Thursday, 29 April 2010


René and Suzanne are on their honeymoon in a château the Cévennes, a romantic mountainous setting in the Massif Central. During their holiday, the couple visits the cinema to watch a comedy called Onésime The Vagabond, in which René spots a woman he believes to be Suzanne linking arms with another man. Rather than confront Suzanne, René procures a copy of the reel to examine later on, which serves to fuel his paranoia. Once back at the château, René obsessively rifles through his new wife’s possessions, but finds nothing. When Suzanne mysteriously leaves the château, René finds a loving letter addressed to her from a man named Roger, which confirms his suspicions, and he hatches a dastardly scheme which is to change the couple’s lives forever.

Tragic Error, though presumably not intended to be avant-garde at the time, sets the foundations for metacinema in its evocation of the third reality between the viewer and the film. René’s frantic perusal of the film reel reminds the viewer of cinema’s subliminal power – just a few frames of the film-within-a-film sets him into a panic which leads to a dramatic conclusion. To a modern audience, the film’s twist does not come as much of a surprise, but director Louis Feuillade nonetheless does a good job of working up suspense. René as a character is unpredictable and untrustworthy – that we see the film from his perspective means we uncover the mystery gradually without once considering Suzanne’s story. An intriguing short from the early master.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


On the night of a New Wave fashion show, a small UFO lands in an apartment belonging to Margaret, a drug-addled supermodel, and her dealer girlfriend Adrian. Its occupant, a small, shapeshifting alien, hides in the apartment unbeknownst to the couple, seeking a very unusual source of nourishment. Meanwhile, Margaret is grappling with her cocaine addict rival Jimmy, with whom she has arranged a rooftop photo shoot. At the shoot, Margaret finds herself unwillingly seduced by former drama teacher Owen, who collapses after sex with a sharp crystal protruding from his head. Perturbed by the thought that it was her fault, Margaret falls into a downward spiral, pushing Adrian away for her and unwittingly attracting unwanted attention, but

Made for just $500,000 by Russian ex-pat Slava Tsukerman, Liquid Sky shares similar production values with other low-budget sci-fi or horror films, including a stilted screenplay and lazy acting. Anna Carlisle, in the roles of both Margaret and Jimmy, is more likely to be remembered for being a poster girl for androgyny than a great actress, as her performance is led almost entirely by contrived stiffness. But what the film loses in technicalities, it gains in managing to crystallise the zeitgeist of the eighties, in both its superficial aspects and its deeper sociological implications. In this way, Liquid Sky is ripe for rediscovery – its independent spirit and unique approach to sexuality harmonises well with modern attitudes to cinema, and the hilariously mechanistic, synth-dominated soundtrack is a clear influence on the electroclash genre.

Hear a sample of the soundtrack here

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Recently released from prison for public performances, musicians Negar and Ashkan prepare to beg, steal or borrow to play a gig in London they have been offered. The pair’s biggest obstacle is the stringent law about leaving the country, and when the couple realises they don’t have the documents they need, they turn to record producer Hamed, who simultaneously imbues them with confidence as well as dragging them into more trouble. Through integration with the rest of the Iranian underground music scene, running the gamut from indie to rap and making many stops between, Negar and Ashkan find extra band members with whom they decide to perform a benefit gig so that they can get passports and head to London. With the risk of being caught by the police literally hanging over their heads, the band is under intense pressure, and it seems like only a miracle can see them to their goal.

Director Bahman Ghobadi has previously found an audience in the West with features about Kurdish people constantly alienated from their environment, and the same themes run through No One Knows About Persian Cats, although the subject matter is vastly different. The protagonists, in real life a duo called Take It Easy Hospital, are endearing but are in no way the main attraction of the film. Ghobadi takes the opportunity to promote another face of Iran, one which refuses to deny outside influence and discovers new modes of creative expression. An effortlessly cool, politically charged piece of work.

