearrange as the film progresses in their efforts to understand what is going on. Exposition is something to be doled out sparingly in order to create suspense and help the viewer understand the sense of disconnect suffered by the characters when tragedy has struck. Effective, non-linear narratives are much harder to create than they look, and as demonstrated in the previous post’s similarly-constructed White Material, when overused, will collapse under their own excessively-clever weight. The latter film perhaps also demonstrates that non-linear narratives will need to be composed of an especially compelling story if the viewer’s intrigue is not to be swapped with frustration and disappointment once they have it fully reassembled.

Old wounds are re-opened as a cross-examined town is forced to relive their collective nightmare.

To ensure his dramatic tile puzzle would be so rewarding, Egoyan turned to American author Russell Banks’s 1991 novel, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, exploring the aftermath of a devastating bus crash in a small town that kills many of the local children. As the grieving locals struggle to carry on following the disaster, an opportunistic lawyer appears on the scene and attempts to rally them together in a lawsuit against anything that will award the highest amount of damages. Driven by the anguish of their loss, many of the parents agree, with only the crash’s one survivor finding clarity in the changed circumstances of her own life and able therefore to see through the madness and greed around her.

“[Film-maker Atom Egoyan] has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering.”

The conspiring interloper is practically the subject of a film in and of itself. Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic. His daughter, once the apple of his eye, now an unrepentant drug addict, has the final embers of his divorced and solitary dying compassion in her thrall whenever she requires money to feed the habit. Stevens perceives the world around him through this imprisonment and has unsurprisingly strong opinions on the fate of children in modern-day society. It is far easier to blame ‘society’ for his daughter’s loss than accept that the situation may have happened of its own accord. His denial thus forms the solid foundations of his outward persona as a would-be moral crusader. Devoid of an actual cause, his every declaration is akin to Olivier taking to the stage, wrenching the townspeople’s anguish back to the surface and igniting the flames of vengeance. However, not all of the bereft, most notably grieving father Billy (Bruce Greenwood, nowadays more famous for his role in Star Trek) and sole-survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), buy into the performance. Seeing Stevens’s true nature for what it is, they find themselves confronted with its infectious spread throughout the residents, particularly among those close to them.

The quest for truth unravels the townspeople, revealing their hidden lives beneath.

Of Holm’s contribution, Olivier may not in fact be the best comparison, since he had a reputation for delivering Shakespearean dialogue with a natural authenticity few have replicated. Ian Holm’s lawyer instantly brings to mind the stage and the actor’s mesmerising presence forces the viewer to pay close attention to his alter-ego’s grotesque nature. However, natural it isn’t, neither in performance nor dialogue, which jars with the down-to-earth, more understated performance of the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is deliberate on the director’s part: Stevens is not only attempting to convince himself that he isn’t merely inflicting his personal problems on innocent parties, but is a performer by trade, as all successful lawyers are apt to be. I remain unconvinced at this point.

Just as the non-linear narrative serves to build up the way in which the chief antagonist is bound by events far removed from the quiet mountain town, so it also paints the equally complex set of circumstances that allow Nicole, a seventeen-year-old girl who has seen her contemporaries die first-hand and had her world turned upside-down, to see through the trauma at the wider issues beyond. Likewise Billy, who loses both his children in the struggle and who acted as mechanic on the vehicle that somehow managed to tumble over a cliff. It is very telling that both in their own ways stand apart from the rest of the community in having suffered great personal losses elsewhere. One has lost a family member, the other is forced to realise that a loved one is not who they have claimed to be, which is a traumatic loss of a different kind. Yet both end up in the same place. Their world is already in ruins, and a collective lawsuit will simply destroy what remains of their society.

“Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic.”

In times of grief, objectivity falls silent. Yet some of the survivors are able to see the real intent of the stranger in their midst.

The notion of children being taken from their community never to return reminded either director or writer (I am unfamiliar with the novel) of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose tale is quoted liberally throughout. Yet I found it rather grating in its continual appearance, and it would be extremely unsubtle (unworthy of Egoyan) were it not especially relevant in the first place. Angered that the council of Hamelin will not properly reimburse him for ridding the town of its rat infestation, the enraged piper bewitches the children of the community with his flautations and spirits them away to a cave for fates unknown which to the villagers, is equivalent to death. The elders are thus forced to examine the price of their selfishness. “If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise,” declares Browning’s moral.

Yet in The Sweet Hereafter, the children are the product of loving parents, and although it is the father of the lame child who could be said not to have kept his promises, her lameness is the product of a different cause – indeed, her lameness is caused by the ‘event’, rather than preventing her from taking part in the event like the others. The amorality tale of the film is not really a re-enactment of what happens when one does not keep their word, and the fable merely a vague contextual similarity that has been shoehorned in to add a layer of subtext. That’s the thing about subtext – by definition, it shouldn’t jar.

Nonetheless, when one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness. It holds up, in contrast, our response to the toll the swift death of loved ones takes on the psyche as opposed to the ongoing impact a protracted death of ‘personality’ will continue to eat away at the soul.  Left to their own devices, people are by nature equipped to adapt even to the most horrific of changing circumstances. For Banks and Egoyan, the issue is what happens when that process is interrupted – or in the case of some, never allowed to begin – when bereavement is ongoing and the deeply-buried embers of remorse are perpetually fanned. Our ability to move on ultimately defines how we will live in the changed world of the sweet hereafter.

*****

Next Time

“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!” “

A young man goes in search of his ancestral roots in Cape Verde, hoping to gain insight into their character. But is he really in search of the truth or simply fulfilling a greater need to satisfy his inner cravings for self-identity? Discover Cabo Verde Inside next time on World On Film.


