Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “thriller

Going Nowhere

High up in the Colombian Andes, a squad of soldiers manning a remote mountain bunker mysteriously all go missing. Believing their disappearance to be the work of the enemy guerrilla, base command sends another squad to investigate. However, the new arrivals soon find themselves unwittingly re-enacting the events leading up to their predecessor’s fate and it may not be the work of enemy agents.

The Squad

(2011) Written by Tania Cardenas and Jaime Osorio Marquez    Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez

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

“Haven’t you realized it yet? There’s nobody out there! The only murderers are us, goddammit!”

Fear and hatred keep the wheel of conflict turning in Jaime Osorio Marquez’s claustrophobic horror-thriller, ‘The Squad’.

The above quote may seem to give away the film’s twist, but The Squad, sitting somewhere between horror and claustrophobic thriller, is a dark tale that will keep you guessing until the end. Taken as horror, it’s a story that benefits from director Jaime Osorio Marquez’s solid understanding that invoking the paranormal effectively benefits from the ‘less is more’ approach. This is not a man interested in cheap thrills. In fact, some viewers will question whether or not there really is a paranormal element to the film, given that it flirts with, but never conclusively states, an otherworldly force behind the drama. The most obvious example, and I will try to avoid spoilers, is the soldiers’ discovery of an old woman seemingly kept prisoner by their missing comrades. Speculation turns to fear when she is accused first of being a guerrilla spy, then an unfortunate local caught up in the country’s perpetual civil war, and then a witch – in any event the source of all the misery that befalls anyone cursed with entering the bunker. Marquez walks a fine line with all three possibilities, and gives just enough circumstantial evidence to allow the viewer to conclude that any one of them might be true.

However, since The Squad is so Spartan with its horror elements, it is predominantly a thriller about claustrophobia and fear in general. The war has completely polarised both sides of the conflict, and so the only dimensions of character among the soldiers we meet range between the aggressive, bullying nationalists and the moderates forced into a military environment they have no taste for, yet they too have no sympathy for the other side. It’s probably the most important thing to understand about the citizens of any country where national service is mandatory.

The film explores the way in which perpetual civil war has enslaved the mind and terrorised the soul in modern-day Columbia.

Add to this a deep sense of battle-weariness that the characters seem almost to breathe out from the very first scene. Although the narrative is entirely confined to the isolated Colombian outpost, lines of dialogue make it clear that this is simply the latest in a long line of engagements with the enemy. In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved. This, we are being told, is what it means to live amidst civil war.

Then the story actually begins and, after a quietly tense sequence in which the characters survey their surroundings, the screws start to be tightened even further. In many ways, The Squad is a base-under-siege film, both figuratively and literally. Visually, Marquez could not have chosen a more perfect location: it really is a bunker high up on a mountain somewhere, where the fog is so frequent that venturing in any direction will make you hopelessly lost if you’re lucky. The weather itself is a mental and physical barrier. All of which only helps make the ‘siege’ very much the cabin fever variety, taken to new heights by human weakness and paranoia. Already convinced they are under attack by guerrilla forces that always seem to be one step ahead of them, the unraveling of self-control for each beleaguered soldier seems only a matter of time. Yet as indicated earlier, there may be other forces at work.

“In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved.”

The sudden appearance of a woman who may or may not be in league with forces beyond human understanding throws a genre curve ball in what is predominantly a more down-to-earth and visceral base-under-siege film.

I couldn’t help but be strongly reminded of the in-many-ways-similar Korean horror-thriller Antarctic Journal, where a group of initially optimistic team of scientists attempt to be the first Koreans to reach the South Pole. There, writer/director Yim Pil-Sung similarly tries to offer both mundane and supernatural reasons for the group’s ultimate descent into madness and murder, so much so that he almost makes two different films running concurrently, and the whole doesn’t quite come together. Marquez is clearly the more adept at weaving the seemingly real with the seemingly unreal – perhaps because his main commentary is upon the prolonged effects of war on the psyche, especially when cornered. And yet in many ways, I find Antarctic Journal the more enjoyable film for all its faults.