Monday, 26 April 2010


Kikue is a geisha who is constantly fraught with worry. Her son Yoshio has fallen in with the wrong crowd at school and is often inclined to bunk off, to the chagrin of his mother. The two have frequent arguments in which both parties question the love of the other. Additionally, a client who had once been obsessed with her appears to be losing interest as he discovers the younger geishas in the house. Kikue’s younger friend and colleague, a more popular geisha named Terugiku, notices the family spat and intervenes by inviting Toshio to join her on a trip to visit her family. Initially grateful for the break, Toshio soon realises Terugiku’s ulterior motive, as her father proves to be an unpleasant man wholly undeserving of his social stature. Toshio determines to learn from the visit, but his attempts to reform himself aren’t without difficulty.

Apart From You feels like any other Mikio Naruse film, asides from the fact that the dramatic camerawork appears to be compensating for the lack of sound. In a peculiar way, the film is stronger for its silence, as we are able to observe the characters’ frustrations purely in their expressions and actions. With just three key characters, Naruse is able to spend time fleshing them out, with Toshio a particularly strong identity in the film. A simple story with a cherishable message at its core, Apart From You is a pleasant drama which stands up to the early silent films of Yasujiro Ozu.

Sunday, 25 April 2010


Continuing on from Totem: The Return Of The G’psgolox Pole, made four years earlier, Totem: Return And Renewal details the return of an important mortuary totem pole to its rightful home amongst the Haisla people of Canada. The pole had been sold by an unnamed individual to Sweden, where it formed the centrepiece of a museum of ethnographic curiosities. The film opens with an impassioned prayer celebrating its homecoming, and tears are shed at every stage of the pole’s journey from Sweden to the Haisla village of Kitimaat. The narrator recaps the history carved into the pole as it is repatriated to rapturous clamour. The pole is kept horizontally in the Kitimaat mall, in wait for the construction of a Haisla cultural centre where it will remain entombed.

The film’s title suggests that the pole’s importance goes beyond mere symbolism, as the totem refreshes the identity of its people and serves as a teaching tool for the next generation, although the children in the film appear mostly bemused by its presence. Gil Cardinal, the director responsible for both documentaries, understands the role of this second film, keeping it short at just over twenty minutes to act as a triumphant epilogue to the G’psgolox story. In this way Return And Renewal scarcely stands on its own as a film, although it does offer new insight on the future of the pole, as well as introducing the new icon of the pole’s circular yoke which is hung up in the local school.

Saturday, 24 April 2010


Looking back on the ‘golden era’ of arcade games, Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade champions the video gamers of yesteryear, who saved up their quarters to play endless sessions on Pacman and Donkey Kong machines. Relying on the ‘talking head’ approach to documentary filmmaking, director Lincoln Ruchti allows his subjects to narrate their own histories. Flamboyant characters, such as smug ‘gamer of the century’ Billy Mitchell and the self-proclaimed Mr. Awesome, recall how they achieved their record-breaking scores, while retrospectively taking the wind out of their competitors’ sails.

Chasing Ghosts shares a lot in common with another documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, as they both more or less cover the same subject and interviewees. However, while the latter contrives a lot of drama for the sake of entertainment, it definitely comes off as the better film of the two. The unacknowledged irony in Chasing Ghosts is that it lionises its subjects in a manner afforded to rock stars by allowing them to wallow in conceit, but doesn’t place any particular value on their achievements. Furthermore, its subjects walk the line between nobility and humiliation as they opine on the importance of gaming. Mr. Awesome’s assertion that his record on Missile Command is worth the most because it is the manliest game only serves to prove his enduring insecurity which arcade games have evidently perpetuated. Ruchti has clearly done his research, and the interviewees provide ample insight, but Chasing Ghosts struggles to achieve more than unnecessary aggrandisement.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


In his 1991 found-footage project Lyrical Nitrate, filmmaker Peter Delpeut strings together an abstract ode to cinema. The footage, culled from various turn-of-the-century films from the collection of distributor Jean Desmets, had originally been printed on coloured nitrate film stock which has left the images in some way deteriorated. Delpeut arranges his film clips into categories which evoke the experiences of watching film. For example, the first segment, ‘Looking’, sees actors in various films addressing the camera with their gaze, accompanied by a frenzied attack of intertitles in different languages. The film doesn’t follow a strict narrative, although a basic sense of mortality is echoed in its structure.