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:


Ignorance Is Bliss

A slightly shorter entry this time, due to my having to spend much of the day battling spyware – or more accurately, letting the computer battle spyware while I sat there being irritated. This week, a Belgian thriller going by the name of:

Loft

(2008) Directed by Erik Van Looy; Written by Bart de Pauw

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

“Don’t worry, I’m your friend – your best friend. I’ll keep quiet. I always keep quiet.”

Accused: Filip Peeters as Vincent Stevens.

Late one evening in a quiet corner of a Brussels suburb, a body suddenly plummets from the top of a residential tower block onto the roof of a parked car below. Earlier that same day, five friends sharing a loft apartment for their extramarital conquests discover the bloodstained body of a woman sprawled across the bed where the affairs take place. Is one of them responsible or are they being framed by a jealous lover?

So begins Loft, an exploration into the uglier side of sex and the psyche. It is as much a commentary on male attitudes to infidelity as it is a murder mystery, where the joys of conquest reign over reason and consideration for anything other than animal lust. While the championed phrase ‘It didn’t mean anything’ is employed as the clichéd band aid over the wound of trust, the five protagonists who cling to it are not equal in their desires for inconstancy. When architect Vincent Stevens hands his four friends the keys to the sky parlor through which they may indulge themselves in secret, it is here that the unraveling truly begins and we discover whose declarations end at posturing bravado and who truly believes that adultery is an honest acceptance of male desires.

Revelation: a murder forces dark secrets into the open for the close-knit group of friends.

All of which give Loft its light and shade. With the story told out of sequence, we flit back and forth across the lives of the five men, the choices they made leading to their current predicament, and the way in which they deluded themselves so as to justify their actions. The placing of the murder inquiry in the pre-credits teaser makes it clear that the slaves of lustful extracurricular activity cannot escape their fate, but the real intrigue lies in precisely how the drama plays out and whether or not the man sitting in the interrogation room really deserves to be there. The out-of-sequence intersections spanning several months add layers of deceit – both within the group, not as tightly-knit as they try to believe, and to all who come within their orbit. The grotesque parody of civilization held together by expensive suits and champagne cannot disguise the descent into carnal imprisonment.

Indeed, if grotesquerie is ultimately the point of the film, then Loft succeeds with flying colours, for I found myself struggling to sympathise, let alone care about any of the poor fools and the fact that their clandestine infidelity had at last come to haunt them. I certainly can’t fault a single character on the grounds that he is depicted unrealistically, for the overconfident Lotharios before the camera will easily remind any viewer of the expert seducers we’ve all met at some point whose undisputed skill at drawing women to them like moths to a flame is matched only by their deep vainglorious neglect of empathy. If redemption is on the cards, Loft is not concerned with winning the audience over to their side and in the end, this is my biggest problem with it – not a desire for some tired, shoehorned play for morality before the end credits as Hollywood typically insists so as to keep the audience’s fantasy of human virtue intact, but simply the fact that in human drama, a cast of unlikable characters is the true act of murder for the audience, their empathy dead and buried for the duration of a film that demands two hours of attention.

“If grotesquerie is ultimately the point of the film, then Loft succeeds with flying colours.”

Bruno Vanden Broucke plays Luc Seynaeve, a man whose face speaks volumes...but of what?

Doubtless, there are many fans of the modern crime thriller who revel in the self-destructive anti-hero, seeing him or her as the truly honest figure driven to be nothing more than earnestly human in an uncompromising world. The fun lies in watching their raw emotion explode onto the screen in a celebration of chaos and drama. Perhaps Loft has simply failed to bring out the best of this premise. I admit to not being a devotee of crime fiction and my Tarantino is rusty.

There is still the mystery element, however, and in that arena, Loft is compelling. As we peel the layers from our five anti-heroes, so the plot shifts and twists as expertly as the men themselves wriggle through their double-lives. Revelation follows revelation, and the final sequence is almost amusingly that last desperate attempt to redeem those still battling their consciences. Remorse sails in like a charging cavalry whose alarm clocks failed to sound on time. It feels tacked on as a last desperate twist, yet given what carnal descent into hell writer Bart de Pauw has presented beforehand, better to let the film remain in that melancholy storm of Dante’s second circle where it can at least stand with its own self-prescribed dignity.

The amorality of 'Loft' is doubtlessly the point, though it makes sympathising with any of the characters tremendously difficult.

Of director Erik Van Looy, I would praise his creation of a suitably dark and forebodingly-lit story. The cold light of day has no place here and Looy confines his characters to the shadowy realms in which they belong, and yet one of the stand-out scenes takes place at a daytime wedding where the men’s egos are in full flight. He also chooses a fine cast, from the confident presence of Filip Peeters as suave seducer Vincent Stevens to Bruno Vanden Broucke as the nervous Luc Seynaeve – Broucke creating within him a man whose face tells far more than his lips will. Wolfram de Marco’s tense soundtrack reminded me in places of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Ring, punctuated by earnest strings and softened by echoing piano, never overused but doing much to set the tone.

This then is Loft, a shadowy discourse on what happens when one succumbs to their desires and the way in which one lie compounds another. In such a tale all bright lights are diffuse leaving only shades of grey, misery clawing desperately at excuses and no real victors. In amidst this gallery of the fallen stands the film itself, aiming high in terms of plot twist and drama, but sinking slowly through the ground for failing to engage the viewer on the most fundamental level: empathy.

Next Time

For me at least, Barbadian cinema has long proved to be elusive…and still is. Going beyond the film projector however, two programs have presented themselves and cobbled together, form the very dubious entry that will appear next week. One looks at the Barbados Landship Association (produced by that very organization), while the other sheds light on the Redlegs, the island’s poorest and most maligned inhabitants. Laying down the train tracks at the last minute Wallace & Gromit-style when World On Film returns.

 

A title full of meaning, but I bet you'll never guess what they really get up to.