Perhaps The Squad is too claustrophobic. Its protagonists, seemingly doomed to begin with, make the transition from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ rather than Antarctic Journal’s ‘good’ to ‘bad’. We are thrown into the tension almost immediately, and when characters aren’t descending into madness, they are sniping at each other or making intense declarations of family loyalty. The true protagonists of the story are helpless from the outset, dominated by their unstable, aggressive and wholly unpleasant colleagues. Add to this an ongoing barrage of tight close-ups, washed-out colour and a very confined set, and there really isn’t room to breathe in The Squad. On paper, the almost Blair Witch-like approach should work well, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Excellent and atmospheric location choices help overcome some of the film’s lack of thematic coherence.

And perhaps the imbalance of the supernatural and the more down-to-earth brutality of the situation is another factor. If the film is allegory for the horrors of war through the use of supernatural elements – as John Carpenter’s The Thing is allegory for Antarctica-as-blue-collar-dystopia via sci-fi elements – then it doesn’t go far enough to work as allegory. Or to put it another way, while I applaud Marquez’s carefully-judged use of the supernatural (if, again, that’s what it is – and it’s up to the viewer to decide this) for the purposes of intelligently-made horror, there’s too little of it to work as a symbol of real-world psychological fear. Equally, since The Squad is therefore mostly a real-world study of human madness, that weighty discourse is derailed somewhat by occasionally saying ‘Hey, maybe these guys are being manipulated by forces beyond their understanding.’ This is where Antarctic Journal also ultimately fails: film-makers not deciding clearly enough as to what their story is ultimately about.

Which is a shame, as there are certainly a lot of interesting ideas in The Squad and a location setting that was absolutely made for horror. Then again, if true horror is human behaviour, then those Colombian mountains have likely already told that story many times over the years. While the film lacks clarity in some areas, not even the cold blanket of the fog can enshroud the utter senselessness of a never-ending conflict that exists now only to consume man until nothing but his fear-stained face, frozen in death, remains. If the film-maker somehow lost his way slightly in getting his story across, there is a certain irony in the fact that his characters – and the real-world analogues upon which they are based – are so deep within their society’s conflict that they are fated only to disappear without trace, like the lost people of whom they came in search.

*****

Next Time

We travel to the remote island archipelago of Comoros and discover how the locals cope with the country’s massive brain-drain in its very first film, The Ylang Ylang Residence. Plus: how to turn a real-life tragedy into a cheap melodrama. Air disasters and asinine production choices in the Ethiopian farce Comoros – next time on World On Film.

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Song Of White

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

Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection

(1980) Co-written & Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Next Time

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


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.


Fool Steps In Paradise

'Come, Ponsonby, we've a mountain to shovel.'

You may be familiar with the genealogy tv program, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the show’s researchers help celebrities trace their lineage and taking them to ancestral home towns and/or other relevant sites of interest. I recently caught the Jason Donovan episode, and though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting. The product of a British father and an Australian mother, he seems well-versed in his British heritage, but his estranged mother’s family was an almost blank canvas. Along the way, he would discover that his maternal great-grandmother was a star of the music hall in Melbourne, while an even more illustrious ancestor and wealthy landowner in Sydney’s Hawkesbury district during the early days of White Australian settlement was once tasked with constructing the first road through the Blue Mountains at the behest of then-governor Lachlan Macquarie. Even today, road building in these enormous jagged, natural rocky leviathans is no easy task. 200 years ago, it would have been sheer lunacy, but that’s precisely what William Cox, 30 convict labourers and 8 guards set out to do in 1814, with little more than shovels and unrealistic dreams. Yet there was method in the madness: the young settlement was suffering from a major drought and recent explorations to the other side of the range had revealed the arable land the colonists desperately needed to produce sufficient crops. 27 weeks later, the work was completed and Sydney’s future seemed assured.

“Though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting.”

However, Australia’s convict history was far from rose-tinted and the means by which the fledgling colony would be made to survive of far greater ruthlessness than is typically taught in schools. The British government of the late 18th and early 19th Century, unable to entice enough willing settlers from the United Kingdom to Australian shores, resorted to enforcement. Suddenly, petty crimes that might have resulted in a small fine or even a simple caution were rewarded with a life sentence. The poverty-stricken were the obvious scapegoats, who quickly found that stealing loaves of bread suddenly meant geographic relocation and a decade of hard labour on the other side of the globe. The official line at the time was that this was simply a means of easing overcrowded prisons – a thinly-veiled deception that more than anything shows the lack of recourse victims had with the judicial system of the time: so desperate was the government to establish a colony there (other imperial powers of the time had also set their sights on the island continent) that they were perfectly content for the law to fall silent.