Though some might say that the similarities between Delpeut’s process and the one Bill Morrison used for his 2002 film Decasia are so close as to suggest plagiarism by the latter, such a question ignores the nature of the found-footage genre. As Jean-Luc Godard once noted, “it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to”. This however does not excuse the two films from comparison. Whereas Decasia creates controlled chaos through its presentation of odds and ends of unknown films, most of them damaged beyond recognition by natural causes, Lyrical Nitrate honours cinema through identifying patterns. Montages of similar clips from different films suggests an element of collective perfectionism, as if filmmakers were constantly collaborating to document life as best as possible. The film’s everchanging colour values have a hypnotic effect, rendering the film a gentle, ghostly experience.

Monday, 19 April 2010


In an unknown sub-Saharan town at an undisclosed period in the past, princess Dior is kidnapped by the ceddo, or ‘outsiders’, in an act of rebellion. The abduction is a protest against the king’s conversion to Islam, which they see as a threat to tradition. Rather than immediate upheaval, the king seeks consultation with the spokesperson for the ceddo, a middle-aged man named Diogomay. Diogomay’s approach to the debate is led heavily by traditional procedure – he begins by placing in the ground the Samp, a ceremonial staff, as a marker of resistance. The ceddo argue that the king is only in his position by dint of the traditional hierarchy. The king counters that times have changed, and promises that life will be lived by Islamic law. The two factions refuse to listen to each other’s pleas, but the suggestion of physical combat seems to resonate with both parties. Disco legend Manu Dibango provides the score.

Director Ousmane Sembène, one of the masters of African cinema, insisted that his film should not be seen as anti-Islamic propaganda, but while it is made clear that the antagonists are under the sway of Islamic law, and Sembène certainly offers sufficient argument against it, the target seems to be religion in general. There are frequent reminders of the most recent conversion to Catholicism, and the locals are clearly not better off for the European influence. In this way, Sembène’s challenging film portrays the ceddo as noble people protecting their pride, regardless of the enemy.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


An unnamed narrator, a videographer whose first-hand gaze we adopt throughout much of the film, recalls his love for Meimei, a temperamental model who performs as a mermaid in a bar. He then relays another story about a petty criminal named Mardar who has fallen for Moudan, the daughter of a businessman who has paid him to keep her away while he entertains his mistress. But despite the narrator’s assertions that the couple’s love is pure, Mardar is revealed to be involved in a ransom scam for which Moudan is to be the hostage. Upset by her puny value in the deal, Moudan jumps into the Suzhou River, vowing to return as a mermaid. A few years later, the videographer is hired by Mardar to tell his story, and the two men’s lives and loves appear to intertwine.

Though at its heart a simple romantic thriller, Suzhou River is on many counts an important film. Uncomfortably categorised as a bastion of the Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema, it better merits being spoken in international terms, a successor to the works of Wong Kar-Wai and Alfred Hitchcock. Acclaimed actress Zhou Xun does a supreme job playing both Meimei and Moudan, fulfilling each character’s subtleties as well as their similarities. The film’s first-person perspective never once feels like a gimmick – by conflating the fourth wall with the viewpoint of a significant character, director Lou Ye keeps the audience very close to the film’s surface, always at risk of plunging to its depths.

Saturday, 17 April 2010


Warded off by cautions about a spread of icebergs in the Atlantic, trader Jacques Trévoux postpones his upcoming trip to the States. The ship he is to travel on is of course the ill-fated Titanic, described in the film as a ‘masterpiece of modern naval engineering’. His wife later consults a palmreader who predicts that a tragedy will befall someone close to her. Keeping this knowledge to herself, she kisses Jacques goodbye as he heads out to the ship, left at home with only her son and godfather for company. When news reaches her of the tragedy, she feels guilt not only for neglecting to warn her husband, but also for her son’s rapidly declining health which is attributed to his grief.