Scenes From A Festival

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Pusan International Film Festival for the very first time – PIFF being South Korea’s largest cinematic celebration, now in its 15th year. I say ‘attend’, though it was more of a whirlwind 24 hour flirtation, given that Busan, as it’s now spelled, is in the south-east of the country, and I live in the north-west. As such, I saw no celebrities, attended no special screenings, nor partook in any seminars. At the end of the day though, it’s all about films, and I did manage to catch three fairly decent efforts – one of which saw its world premier here – and generally soak in at least some of the atmosphere that any cinephile would enjoy, as well as walk away with a souvenir or two.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about films”

The action was spread across several cinemas and venues in downtown Busan, most notably Haeundae, the nation’s most popular beach. With time pressing heavily however, I confined myself to one area, that being Nampo-dong, a district famous for film and fish, with raw piscines unwittingly sacrificing themselves to provide the evening’s dinner. With the visit crossing over Friday and Saturday, it was a chance to experience both the weekend throng and the quieter weekday crowd of dedicated flicker-fans. It was little more than a snapshot, a cross-section of the full experience, but it was highly enjoyable when it wasn’t utterly exhausting and hopefully this won’t be my last time there.

As such, I don’t feel qualified to launch into a full account of PIFF 2010, so I’ll concentrate on the films I caught instead.

Secret Reunion

(2010) Directed by Jang Hun

Click below to view the trailer, which contains English subtitles.

Even if one’s knowledge of film is similar in depth to Boris Johnson’s expertise on lucid discourse, everyone is aware of the concept of ‘national character’ – the cultural zeitgeist of a people that is easy money in cinematic terms. Films portraying the ‘Aussie battler’ champion the loveable struggles of the Australian working class in stereotyped but well-crafted epics such as Gallipoli, however also guarantee bums on seats even with the most formulaic of efforts, such as the more recent Charlie & Boots.

Elsewhere, the British self image of tolerance, restraint and humility has given rise to another genre of guaranteed money-spinners, typically infested with Hugh Grant’s bumbling, self-effacing celebration of failure in the face of eventual triumph. Whether or not anyone in either country actually identifies closely with these social ciphers, they clearly appeal to the collective national psyche.

In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood: the deep and unbreakable bond forged between two men (who may or may not be actual brothers) by blood, sweat, and above all, tears. The human ties that bind define one’s entire outlook in Korean society, with friendship an optional extra. Yet Koreans are powerfully sentimental, and no true brotherhood can last without genuine love.

The last decade alone has produced a glut of films mining the genre all the way to the Earth’s core safe in the knowledge that it will sell like cheap reality tv aspirations. Stand-outs include Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides of Korea’s demilitarized zone find friendship easy once duty and politics are pushed aside, and Shiri, a 2000 drama-thriller produced during the time former Korean president Kim Dae-jung actively pursued his Sunshine Policy with the North. In this film, a group of North Korean sleeper agents are pursued by South Korean special agents as they attempt to set off a series of explosives around Seoul so as to weaken the ‘puppet’ American stronghold for reunification DPRK-style.

“In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood”

2010’s Secret Reunion sits somewhere between the two in terms of plot, dealing as it does with North Koreans infiltrating the South and men of both countries forming a close bond when the seemingly-impenetrable clash of two incompatible ideologies are put aside. In the film, Shadow, a North Korean assassin has been dispatched to the South to obliterate a defected countryman, however Jiwon, his young partner and protege, a product of the North Korean military elite, is not so cold-blooded, needing reasoning deeper than simple political revenge to justify death. When Hangyu, a local National Intelligence agent fails to capture them after a bloody massacre in a residential area, he is forced into civilian life. Six years later however, he inadvertently runs into Jiwon and realizes he once again has a chance to bag the elusive assassin – still somewhere at large in South Korea. As he comes to know his new acquaintance, Hangyu finds a man of depth and compassion, and so turning him in becomes ever more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, PIFF hails this latest Korean effort as a sea change in local cinema. I however found it highly derivative,  a local version of a typical Odd Couple outing, with a very standard and formulaic Hollywood happy ending little different from that one would expect from Midnight Run or 48 Hours. However, the film’s unoriginality and cornball moments are offset to a fair degree by some excellent direction from Jang Hun alongside a very competent cast. Jeon Guk-hwan plays the North Korean assassin Shadow with merciless revolutionary zeal. Jeon is more familiar to locals for his stage work, and the elder statesman’s theatrical experience is on full display here – there is absolutely nothing pantomime in his villain and he really comes across as a credible threat. Song Kang-ho is one of Korea’s biggest film stars and indeed my personal favourite. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character he inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages, with the highly-talented Kang able to elevate even the most pedestrian of scripts. Equally capable is Kang Dong-won as Jiwon, the inwardly-anguished North Korean soldier. Where Song is all wonderful bluster, Kang is a study in tightly-controlled conflict and unsurprisingly, the foundations for the odd-couple pairing.

With this new chance to re-explore the brotherhood leitmotif as though it were for the very first time in cinema, writers Kim Ju-ho and Jang Min-seok go to great pains to build up this seemingly incompatible relationship, and of course, they’re onto a winner. Secret Reunion delivers the typical mix of two-hander conflict and humour we would expect from such a venture and away from the occasional ventures into Saccharine Alley, succeeds. Punctuated moments of high drama are the really memorable moments however, and the first venture into graphic violence is a surprise to the viewer. It’s even more effective when one learns that the script derives from a true story, with a Shadow-like killer penetrating the border and engaging in urban executions for the glorious Democratic Republic. In a way, it’s a shame that the producers felt they had to dumb down reality to the level of a tired buddy film, taking much of the wind out of history’s sails.

“There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character [Song Kang-ho] inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages”

Jang Hun nonetheless can be praised for being capable of bringing both elements to the screen with equal directorial affinity, clearly understanding the pacing required to bring out both comedy and thriller. The multitalented relative newcomer will hopefully attach himself to genuine innovation in the future and give himself a chance to show what he’s really capable of.