The infamous Port Arthur convict prison from Australia's darker days.

So it was that thousands of Britons were forcibly relocated to Australia and punished for having done so in labour camps. The more ‘serious’ criminals were shipped off to Tasmania, a rugged, isolated and inhospitable wilderness that even today has only been partially tamed. The infamous convict prison at Port Arthur, along the coast from Hobart, the capital, saw so much brutality and anguish that it is today considered one of the most haunted places in the country. It was here that Donovan discovered traces of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Lyons, who, two centuries earlier, had spent 10 years shackled in the service of his new colonial masters. Lyons, however, was a fortunate case. Not only did he survive his ordeal, but through a network of friends, was reunited with his wife and family and relocated to the Australian mainland a free man. For a great many others, Port Arthur was their descent into oblivion.

And yet even Port Arthur was not the remotest prison Tasmania had to offer. Repeat offenders found themselves sent to an even remoter facility on Sarah Island in the long and winding waters of Macquarie Harbour, in the west of Tasmania. Such was the fate of one Alexander Pearce, the subject of this week’s film:

Van Diemen’s Land

(2009) Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide

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

“The end of the world. A fine prison.”

Conditions on Sarah Island were so extreme that in 1822, the Irish-born malcontent Pearce and seven others, tasked with felling the surrounding forests to provide shipbuilders with high-quality wood, attempted to escape their exile. When plans to steal a moored whaling vessel fell through, the escapees, without much aforethought, plunged into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness intending to travel east to Hobart, some 225km away. Although Robert Greenhill, one of the convicts, could draw upon his many years as a sailor to provide navigational expertise, none present knew how to survive in bushland so inhospitable even the indigenous Australians largely avoided it, and when food supplies ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Few of the ill-fated expedition would survive to tell the tale. In Van Diemen’s Land, we join the convicts on the day of their escape attempt and follow the grizzly events that ensue.

The fateful eight, tasked with felling trees for the colonial shipbuilders.

When an escape attempt goes wrong, the fugitives are forced to retreat inland - where their problems really begin.

At first, spirits are high.

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The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia, and it was only through this film that I myself became familiar with this dark chapter of White Australia. Van Diemen’s Land inspired me to fire up my browser and learn more, with the realisation that in movie terms, I was watching the middle part of a trilogy. Part 1 would have dealt with Pearce’s repeated offences condemning him to slave labour on Sarah Island. There, he would continue to prove unruly for the authorities, practicing his talent for theft and disruption, ultimately finding himself on work detail felling trees in Macquarie Harbour and seeing an opportunity for escape. Part 3 would have dealt with the consequences of his actions, including one final adventure, which the last sequence of Van Diemen’s Land briefly covers. Director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, however, appears to be fixated upon the middle part of the story, and while the moment when Pearce acquired a taste for human flesh strikes an undeniable discord with all but perhaps the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea, I can’t help feeling that it’s a little like telling the tale of Ned Kelly focusing only on the killings at Stringybark Creek. Only a few captions either side of the film quickly fill in the blanks, hinting that there is more to the story. Nonetheless, ‘Part 2’ is well-crafted for what it is and sheds a memorable, yet gloomy light on this hitherto forgotten saga.

“The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia”

auf der Heide wisely chooses a cast of unknowns to inhabit the fateful eight, which ensures the audience will accept their alter egos at face value. Oscar Redding, perhaps the best-known, creates an Alexander Pearce just possibly capable of redemption, up until the moment he agrees to sacrifice a member of the party for food, while Arthur Angel portrays a Robert Greenhill you wouldn’t want to be within twenty miles of when it came time to sleep. The rest of the cast fill out the remainder of the ill-fated group with similarly creditable performances, with the Scottish characters delivering their lines in Gallic alongside the 18th Century English dialect to underscore Australia’s role as a dumping ground for convicts all across the British Isles. The string-powered score, often more sound than symphony, meshes well with the bleak, washed-out picture to strongly evoke the dark mood of the piece. There are no archetypal heroes, only desperate human animals hastening the decay of civilisation’s thin veneer. Filmed on location in south-central Tasmania, the authentic natural backdrop does much on its own to sell the concept that the escapees are not only at the end of the earth as they themselves suggest, but that the land is cold and unforgiving – just as much today as it was in 1822. If I have issues with the film, therefore, it’s the storyline.