Although not the first Titanic film (Étienne Arnaud’s Saved From The Titanic has that honour, being released just a month after the accident), The Obsession presents an interesting version of events, focusing more on the loved ones left behind than the cataclysmic events on board. Mrs. Trévoux’s concern for her husband’s wellbeing is the obsession of the title, beautifully epitomised by a scene where she stares at a light beaming from the Eiffel Tower, which she takes as an omen. The film’s main drawback is its use of a model boat for scenes showing the Titanic at night, an understandable technological constraint. These short sequences keep a distance between the drama conveyed through the telegrams and the real event, but it isn’t distracting enough to dampen the emotions.

Friday, 16 April 2010


Afrodita, a short-haired mute girl, lives with her two sisters in the Macedonian city of Veles. Lost in her own world, Afrodita dances her way through life in a haze of childlike merriment, unhindered by the city’s toxic landscape. What does hold her back however is her perceived inferiority amongst her siblings, specifically her comparative asexuality. While sisters Slavica and Sapho are able to employ their feminine wiles to get the men they desire, Afrodita remains a virgin at the age of twenty-seven. Perhaps this is due in no small part to her naïveté regarding the mechanics of sex – after all, she daydreams about giving birth to countless babies from her mouth. In desperation, she propositions Aco, a man pursuing Sapho, but the experience proves to be a stark difference from her romantic idyll.

Unapologetically quirky, I Am From Titov Veles proposes a believable story against an interesting backdrop, but ultimately it leaves a lot to be desired. The sisters are rather half-baked as characters (besides fulfilling the ‘virgin, mother, whore’ dynamic of feminist film theory), and Afrodita in particular is a grating presence. Her unexplained muteness seems like little more than a whim of the director, whose painterly sensibilities get cloying very quickly. Additionally, the audience is presented with mixed messages about female sexuality and it’s hard to understand what one should take away from it. The film does have its virtues, however – the cinematography is gently hypnotic, using flourishes of colour and texture to bring scenes to life.

Thursday, 15 April 2010


Guia is a timpanist who plays as part of the orchestra for the local ballet. The position feels like a part-time job to the young gadabout, who always arrives just in time to play his piece before rushing back out for his next social affair. He pursues a string of girls, he helps his photographer friend, he entertains the neighbourhood kids with a music box – in every way, Guia appears to live his life sans souci. His mother by contrast is beset by worry, worsened when she takes in a Russian couple as lodgers. The film follows a day in the life of Guia, condensing his hectic schedule into fitful moments of joy until a surprising obstacle stops him in his tracks.

Director Otar Iosseliani frequently saw his films censored upon release by authorities in the USSR for social criticism. Once Upon A Time There Was A Singing Blackbird is no exception, and its restless editing and focus on the individual places it stylistically closer to French cinema. While his energy is infectious, Guia is a character to be sympathised with rather than looked up to. Characters walk in and out of his life with little impression, and he feels as if he never has the time to achieve what he really wants, namely to tailor a suit and compose a piece of music trapped in his head. Comedy and tragedy in equal parts, Once Upon A Time There Was A Singing Blackbird is an underseen masterwork with universal charm.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


After an unforgiving attack by the Nazis kills her parents and pet dog, five-year-old Paulette is left without a family or a home. A local peasant family kindly takes her in, their ten-year-old son Michel becoming both brother and friend to her. The two bury Paulette’s beloved dog in a discreet spot in the woods, and soon become fascinated by dead animals. As their macabre interest grows, they collect corpses of animals to bury in a rudimentary cemetery, but when Michel steals crosses from the village’s graveyard, including that of his own deceased brother, the local adults decide to put a stop to these ‘forbidden games’. Worse still is the overhanging threat of the police, keen to take custody of the newly orphaned Paulette.