Those new to Korean cinema will be blissfully unaware of Secret Reunion’s recycled nature. Even Song Kang-ho must surely be feeling the déjà-vu, starring as he did in the similarly-themed JSA. For the most part though, it’s a well-produced adventure put together by a skilled production team. If only I hadn’t seen it all before.

Director Zhang Yimou's hand-print in PIFF Square. Yimou's new film, 'Under The Hawthorn Tree', headlined this year's festival.

Voice Over (International Premiere)

(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov

(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)

Kasiel Noah Asher co-stars in the Soviet-Era absurdist drama, 'Voice Over'.

Official program description: The story of a persecuted man who loses his son. Anton Krustev is a famous cinematographer. He makes a film about his own life. But those who now direct the film are the very same people who once persecuted him.

A while ago, I reviewed the Albanian feature film Slogans, which demonstrated the way in which that society, now free of the rigidly-controlled Soviet-style paranoia that once powered it 30 years ago, was finally able to laugh at the insanity of its past. Voice Over is a new Bulgarian entry in very much the same vein, though whereas Slogans showed the way in which people had become more concerned with parroting revolutionary Communist slogans than actually understanding and implementing the ideology behind them, Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies. The film uses black humour to similar effect and similar in theme, the human tragedy of a wasted generation is just as poignant.

As with Secret Reunion, Voice Over is a true story, and to make matters even more intertextual with lead character Anton Krustev attempting to make a film of his own life – of a time in the late 1970s when he became separated from his wife and son by the Iron Curtain, they having fled to West Germany ostensibly for health reasons, but equally because they know which way the wind is blowing. This flashback is the film’s principal tale, and the way in which the State Security Services kept Krustev and his German-born wife under surveillance convinced that one or both were traitors attempting to defect to the decadent West. Innocent phone calls and mail are re-interpreted by the authorities as subversive while the wife herself, entreating Krustev to join her in Berlin, is seen as a malign influence trying to undermine one of Bulgaria’s then-most celebrated directors of photography. Krustev, meanwhile, must deal with the separation and loss of his family all the while succumbing to the influence of national ideologies: he is a patriot torn between personal feelings and national sentiment. If there is a happy ending, it can only be found by future generations free of the irrational forces pinning these unfortunates to the sacrificial altars of their country’s Communist past.

Slogans would also demonstrate how, in times of a Cultural Revolution, the family unit and love itself could be destroyed by the demands of the state, though Voice Over, with genuine humour, suggests that those on the ‘right’ side could be exempt from such disruption. Great rewards are promised to those in the service of their country, and if the misguided are talented, they are not beyond redemption with a certain amount of encouragement.

Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies”

Writer/director Ovtcharov goes right to the heart of the madness of Soviet paranoia in Voice Over, with even those not well-versed in Eastern European culture or history having no trouble whatsoever in understanding the message being delivered. His story is filled with realistically-drawn characters struggling to cast their voices into an arena interested only in the party line. Chief among them is Ivan Barnev as beleaguered film maker Anton Krustev, who conveys the ever-evolving emotions of love, loneliness, anger and hatred across a rapidly-stretching long-distance relationship with believability. Knowing as we do that the film deals with a dark chapter of Bulgarian history bookended by hopelessness, it is the journey, not the ending that really resonates. However, as much as Voice Over is a story of tragedy and a warning from the past about the dangers of extremism, it is not ultimately about hopelessness, but rather the struggle against insurmountable odds.

Where the viewer may struggle with it however is the slightly-protracted final edit. Perhaps reveling a little too much in the unfolding story, Ovtcharov neglects the pacing of the narrative as well as providing the film with several possible endings that fail to signal the finale. The overall effect renders dry what should be more emotionally-wrenching than it actually is: impatience in a viewer is never a good sign.

Those who can stomach the slower pacing however will be rewarded by Voice Over’s aims and be privy to the very human struggle for normality in extremism’s shadow. The last decade shows that with the parting of Iron Curtain, many Eastern Europeans have interesting stories to tell that they now do in film, finally gaining a voice of freedom away from state-sponsored cinema.

Street entertainment takes the festivities outside of the theatres.

Honey

(2010) Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu

Click to watch the trailer below:

Official program description: Yusuf’s father is a beekeeper whose father hangs his beehives at the top of tall trees. One day, his father travels to a faraway forest on a risky mission, and later Yusuf must enter the forest alone in search of him.

Writer/director Semih Kaplanoglu delivers the third and final entry in the ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, this time focusing on the principal character’s childhood. Admittedly, I was entirely unaware until afterward that I’d just seen the final installment, though since they are told in reverse chronological order, one can enter Yusuf’s world through Honey knowing even less. Quick research revealed that the minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Indeed, I was reminded very much of the equally simple but beautiful Korean epic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East? of a decade earlier. In both instances, the deep, impenetrable and imposing natural world is deliberately silent and overpowering so as to show the true place of nature in the human narrative.

Nothing could be more suited to the character of Yusuf, the deeply sensitive young boy who is himself so chronically-shy that speech for him is rare. Deep within the Turkish forests, he is heard to speak only with two characters throughout: his father, whom he idolizes, and even then can only communicate in whispers, and his schoolteacher, with whom he is desperate to impress with his reading comprehension skills. Yet in silence, he is fascinated by the world around him while at the same time almost too afraid to touch it. That he will grow into a poet (as seen in the two prequels) is in no way hard to believe.

“The minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema.”

Obviously, much of the success of Honey therefore hangs on the child actor selected to play the lead role, but in Bora Atlas, Kaplanoglu has struck gold. Whether or not the young star intrinsically understood what was being asked of him, he imbues Yusuf with wonderful naivete and innocence enshrouded by his fear and awe of the world so well that one can’t imagine anyone else playing the part better. In the absence of dialogue for the most part, Atlas must convey his character entirely through his facial expressions and body language, which he does with the conviction of a young boy who very probably didn’t really know what was going on and for Yusuf, this is in character.