The world beyond the prison is no picnic either.

All in the eyes: Arthur Angel as the ever- 'practical' Robert Greenhill.

Starvation crosses the line.

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By focusing purely upon the escape attempt and the descent into cannibalism, the tale feels reduced somewhat into a B-grade exploitation horror. It doesn’t provide suitable build-up to properly explore the choices certain characters make throughout, though the documentation for this does exist. In consequence, I felt the leap to ‘the other meat’ was a little rushed, reminding me of an early South Park episode where cannibalism is the first rather than last resort. In addition, the full story would be more satisfying than some of the edited highlights ‘cannibalised’ for the purposes of a thriller. There is far more to the Alexander Drake story than we are witness to in Van Diemen’s Land. Undeniably, the issue of runtime comes into play here, however as I suggested earlier, there is enough scope for more than one feature. However, auf der Heide is the first to explore it cinematically, and perhaps this will spark interest in genuine Australian Gothic from here on. It certainly captures the tone and feel of that bleak world, taking strides towards tapping into a rarely explored period of Australian history that perhaps may now be brought to light free of the nationalist veil. Certainly any proud Australian and film fan should see Van Diemen’s Land for this purpose, and genre fans everywhere will appreciate what it does achieve. Let’s hope it’s a taster of things to come.

Further Reading

Oscar Redding as Alexander Pearce in 'Van Diemen's Land'.

Paul Collins of Australian newspaper The Age provided a good overview of Alexander Pearce’s life in A Journey Through Hell’s Gate.

If you’re going to see the film, I recommend reading only up to the point of the gang’s escape from Macquarie Harbour and saving the rest for later.

You can also visit Sarah Island, site of the convict facility where Pearce and his contemporaries were imprisoned by popping these coordinates into Google Earth: 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E. You’ll even be able to see the facility itself, courtesy of numerous user-contributed photos. Explore around the area for photos of Macquarie Harbour itself and some shots of the dense inland wilderness the escapees would have traversed.

Do You Wanna

A cursory search for films made in Aruba might lead one to think they are spoiled for choice. On further examination, however, this abundance proves to be chimerical, with almost every mirage listed bearing the unhelpful name ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme’. Yes, Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years. Who among us could forget the heart-warming wondrousness of Knock Out, the incredible and touching insight of Mercenary, or the mind-bending philosophical depth of Out For A Kill?

“Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years.”

Quite. Thus I was left with slim pickings for genuine Aruban cinema and indeed only one film came staggering anywhere near the criteria of a proper local effort – and I’m still not sure it actually is – in the form of Marry Me. The premise of this – as it would turn out – nauseating short has to do with Jim, a man who might possibly be Fate’s punching bag, attempting to propose to his girlfriend on a beach somewhere. Oh yes – with ‘hilarious’ consequences. Well, at least it was shot in Aruba – as indeed I wanted to be by the end credits. You can watch this 5-minute fluff for free directly on IMDB here.

Next Time

Revenge makes perfect sense when you’re angry. The anguish gives you purpose. The pain gives you clarity. You’ll take the one who gave you that pain into that black abyss inside you – the void that threatens to swallow you up, the space where peace once reigned. A complete stranger just killed the person you love. They can’t be allowed to live.

But what if you then met the object of your revenge? What if you came to know them – their pain, their fears? Would you still have that clarity? Would you still be ready to kill? Discover the thought-provoking Austrian film, Revanche. I bet you can translate that without my help. See a subtitled trailer here:


Second Coming

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain

(1999) Director: Josep Guirao

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

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

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

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

An ancient battle re-enacted.

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

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

Where I Live (Compensation for the short review above)

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’ll never last.

Coming Up Next

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