London Film Festival Diary (vol. 1)

When the lineup for the BFI London Film Festival was announced a while back – replete with an array of Australian films that I’ve highlighted over at The Far Paradise – I was left despairing that a lack of funds (and, lets face it, some rather extravagant ticket prices) meant that I wouldn’t be able to see much (if any) at this year’s festival. Thankfully, I managed to swing a student delegate pass and rustle up some spare razoos, allowing me to catch all the Aussie features (which I’ll skip here in anticipation of a forthcoming festival report for The Far Paradise) and a whole heap besides. Here’s the first of two entries in something approximating a festival diary, essentially just a round-up of what I caught (and ruminations on what I missed), as I endeavoured to squeeze in as many screenings as possible in between parenting, PhDing and, you know, having a life.

DAY ONE: HARD DAYS, VIOLENT NIGHTS

Poster for A Hard Day (Kim Seong-Hun, 2014)

A Hard Day (Kim Seong-Hun, 2014)

For me, this year’s annual LFF globetrot kicked off in Korea with writer-director Kim Seong-Hun’s writhing, pulsating neo-noir, A Hard Day (Kkeut-kka-ji-gan-da, 2014), in which a wayward detective’s day goes from bad (his mother’s funeral) to worse (being investigated by internal affairs on the day of his mother’s funeral), to down right ludicrous (accidentally killing a pedestrian whilst driving from his mother’s funeral to his office to deal with internal affairs). That set-up rather tells you all you need to know about this film, which sees Kim acrobatically defy genre conventions to offer a quasi-gangster, bent-cop/bad-cop thrill-ride, that consistently remains just a hair’s breadth away from pitch-black Coen-esque laughs.

If action cinema is defined by its ability to offer a spectacular visual display, films of this ilk certainly tick all the boxes. Indeed, whilst most contemporary Hollywood action films might struggle to have one or two truly memorable fights or set-pieces, A Hard Day is absolutely littered with them. Hence, there’s a touch of the Oldboy‘s about this one (although that might just be my relatively low K-cinema viewing rate talking). The plot might have more holes than a leaky shower-head and more twists than a packet of Samyung noodles, but this is also a very solid chunk of Korean action cinema and certainly one to look out for (if it sounds like your kind of thing) when Studio Canal releases it on DVD/VOD in December.

Still from The Goob (Guy Myhill, 2014)

The Goob (Guy Myhill, 2014)

In a film underscored with remarkable cinematography, there is one very short, rather unremarkable shot in Guy Myhill’s accomplished feature debut The Goob (2014) in which the shadow of a wind turbine towers over a barren field. The effect is one of quiet menace, but a menace rendered ultimately benign by the brevity of the shot and the fact that we are never glimpse the turbine itself. It seems an apt stand-in, then, for the film’s menacing antagonist Gene (Sean Harris), who might not be present in every scene, but whose presence is almost always palpable, physically towering over a fractured family, and casting long emotional shadows.

The Goob of the film’s title is Taylor (Liam Springs, in an excellent debut), a bag of teenage bones whose school days give way to what seems like yet another long, hard summer helping his mother in the deserted, land-locked greasy spoon that also serves as the family home. The mother’s current squeeze, the aforementioned Gene, runs a nearby pumpkin farm on which he employs The Goob’s begrudging brother. An injurious lark with Gene’s one true love – a speedway stock car – leaves the brother in hospital, requiring Goob to take his place working at the farm. But when a vivacious new farmhand precedes a new batch of itinerant harvest workers, the already tenuous family ties are stretched to breaking point.

Following a stuttering start in which Myhill and co. seemingly want to have their realist cake and eat their surrealism too, we are jolted out of the filmic world by an odd late-comer of a title sequence. From there, however, the film’s loose narrative settles into a strongly positioned slice of rural neo-gothicism, bolstered by Simon Tindall’s evocative camerawork and held down by a host of good performances lead by the understated Springs and the malevolent Harris. At its core, The Goob emerges as a neo-realist family drama (of sorts) playing out across the veritable badlands of rural Norfolk.

Indeed, whilst the film’s many twilight moments might owe something of a visual debt to Terrence Malick (see above), its vacillation between fractured relationships and formal agitations sees it develop into an a uneasy mix of Harmony Korine’s staggering debut Gummo (1998), and Andrea Arnold’s equally staggering sophomore effort, Fish Tank (2009), with perhaps a smattering of Rolf de Heer’s mercurial Bad Boy Bubby (1996), not least in the joyriding scene in which the brothers repeatedly parrot their patriarch’s lustful utterances. Given that this is Myhill’s feature-length debut, it would be rather unfair to harp on about any of those influences, but the fact remains that Gummo, in particular, seems especially resonant in this semi-rural tale of boredom and strife. Regardless, this is a bold and very striking debut, and it will be fascinating to see where Myhill goes next.

 

DAY TWO: TEXT AND INTERTEXT

Kung Fu Jungle (Chen, 2014)

Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chen, 2014)

Flash forward a few days and I’m back in east Asia – this time Hong Kong – and a peon to that cinematic enclave’s most celebrated genre in the shape of Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Jungle (一個人的武林, 2014). The ever-watchable Donnie Yen plays Xia, a former martial arts instructor serving time for an accidental killing who – upon realising there is a kung fu serial killer on the loose – gains the attention of the authorities the only way he knows how: cracking some skulls! The ensuing ultra-kinetic, highly brutal prison fight sequence very much sets the tone for the rest of the film, which rattles through a series of set pieces as ruthless killer Fung (Wang Baoqiang) picks off the No.1 practitioners of a series of martial arts disciplines, whilst the police – assisted by the newly released Xia – try desperately to get one step ahead.