It’s easy to criticise the so-called ADHD generation for having the attention span of a bee and therefore unlikely to find Honey ideal viewing. However, given the director’s Philip Glass-like approach to film-making and the paucity of dialogue, the film is a challenge to even fans of art house cinema at 103 minutes in length. While the point is to really capture the unshakeable silence of Yusuf’s world, it could easily lose at least 20 minutes and still deliver the same message without feeling at all rushed. Yet I also feel compelled somewhere down the line to watch predecessors Milk and Egg to see if this is a shortcoming of the Kaplanglu approach or whether this time around, those self-same elements don’t hold together. It is nonetheless the mark of a confident director not compelled to hide a multitude of sins through post-production.

Ultimately, Honey is a fine piece of cinema that just falls short of greatness perhaps for being too one-note in its approach. I still find plenty in it to recommend however and its refreshing simplicity is the perfect antidote to formulaic claptrap.

The weekend crowd gathers.

Coming Up Next

It’s Iceland, 1973, and the inhabitants of a small, sleepy island find their lives disrupted by the very ground beneath their feet. The true story of Eldfell captured on camera for all to see when World On Film returns.


No Mercy

World On Film goes all-Azerbaijan, all the time this week with a double feature. First up is the uncomplicated but lighthearted enjoyable fluff of Bu da belə, followed by the full-length ‘straight-to-video’ terribleness that is Şeytanın Tələsi. Just what do these two untranslated titles mean? Read on…

Bu da belə

(2009) (Director unknown)

Qurban Ismayilov stars in this live-action adaptation of a Capcom classic.

Bu da belə, or ‘That’s It’, as it translates into English, is a lightly amusing short film, running just over 3 minutes, about a man struggling to bring his girlfriend a new television for her birthday up the stairs of her rather dilapidated urban apartment in the absence of a functioning elevator. With the many obstacles he encounters on the way up, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong. The film’s title is taken from the last line of dialogue, which neatly sums up his ordeal. I once had to spend a day helping relatives move furniture in and out of their 3rd-floor apartment that was equally devoid of elevators, so I know exactly how he feels. The short runs at just about the right length given the premise and star performer Qurban Ismayilov has a good, expressive face for what is essentially a visual comedy. Nəsibə Eldarova plays the girlfriend. The film was made in 2009 and is actually quite easy to find online if you look in the obvious places. You’d be ill-advised to bother doing so with the next feature, however.

“I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong.”

Şeytanın Tələsi

(2006) Directed by Tanriverdi Allahverdiyev

“I warned you many times not to play with the balls of other people.”

Child star Yusif Paşayev as the imaginatively-named 'Yusif'.

I am not a major fan of martial arts films, so when I do watch one, I expect it to have charismatic actors, decent production values and of course spectacular fight scenes. Şeytanın Tələsi, however, contained acting more wooden than a pine chest, the production values of a finger painting and fight scenes seemingly choreographed by a coma patient. I quickly found myself in more pain than anyone having their face rearranged on screen, and constantly fighting the urge to walk away and stare at the wall in search of something more entertaining. Given the many entries in the Azerbaijani film repertoire, I feel sure I simply picked the Middle Eastern equivalent of a Steven Seagal and that there are far better offerings from the Caspian nation waiting for me. In case you’re wondering why I therefore picked this one, it was the only Azeri-language film I could get hold of with English subtitles (The 40th Door has been screened at film festivals, but a copy wasn’t available). Of course I say ‘English’…

__Etibar Xankişiyev, playing either the villainous gang __boss or Humpty Dumpty.

Whoever translated Şeytanın Tələsi clearly felt that anything more than a basic understanding of the dialogue would be a great extravagance. For all I know, the film could have had a script written by the Azerbaijani equivalent of Francis Bacon and the washboard-flat performances therein are the result of exquisitely subtle delivery. Not that I believe this for a second, but at the very least, I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen. This did not always occur when it was supposed to – there were several occasions when lines of dialogue simply weren’t translated – most unbelievably of all during the inevitable climactic fight sequence. “What will be the end of this story?” one character asks with more stiltedness than a man with two artificial legs. ‘No idea,’ I replied from the other side of the glass, rapidly losing the will to live, ‘just so long as it comes soon.’

“I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen.”

Zippy from Rainbow (Sabir Paşayev).

It may therefore come as no surprise that I didn’t fully pin down every nuance of the plot, although not being a cinematic adaptation of Wittgenstein, it wasn’t a total mystery either. Major Vagif Asadov (or Assadov – we are presumably offered two spellings as part of some sort of lexically-symbolic attempt at character depth) is a member of the nation’s equivalent of Special Branch, the FBI, or, given his passing resemblance to Zippy, the Rainbow House. Asadov oversees a sting operation intercepting a drug shipment supplied by Devil Barasa, an underground kingpin. Knowing Barasa will target his family in an act of revenge, Asadov sends his young son Yusif into the care of Azerbaijani karate master Tanrivaldi, who agrees to take his new young protégé into the forest to train him. Unfortunately, Team Barasa gets wind of this and set about the task of retrieving their ‘bargaining chip’. I could elaborate further, but I will avoid spoiling things on the off-chance that someone is mad enough to watch the film for themselves. Suffice to say, some rather dubious karate is involved. And just in case the audience isn’t convinced that Barasa and his henchmen are the villains of the piece, the actors helpfully elicit evil pantomime laughs when events are swinging their way.

Simulated dialogue scenes 'prepare' the viewer for the heady concept of...dialogue scenes.

