Saturday, 5 December 2009

CINE-CITY 2009 (Part One: New Features)

Coming Soon! Features on the documentaries and Wojciech Has retrospective from Brighton's Cine-City Festival.



THE ROAD
This is quite definitely not another entry in the burgeoning genre of theme-park apocalypse porn, whose excessive budgets and rampaging levels of tedium must surely be hastening the destruction they ostensibly warn us about. In fact not since Children Of Men has a dystopian future been so convincingly realised on screen. Present at the screening, director John Hillcoat described it as “a love story between a man and his son, with an apocalypse in there too.” Indeed you could almost see the movie as an extreme form of one of those lovers-versus-society films, like Betty Blue. Yet while others do intervene they have little to fear from society – no such thing is left.

Perhaps what’s smart about the film is its ability to permanently skirt horror movie territory without ever tipping into it. Which is of course what makes it so genuinely horrific, it’s appalling credibility. Hillcoat also smartly used real locations, depriving the viewer of that glossy sheen that accompanies CGI and tips the wink to the viewer that all is actually allright. It becomes quite compelling to watch these two tiny figures perpetually lost against such a vast landscape of ruin. What few objects they have (bin bags, a shopping trolley) take on an almost fetishistic importance.

True to Hillcoat’s description, the apocalypse is very much taken as read. However it is still something literal. This film isn’t akin to Godard’s Weekend or Haneke’s Time of the Wolf where the ambiguity of the apocalypse turns it into something metaphysical. (With the combination of forever occluded skies and the father’s continual coughing-up I assumed that Cormac McCarthy’s source novel had specified a nuclear winter, which Hillcoat had assumed rather than described so as not to foreground. But according to Wikipedia the book is similarly ambiguous.)

Unfortunately, like those crumbling bridges, the film has a fracture line running right through it. Inevitably, as it follows its foraging leads, it falls into something of an episodic structure. But this structure requires a strong ending, something to tie everything together into some sort of perspective. Unfortunately the ending we are given is quite banal, and strangely out of place. If apocalypse porn is a theme-park ride, this becomes an instillation piece – giving us a taster of how such a bleak non-future would pan out, but sadly nothing more.



PONYO

Some of the imagery in Miyazaki’s new animation is rich enough to turn Pixar green around the gills! (The opening scene itself is little short of stupendous.) And yet you can’t help but feel that something of the taint of Disney lies around things, as if his western distribution deal with them was enough to cause some degree of contamination. (I later read that he had been inspired by their Little Mermaid.) This feeling was probably exacerbated on my part by watching the dubbed version, while I normally go for the subtitled.

Now an old man who has come back from retirement more than once, it’s even possible that Miyazaki’s prodigious talents are now in decline. This is not the equal of Howl’s Moving Castle, itself no match for Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Yet even a below-par Miyazaki turns out to be well worth turning out for. Still present is his archetypical insistence that the aim must be balance not victory. (Even if the resolution here is rushed and neat.) The film is filled with images of things frothing over, even a can of drink from a fridge. Yet though the swelling sea unsurprisingly represents the unconscious, it neither stands for a twee belief in fairies nor a vengeful id, but is something strange and otherly. Much of what happens isn’t simply unexplained but feels convincingly inexplicable.



TREELESS MOUNTAIN

Those who like to cling to their cultural stereotypes may be surprised to find a Korean film so far removed from vampires, extreme sex acts or other manifestations of ‘extreme cinema’. However, the programme’s comparison to Iranian films such as The Apple surely misses the point. While Iranian films always have a beguiling quality, So Yong Kim’s film is much closer to social realism. It’s success lies in conveying the way children perceive the world without degenerating into kitsch. The way the young girls take what the adults say so literally is often simultaneously charming and heart-rending. It’s also notable what a women-centered world the girls live in, male characters are at best marginal and those that do have a strong effect on the plot tend to be shown the least. (In one case, not at all.)

I wondered if it might be perceived differently in the West, whose cinema so often indulges in a saccharine feelgood “belief” in childhood. Though we see the girls get poorly treated, it’s theme is clearly their reaching a kind of rapprochement with adulthood, including the importance of chores! Thematically it might be similar to the otherwise worlds-apart Spirited Away.

I have no idea about the title! Is there a Korean saying about the treeless mountain being hardest to climb?

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

It’s difficult to talk about this new Jim Jarmusch film without going into the ending, and seems a little pointless to give plot spoilers on films before they go on general release. So I shall be holding fire on it until then...

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