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.
(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.”
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.
(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher
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
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.
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.
“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.
Dark skies overhead this week as the self-righteous are forced to reveal their darkest secrets in Stephen King’s miniseries Storm Of The Century.
Normally focused upon international cinema, this post forms part of World On Film’s break time between series. To find out what is upcoming over the next few weeks, please scroll to the bottom.
But now, we travel to the North American state of Maine – the fictional Maine, where savage clowns plague the dreams of the young and where cemeteries are more likely to bring back the dead than house them. Eleven years ago, I happened to discover Stephen King’s then-latest epic in the VCD section of Central, Hong Kong’s HMV, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
Storm Of The Century
(1999) Written by Stephen King Directed by Craig R. Baxley
“Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in!”
All hell breaks loose when a stranger visits the remote Maine community of Little Tall Island on a cold Winter’s day. As the biggest storm on record rolls over the town, a series of murders plague the community. All evidence points to the new arrival, who seems to know everyone’s darkest secrets. Powerless to stop him, the locals quickly learn that they will only see the last of Andre Linoge if they give him what he wants – the price for which may cost them their very souls.
I have yet to pinpoint the moment in which prolific horror writer Stephen King became his own cabaret act, however it was most certainly long before Storm Of The Century, in many ways another ‘greatest hits’ package of King’s themes and stories. Again, we are presented with a cast of working-class Maine residents with dark – but entirely human – secrets lurking just beneath the veneer of their New England community spirit. Again, it is the presence of a dark figure from Christian mythology who upturns the shared lie of their ordered lives, offering the weakest a choice that will rob them of their humanity and for which the chief protagonists will rail against with righteous self-sacrifice. And again, it takes place in a sleepy town somewhere in between genuine Maine population centres creating a base under siege drama. Even of the villain of the piece may or may not have been seen before. If King wasn’t so good at the formula, it would be so much easier to scorn all but the original attempts at his oeuvre. Storm Of The Century may offer little in the way of new storytelling, but its trademark lengthy build-up of menace and character development work once more to good effect, tense atmosphere all-pervasive, and its villain compelling and well-acted.
Even when the human participants of Stephen King’s novels are rather idealised caricatures of humanity, the author always pulls them away from the edge of schmaltz with his strongly Christian morality of mankind’s frailty. Virtually every adult of Little Tall Island has ‘sinned’, be they adulterers, thieves, drug runners or closet homosexuals lashing out American Beauty -style. Regardless of one’s own perspective on the vices presented, Storm Of The Century’s morals are very black and white, and they need to be in order for the villain to function in the story, judging them from on high for their faults. Some reviewers I have come across online have found the townspeople therefore so unlikeable and hypocritical in their pretense at professing to be good, Christian parishioners, that they have found themselves in many ways siding with the story’s antagonist. Others still have been so disgusted that they refuse to believe such people actually exist. As King demonstrates, it is only extreme duress that people will reveal their inner demons, and the most vehement denial may come from the very people he condemns for their doublethink. How well do we really know anyone? we are compelled to ask.
This, ultimately, is perhaps the true horror of Andre Linoge. Fairly explicit lines of dialogue imply his Biblical origins, a background he shares closely with the chief antagonist of The Stand and the Dark Tower series. Until we find out precisely what he wants of his victims, the tale seems to be the book of Revelation in miniature, except that salvation may lie in wait for no-one once Little Tall’s list of crimes has been read. Yet it is not Linoge’s demonic origins that terrify us, but his ability to force us to drop the masks we hide behind in our attempt at civilization. His disgust at the inhabitants is not so much their hidden criminality, but their pious masquerade atop foundations of insecurity. King’s religious beliefs prevent his characters from adopting the excuse that they are merely behaving as all animals do – the veneer of civilization atop barbarism cannot be equivalent to the skein of sentience thinly stretched across millions of years of instinct. These are a people ‘born in sin’ willfully straying from the path laid out for them by God, and their stubborn denial of their nature dooms them from the outset – able to keep secrets, they are easy fodder for the demon who knows they will tell no-one of his presence. Unsurprisingly therefore, those same viewpoints depict children as beings of perfection – until of course they hit puberty, where sexuality instantly makes them sinners, of which the drama has several such examples. The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds. It may be King’s most Christian-themed tale, but that brutal reckoning of human nature is a common element of his stories that reels his fans in so successfully.
“The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds.”
All of which could fail miserably if not realised well on screen, however, the acting and production values are generally up to the challenge. Filling the boots of self-righteous town hero is actor Tim Daly, known to many as the voice of fellow moral crusader Superman, and possessing just the right looks and bearing to play alpha male and Little Tall Island’s chief of police, Michael Anderson. Daly effortlessly convinces as a well-liked leader figure, more religious than the town priest and more capable than the self-serving town manager Robbie Beals, excellently portrayed by Jeffrey de Munn, who again just looks the part. As does Debra Farentino as Anderson’s wife Molly, who in every way must be alpha in female form, and Farentino delivers. The assembled cast, many wielding that distinctive Maine accent one would expect (and I now know how to pronounce ‘Ayuh’) are by and large as I would have imagined them to be, and every bit as proud and defiant of their superficial outer values as they should be.
Colm Feore, meanwhile, does a fantastic job as Andre Linoge, the dark stranger making impossible demands of the town. Feore gives a carefully balanced performance, neither over-the-top as the part so easily descent into nor too understated to be sufficiently menacing. His Linoge is long-lived, world-weary, and tired of humanity’s self-deception. Yet for all this, he is intelligent and capable of compassion. Murder is seen as a necessity to prove a point, but not something to be dispensed randomly. Feore manages to depict this complexity well, perhaps descending into pantomime only when forced to display Linoge’s animalistic nature.
The character’s supernatural nature is where much of Storm Of The Century’s CGI comes into play, as well as helping render the storm of the title. It’s pretty good for a television miniseries made in 1999, as is the enormous island set used throughout. That we’re on a soundstage is fairly obvious in places, but understandably necessary in order to realise the many practical effects needed to create a town beaten by the weather. This is enhanced further by judicious use of additional shooting in Canada and fairly seamlessly interwoven.
I was in fact only dimly aware that Storm Of The Century had been a miniseries, and watched its entire 4 hours of runtime in one sitting. To me, it had been a surprise find on VCD in Hong Kong the following year and having experienced IT, The Langoliers and King’s 1997 adaptation of The Shining in much the same fashion, Storm Of The Century simply seemed another epic in the same vein. However, this is to undersell the well-paced script, acting and Craig R. Baxley’s direction which are ultimately the reasons why such a long commitment was not overlong. For all its flaws and painful moralising, Storm Of The Century is another successful squeeze of the lemon by a writer in his element. It offers nothing new, but is very good at rehashing the old, and something most King fans will find plenty within to enjoy. And is Andre Linoge Randall Flagg? Let’s not go there.
As the icy winds of winter depart the northern hemisphere for the south, we’ll be travelling with them all the way down to the South Pole for a special 4-part miniseries on Antarctica. I felt that one week in the massive continent wouldn’t do it justice. The selected films will cover both fiction and non-fiction, through which Antarctica will be viewed as both a place of wonder and exploration, and also a dangerous white wasteland and time-serving outpost for the ordinary worker.
First up, we travel back to a time when the South Pole captured the imagination of the world: On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history. The first chapter of Antarctic Film Month next, when World On Film returns.