One thing about Şeytanın Tələsi that seems abundantly clear to me is the lack of budget. This surely explains the hideous post-production work, to name one of the film’s many crimes. Like many a martial arts feature, sound effects are dubbed over the fight scenes to give them a more visceral feel. Unfortunately, the film’s audio geniuses don’t seem too keen to make them at least halfway-realistic. Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand. Even more mystifying are the entirely misplaced sounds, such as the sudden swell of running streams and birdsong during a scene where two characters are traversing the busy streets of Baku.

“Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand.”

Director and co-star Tanrıverdi Allahverdiyev settles a dispute with one of the lighting crew.

Then there’s the musical portion of the soundtrack. Anyone who’s seen an episode of the original Star Trek will know that part of what makes its score so memorable is the repetition of its musical motifs. Typically, a number of cues would be recorded for the season and then repeatedly used throughout according to the action on screen. There were just enough pieces in the tank to cover all the major emotions. However for Şeytanın Tələsi, possibly in a clever attempt at Phillip Glass minimalism, the producers decide to follow the same approach with only two musical cues – one for ‘touching’ scenes, another covering ‘action’ sequences. For 90 minutes. There may have been a third, but since my neighbour was playing a cd at the time, I can’t be too certain. Assuming the viewer isn’t completely sick to death of this musical torture after the first half-hour, they may afterward feel an alarming urge to play something from the Commodore 64 collection. If your film budget can’t stretch to more than a couple of tunes, I’d consider silence as a viable alternative.

And this music video is relevant because...?

Not that silence doesn’t play a part in the story. The film is peppered with long sequences where characters seem to be engaged in discussion, but rather than make the audience privy to their dialogue, we are instead forced to lip-read a muted scene while ‘Music #1’ helpfully reminds us that we are watching two people speak. Halfway through, the dialogue cuts in, the content of which suggesting that whatever the speakers were discussing earlier, it can’t have been anything more than the football scores, as we soon hear their reason for meeting verbalized in full. Still it’s not the first time the director attempts to help the viewer understand what they’re watching, given that he felt the need to have someone state the film’s title while the title card was on screen. A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes – something I strongly suspect given that the film concludes with a completely unrelated music video in which, via the magic of chroma key, the actor playing Yousef, for no discernible reason, stands against a very fake projected background practicing karate moves while simultaneously performing what I presume is a traditional Azerbaijani dance. How this relates to the drama that preceded it I would imagine can only be determined by transcending to a higher level of consciousness.

“A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes.”

Mercifully, those 86 minutes do finally come to an end – the fact that they felt more like 586 minutes will scar me for life. Interestingly, when attempting to translate the film’s title, Şeytanın Tələsi would come to read ‘Telecine Of Evil’, or even ‘Satan’s Telecine’. No doubt the overwhelmingly-diligent subtitler would have been more than happy with that (would anyone care to enlighten me as to the actual translation?). If indeed demonic influence was involved, it was entirely successful, though for the wrong reasons.

Instead Of This

And with that, World On Film comes to the end of this first analytical foray into flickering foreign projections. I’ll be taking time off for about a month to recharge my batteries and catch up on other things strongly neglected. Several film reviews for countries beginning with ‘B’ have already been written, so the tracks are already being laid for the next ‘series’, as it were, which will begin in the warm, watery climes of the Bahamas. This does not however mean the onset of tumbleweeds bouncing with reckless abandon across the blog. I will continue to abuse this sector of cyberspace in the interim with my rambling waffle on matters dubiously connected with the World On Film raison d’etre.

Coming next time therefore, I delve into the world of alternative film soundtracks, or more accurately, one in particular. If you can guess the relationship between a dark, spectral figure haunting a French music hall and a famous English prog rocker, you’ll be halfway there. Plans are also afoot to try and visit the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival next week and if they come to fruition, the blog will be here to provide an autopsy of the journey’s dead and rotting corpse. Don’t quite know where I’m going with this analogy, so I will simply sign off…until next time.


New Day Today

Welcome to another edition of World On Film. This week, we travel to Austria for the excellent character study, Revanche, and back to Australia for the mystifyingly bad horror film I caught a few days ago (in much the same way one catches the flu), Road Train.

Revanche (Revenge)

(2008) Directed by Götz Spielmann

The descent begins.

“Killing someone out of vengeance – I know you don’t believe, but it’s a sin.”

When his girlfriend is murdered during a bank robbery escape attempt, former convict Alex vows to take revenge on the man who pulled the trigger. Vengeance seems to make perfect sense until he meets his target face-to-face.

‘Revanche’ is a film that holds its cards close to its chest. Just when you think you have the story pinned in the first half-hour, all hell breaks loose and the film takes a wholly unexpected turn. It is a film that not only challenges you to predict what comes next, but one that forces you to decide whether revenge ever makes sense, to confront feelings of anguish and make decisions you can live with. In the character of Alex, we have a man used to dealing with the rougher side of humanity, which has hardened him in order to survive. The loss of his girlfriend Tamara robs him of the only time he allows himself to be someone else, at peace with the world. Into this world comes the unassuming presence of Robert, a policeman committed to serving the public, yet whom has never faced the hardest part of the job: taking a life. When Robert is confronted by this reality, it is then that we truly learn who he is. This, ultimately, is what the film is about – throwing ordinary people into life’s darkest waters and seeing whether or not they will swim back into the light. Writer and director Götz Spielmann presents the viewer with a very compelling drama, which, through its cast of identifiably real characters, engages the viewer throughout. The lines may be drawn between those who feel wronged, but at no time is it ever easy for the viewer to take sides.

Actor Johannes Krisch expertly portrays the quiet agony of loss.

 

“Writer and director Götz Spielmann presents the viewer with a very compelling drama, which, through its cast of identifiably real characters, engages the viewer throughout.”