Despite its themes, Forbidden Games is careful not to overwhelm with morbidity – director René Clément remembers to celebrate life as an element of meditation on death. The protagonists, skilfully portrayed by young actors Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujoly, behave as any bereaving child would. In a particularly provocative sequence towards the end, Michel discards all of the graveyard’s crosses, his anger justified and pure. The children’s explorations of their decaying environment are extraordinarily well shot – the camera becomes another child, free of judgment or authority. Forbidden Games is a charming, honest exploration of how the machinations of death affect children not readily equipped with the emotions to handle it, and still holds its own alongside similar features such as Ponette and The Spirit of the Beehive.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Taking inspiration from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, legendary director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s debut film follows the exploits of a street urchin with the sobriquet Badou Boy. Constantly in trouble with the authorities, he spends a lot of his time on the run from them, ducking and diving through the narrow streets of the Dakar shanty towns as they struggle to keep up. Though his offences are mostly petty, it is his devil-may-care attitude which the cops appear to take umbrage with, and when the portlier of the two finally catches up with his playful archenemy, he relishes the moment, his hand clenched on the back of the boy’s trousers like a hawk’s talons on its prey. This, of course, is not the end of the mischief, as Badou Boy makes an effortless escape during a Marx Brothers-style imbroglio.

With few words, Mambéty creates a powerful character in Badou Boy, a quirky, rakish anti-hero whose problems are readily discernible, and his assertion that the film is somewhat autobiographical comes as no surprise. Shots last minutes without the protagonist uttering a single word, his mannerisms becoming the dialogue, while a soulful guitar-led soundtrack fills the silences with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Upon reflection, this could almost be an early blaxploitation movie, sharing elements of its style but not its hubris. Fans of this short feature should make sure to see Mambéty’s next film Touki Bouki, an ingenious, outlandish West African pastiche of Bonnie and Clyde and the French New Wave.

Friday, 9 April 2010


Vera Preobrajenska is a beautiful countess from an unnamed Slavic land. Taking on the pseudonym Thaïs, the name of an ancient Egyptian courtesan, she makes a game of seducing married men, never once considering their emotions or ever her own. Thaïs is frequently seen surrounded by her admirers, but becomes so dependent on their attention that she is saddened greatly by their departure. Encouraged by positive responses from her various suitors, she takes it upon herself to pursue her best friend’s husband, but the newfound feeling of guilt, added to the suffocating extravagances of her ornate house, prove too much for Thaïs to handle.

Thaïs is the only surviving film from the Italian Futurist movement, and as such has a special importance in the history of cinema. In truth, the film’s virtues lie mostly in its set design rather than the drama or acting, but it is definitely to painter and designer Enrico Prampolini’s credit. Thaïs’ elaborately designed house, filled with secret doors and corridors of indeterminable perspective, is a nightmarish labyrinth of bold geometric shapes, predicting and provoking her eventual downfall. At parts of the film, steam is seen to emerge from holes in the wall. Adding to the phantasmagoria is the yellow tint of the print, which lends the images an almost electric vibrancy. Though its story is instantly forgettable, Thaïs should nonetheless be seen alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and A Crazy Page, as a reminder that visual ingenuity is as old as the cinematograph itself.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Flying the flag for an exciting new trend in Romanian cinema, Police, Adjective takes its cue from the likes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and California Dreamin’, dealing with another aspect of Romanian society with the darkest of humour. Cristi is a young policeman who has been dispatched to deal with a schoolboy who is dealing hash to classmates. Once in pursuit of the boy, Cristi’s undercover mechanisms give way to sympathy, and as he learns about the boy’s zest for life and relative naïveté to the whole situation, he quickly loses grip on his conviction as a law enforcer. The more he is given instruction and advice from senior officers, the more Cristi begins to feel in touch with his inner child, and when the issue of the boy’s arrest arises, he finds the responsibility something of a personal struggle.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu employs long, voyeuristic takes suggestive of stagnation, and to the passive viewer, it would appear that the film never hits a crescendo. Upon closer inspection, Porumboiu’s sophomore feature reveals itself to be a shrewd twist on the comedy of errors. The humour flows effortlessly from Cristi’s dispassionate exchanges with his employers and girlfriend, painting him as a man exhausted by everyone else’s proactivity. Of particular note is the naturalistic acting – much kudos should go to Dragos Bucur in the lead role, as well as Vlad Ivanov, the soulless abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days who is almost unrecognisable as Cristi’s stubborn superior.