A heady blend of police procedural, psychological drama and good old fashioned chop-socky, Kung Fu Jungle builds to a breathless, frenetic, awe-inspiring final battle that almost defies description. All the while, the filmmakers pay homage to many past and present stars of HK action cinema, who appear either in direct cameos or in their iconic roles on the many small screens that populate the film, before the tribute culminates in a fairly earnest closing credit roll call. It may well have one of the worst titles of this year’s festival, but Kung Fu Jungle is truly great fun. And between this and A Hard Day, it did leave me wondering why I don’t devote more of my viewing life to east Asian action cinema.

I can only guess that the answer lies somewhere between the head and heart, between mind and matter, between the cerebral and the corporal. And the very same questions continued to occupy my mind in the lead-up to the next session as I dithered between seeing what was (by all accounts) a very excellent debut feature about a vampiric teen girl from Iran, or lump for new three-dimensional tricks from that old dog of art cinema, Jean-Luc Godard. Head eventually trumped heart, and I took my glasses (and my seat) for Godard’s 3D spectaculaire Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage, 2014).

Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

It was, admittedly, a sometimes baffling experience. I am not, it seems barely worth stating, a widely-read European intellectual of advancing years. Sure, I cottoned on to snippets of quotations here and there, and undoubtedly read references in places where none should be found, but this was by no means an experience without benefit. For me, a mere cinephile striving for meaning amidst dense layers of text and image, the ghosts of Godard were everywhere. Just as he had broken the conventions of classical cinema with À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) a half century ago, here he was breaking all the conservative conventions of 3D filmmaking, exploring the medium in ways that commercial filmmakers would never dare (or, at the very least, that their paymasters would never allow).

Godard’s 3D is a world of woozy handheld cameras, of plunging the viewer into impossible depths of perception, of tearing our binocular vision asunder by leaving the left eye planted whilst the right is free to wander (and, in the process, giving us an inkling of Colleen Moore’s imaginary POV in one particularly wonderful scene from Ella Cinders (Alfred E. Green, 1926)). Elsewhere, a glimpsed shadow of a camera crane arm unleash spectres of that opening sequence from Le mépris (Contempt, 1963), direct to camera readings evoke the playful polemics of the underrated La Chinoise (1967), whilst a sideways focus on automobiles and a scene at a petrol station bring back fuzzy memories of Week-end (1967). Like the small screen movies in Kung Fu Jungle that serve as a televisual backdrop, Godard also employs this same sense of intertextuality via the snippets of classic films that haunt the ever-present televisions in the background of almost every interior, each acting as a momento mori for Godard’s colossal Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98).

The labyrinthine density of this cerebral assault is evidenced in Ted Fendt’s heroic list of works cited, and there can certainly be no doubting that Goodbye to Language is a visual, aural and intellectual dog’s breakfast of the tallest Godardian order. Once the film has run its course, then, the question is whether you choose to embrace or reject such a display of brilliant pomposity. It seems fairly likely, particularly this late in Godard’s career, that people will go into his films with their minds more or less made up. And yet I couldn’t help but be astounded by some of the responses I overheard as I left the cinema. The one that stuck – amidst the shrugged shoulders and nervous and/or embarrassed laughter – was the lone voice that uttered:

‘He must be taking the piss, surely?’

I’m not entirely certain why I should have been caught off guard by such an unnuanced reaction amongst an audience of bloggers and critics, but I found myself silently questioning whether the person realised that ‘taking the piss’ can actually be an integral part of some art, and wondering whether he felt that ‘making art’ and ‘taking the piss’ should be a mutually exclusive endeavour. Most of all, I just found myself asking why we consistently feel obliged to transfer blame for our reactions onto the filmmaker. What kind of intellectual arrogance prevents us from simply saying ‘I didn’t like that’, ‘it wasn’t for me’, or – god forbid – ‘I didn’t understand it’?

With my body still reeling from Kung Fu Jungle, and my brain still trying to process Goodbye to Language, I decided to devote the third session to another work that wore its intertextuality proudly on its shirtsleeve. Sadly, however, what I saw of Alejo Moguillansky’s would-be caper ‘comedy’ The Gold Bug (El Escarabajo de Oro, 2014) lacked either the brawn of the former or the brains of the latter.

The Gold Bug (Moguillansky, 2014)

The Gold Bug (Alejo Moguillansky, 2014)

 

A co-pro within a co-pro, it aims to poke fun at runaway film productions from the old world taking advantage of the new (in this case, Argentina), but repeatedly misses its target with a barrage of sub-screwball dialogue and a rather dubious overturning of a European feminist hero for a male anti-colonial one. I did find some solace in its links between global film production and colonialism, but it was all too happy to abandon such lines in favour of cheap gags. I normally have a firm rule about not walking out of screenings – ‘if in doubt, sleep it out’ becomes my motto if I’m really struggling – but a combination of a full day of screenings and a stack of pending deadlines urged me to sneak out after half an hour. And yet, whilst I’m deeply conscious that it’s a cardinal sin to review a film when you haven’t actually watched it all the way to the bitter end – I can go to bed now, safe in the knowledge that the rest of The Gold Bug probably lived up to the same low standards as the hopelessly dire opening act.

Volume two of my LFF diary – featuring Foxcatcher, The Lamb and the Ernest Lindgren lecture – will should be up soon.

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