This perhaps explains the film’s pacing and choice of photography. The basic storyline as described could very easily apply to a fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster, trading humanity and intelligence for cliché and car chases. Yet in the truer world of grocery shopping and household chores, moments of high drama are spaced apart by long periods of calm inactivity, leaving people to brood into the small hours over the choices they have made – the perfect environment within which feelings of revenge and misery can blossom. ‘Revanche’ is paced in such a way, with the principal characters having to tend to family and the ordinary demands of life while barely holding themselves together over the losses they have suffered. Yet these are their only opportunities to heal and come to terms with their pain. Spielmann accentuates these sequences with often picturesque long shots within which silence reigns and the magnitude of the suffering seems to pale into comparison with the enormity of the surrounding world.

Ursula Strauss as the 'murderer's wife, bravely coping, quietly longing.

Johannes Krisch, who some reviewers have intriguingly compared to Robert Carlysle, is well-cast as the hardened Alex. He not only looks the part, but conveys just the right mix of softness within a wary, battle-worn shell. Andreas Lust, as Robert, expertly portrays the policeman whose life collapses beneath him, propelling him into a world of anguish and self-doubt. Credit also goes to Johannes Thanheiser as Alex’s grandfather, a man for whom life is much the same each day, yet this is no reason to complain, and Ursula Strauss as Susanne, who, as Robert’s wife, must balance her role as supporter in difficult times with her needs as a woman.

“In the truer world of grocery shopping and household chores, moments of high drama are spaced apart by long periods of calm inactivity, leaving people to brood into the small hours over the choices they have made.”

Ultimately, the film leaves the viewer to tie up the loose ends, inviting comment on the drama that has unfolded. This is definitely a strong effort from all concerned, and a very mature approach to what easily could have been a simplistic action snuff piece. It’s art imitating life with frankness and honesty, and worthwhile viewing.

*****

Road Train (aka Road Kill)

(2010) Directed by Dean Francis

The nightmare begins...for the audience.

Four youths camping in the Australian outback are nearly killed when a road train turns their car into a spinning lump of metal. Licking their wounds, the unwitting group discovers the driverless vehicle parked near the scene of the accident and decides to commandeer it. But the road train has other plans for the four and survival isn’t necessarily among them.

Every so often, one comes across a film that truly defines the horror genre. It rises above the formula of B-grade horror to really delight the senses with astounding ideas, a bulletproof script, brilliant practical effects, and an irresistible moreish quality that makes it an instant classic you’ll want to come back to every couple of years, marveling at how deep is its rewatch value.

‘Road Train’, however, does not have such rewatch value, being about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips. The script is about as bulletproof as a KFC refresher towel, while the only formula it adheres to is that of a Molotov cocktail, bombing as it does with unsanctioned alacrity not long after the opening credits. It is the true definition of mind-numbing ineptitude, and projects an obvious contempt for the audience by its conceptual laziness.

“[Road Train is] about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips.”

The unwitting adventurers on a road to nowhere.

Characterisation is probably the key offender. Certainly, it would be ridiculous to expect a Camusian exploration of behavioural absurdism in the face of demonic supernatural transport, but we should at least like the people on screen. In ‘Road Train’, the writer seems to be going out of his way to ensure this doesn’t happen by enmeshing the loathing and betrayal of recent infidelity with the inadequately explored mood swings supposedly brought about by otherworldly possession. There is the murky implication that the road train is a sort of Amityville House on wheels, but its effect on all who go near it is sloppily handled and way too immediate, resulting in characters flying off the handle with mystifying, unexplained regularity. This completely undermines any attempts at character conflict, since the viewer is unable to determine whether their problems are caused by said possession or a manifestation of their down-to-earth guilt and loathing.

Within this disjointed narrative, we also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent. Thus, whether from psychosis or incredible stupidity, the viewer is robbed of any real chance they may have of caring overmuch for the so-called protagonists. Devoid of empathy, they have little left but their curiosity as to what the vehicle truly represents.

Dog days: hallucinations or a warning?

In this, ‘Road Train’ stays fairly mute: as with ‘The Car’ 33 years earlier, the viewer is encouraged to guess, with clues in the form of a snarling three-headed dog and surreal sequences of otherworldly descent. This approach works best, however, when the major characters speculate on the horror that has befallen them. We may never know who or what Michael Myers is, but the speculation of Dr Loomis that he is the embodiment of evil sets the ball rolling, leaving space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The internal dialogue not only gives them something to work with as they piece the puzzle together, but faith in the characters, who have behaved as anyone would by asking such obvious questions. Yet in ‘Road Train’, the hapless victims are seemingly too narcissistic to even notice the madness of their situation until the climax, by which point most of them are beyond redemption. How this encourages us to care is yet another mystery.

“We also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent.’

This in turn leads to the great revelation of how the road train operates: an admittedly unusual and horrific idea that on closer examination makes no sense whatsoever within the internal logic of the film. In ‘Road Train’, we are encouraged to simply accept the improbable existence of the antagonist without question, for questions lead to the punishment of frustration.

Mystifying mood swings abound - and that's just the audience watching this film.

If anyone may be absolved from this nonsense however, it should be the actors, who are simply performing as required by the script. The Australian film industry is not especially large, and actors there have far less opportunities for prominence. Morley, Lowe, Haig and Samuel join the likes of Melissa George, for whom the comparatively superior ‘Triangle’ may just keep her in orbit long enough to attract attention.

Praise too goes to the setting: the wilds of the South Australian outback make for the perfect horror film backdrop. The isolation and desolate dryness, properly utilized, can lend themselves to a truly claustrophobic drama. A shame therefore that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.

“A shame that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.”

Such then is ‘Road Train’, a horror film for the reality tv generation and no less disposable. If the challenge had been to outdo ‘Houseboat Horror’, then it would leapfrog over the competition into first place. There was, however, no such challenge and I would urge everyone to take inspiration from the film’s U.S title and run over any copies they may come across.

*****

Coming Up Next

Azerbaijan beckons for a double feature: the light, but likeable short film, Bu da belə, and the unfortunately full-length silliness of Seytanin Telesi, for which there is no trailer, I’m afraid. It’s all Azeri, all the time when World On Film returns.


In The Shadows

James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver star in miniseries 'The Deep'. I watched it so you don't have to.

When the crew of a research submarine searching for new bio fuels in the Arctic Circle mysteriously disappears, another is sent to continue with the work. However, a black box recording compels the crew to discover what happened to the other vessel, especially when that same threat descends upon them – something large and silent that slices through the icy waters like a prehistoric leviathan.

The Deep, starring James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver is a miniseries rather than a film, and one that looked extremely good before I was silly enough to watch it, expecting something along the lines of The Abyss, which episode 1 very tantalisingly suggests. However, it soon strays into Hunt For Red October territory and which point my interest sank through to the mantle. There is also the running theme of scientific triumph overcoming common sense in the name of riches, but explored with the care and consideration of a Sci Fi Channel script, the quality of which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the equivalent of having Russell Brand perform comedy. The Deep should therefore be consigned to the self-same Arctic seabed the program explores and best forgotten.

Happily, this is easily done as this week’s entry in World On Film is the excellent Argentinean romance murder-mystery…

The Secret In Their Eyes

(2009) Directed by Juan Campanella

A trailer can be found at the bottom of last week’s entry.

“A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.”

Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil play star-crossed lovers who find the ties that bind hold forever.

The Secret In Their Eyes builds upon the very essence of life: a sequence of key moments that can completely change our destinies if we recognise them for what they are, held together by the long ordinary days in between where we don’t feel remarkable enough to act. Yet its ultimate message is one of hope, while also challenging us to decide whether or not in certain situations revenge is justified. I am not normally a big fan of crime fiction, let alone romance, yet if The Secret In Their Eyes was indicative of the way in which crime-romance cinema normally entertains, I’d have to jump the tracks and nail my colours to the mast. However, The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, written and directed with confident maturity, populated with engaging characters expertly realized, and one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.

“The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.”

Ricardo Morales as the husband of the dead victim, playing inner turmoil with amazing conviction.

As the 20th Century draws to a close, retired federal justice agent Benjamin Esposito decides to fictionalise an especially memorable case from his younger days – one that changed his life forever. However, as the memories come flooding back, the unsolved 1974 crime refuses to fade away, and Esposito finds himself compelled to solve it once and for all, in the process rediscovering his undying love for a woman he once let slip through his fingers. Along the way, he learns what truly makes humans tick and that true passion may be the strongest force in existence, although it may manifest itself in ways too hard to accept.

It will therefore hardly be surprising that I consider one of the film’s prime strengths to be its study of the human condition. On one level, the commentary is nothing new: love, longing, missed opportunities, regret, fallibility, weakness, malice; yet this is humanity in a nutshell, with every generation enacting the same drama as before.

The truth in between words.

Secret is not intended to turn this all-encompassing portrait on its side and offer a new interpretation. Its characters are straightforward, easily-identifiable and found all around us – they may even be us. The aim is to show them in all their glory and misery and break them down into the raw emotions that make us all tick. If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché. Likewise, if you don’t care for a study on the mechanics of human behaviour, this isn’t for you. It’s not a new paradigm of the genre, rather a very open and honest one that relies very much on the viewer’s own life experience for it to make impact. Others may be put off by the analysis of revenge, especially as it invites introspection on one’s own character by film’s end. Yet this is surely the point.

“If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché.”

The excellent Guillermo Francella as the underestimated Pablo Sandoval.

Another of Secret’s key strengths is the choice of actors and the characters themselves. Ricardo Darin’s Esposito is at turns very subdued, worn down by the realities of life, yet elsewhere a fiery champion of justice – perhaps not unsurprising given his vocation, but Darin has the feel of the character just right. In opposition, Soledad Villamil’s Irene is a woman in conflict: career-driven, struggling to walk the right path, and torn by her feelings. If anyone embodied the film’s title, it would have to be Pablo Rago’s portrayal of Ricardo Morales, the husband of a rape victim. Rago’s wide eyes says so much, yet hide even more. Perhaps especially memorable however is Esposito’s friend, Pablo Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. It may again be unoriginal that the film’s comic relief turns out to have the greatest insight (and espouse the film’s central message), but the oft-ignored yet wise fool is a long-enduring character simply for what he offers the viewer. There is also something earthy and endearing about Francella’s performance that keeps your eyes trained upon him. The humour also provides a welcome release amidst the darker themes of the film.

This is helped further by the touching, at times hauntingly-beautiful score provided by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, proving an excellent match for the often sombre mood director Juan Campanella aims to create. Although ‘sepia’ would be too strong a word, there is a definite yellowish tint awash over the flashback sequences that give the film its art-house feel and atmosphere. Running at just over two hours, Campanella has managed to set the pace just right – anything slower would lose the audience, yet to speed things up would be to destroy the important character moments, often carried by lingering expressions that say more than dialogue ever would. Yet dialogue is very much the centrepiece of the film – none of the themes are left unexplored and Campanella isn’t interested in letting the visuals do all the talking. Again, I felt the balance between the visual discourse and the verbal was just right.

Endemic corruption undermined the justice system of 1970s Argentina.

As my first entry into Argentinian film, I was very impressed with The Secret In Their Eyes. However, to dwell on its country of its origin would be to do it a disservice, for it is simply good cinema. While its commentary on its universal themes may not work for everyone, I think many will enjoy the very touching and human tale that unfolds. If it ultimately leaves you a little unsettled and undecided as to the choices taken within the narrative, it has achieved its goal.

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*****

Up Next

A freelance photographer, sent to Armenia with his wife to snap the local churches for a forthcoming calendar, encounters the eternal triangle in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film, Calendar. No trailer I’m afraid, although this youtube video does provide a kind of background teaser: