Saturday, 31 July 2010


Energised by her recent engagement, a spirited young woman named Kimiko decides to seek her father’s approval, with the ulterior motive of reuniting her estranged parents. With the support of her good-humoured uncle, Kimiko travels out to her father’s lowly abode in the countryside, only to discover that he has a family with a former geisha called Oyuki. The shocking discovery uproots Kimiko’s scheme, but she continues with it nonetheless, persuading her father to return to the city where he had brought her up during happier times. The illusion continues to dissolve as Kimiko’s poetess mother takes offence at her ex-husband’s presence, and good intentions are lost in the mix as old wounds are reopened.

The initial impression one gets of Kimiko is that she already has everything she needs in her life and has clearly flown from the nest. Rather than leaving the audience wondering the point of her failed attempt to reconnect her parents, director and writer Mikio Naruse constantly keeps us aware of Kimiko’s position in the family. In the presence of her mother, Kimiko becomes an excitable child, seemingly responsible for keeping her spirits up, and her search for father is more than just a search for the missing piece. As the artificiality in Kimiko’s mission is obvious to everyone but herself, one wonders whether there ought to have been more moments where she reflected on her expectations of the upcoming marriage, but such an immediate connection is perhaps too facile for a master like Naruse.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Filmed for Swedish TV, Ingmar Bergman’s The Marquise de Sade, inspired by Yukio Mishima’s play Madame de Sade, places six women in the same room, all of whom had some form of connection with the Marquis de Sade. Despite the disapproval of her mother and sister, Renée de Sade often finds herself dreaming about her husband in an unusually favourable light, showing that her devotion has in some way blinkered her from his lasciviousness. La Comtesse de Saint-Ford, dressed in an androgynous yellow suit and jodhpurs, grills de Sade’s wife about their sexual activity with a sinister fascination.

The idea of evoking male dominance in sexuality through the accounts of women brings to mind de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which Pier Paolo Pasolini famously adapted in the seventies as Salò. Like Pasolini’s film, The Marquise de Sade is the result of countless revisions, keeping the Japanese music of Mishima’s play but reinventing the cast as Swedish noblewomen. In composing his play for television, Bergman balances theatre with cinema, taking advantage of close-ups to generate a sense of intimacy where necessary. There is a peculiar sensuality in the women’s dialogues which is echoed in the vibrant colour palette, and Dangerous Liaisons springs to mind more than once. De Sade’s absence is notable, but his hold over people is palpable as each woman deals with her individual morality. With superb performances by a familiar cast, The Marquise de Sade is further evidence that Bergman was a true master of dramaturgy.

Saturday, 24 July 2010


A couple on the beach. A bloodied face. A gun. These visual clues form the opening of Harpreet Dehal’s debut film Oceania, produced when he was just 17 years old. The film centres on the relationship between Amy and Steve, two teenagers exasperated by their lives at home. Amy takes a fatalistic approach to her family’s miseries, toying with her suicidal tendencies and burgeoning sexuality, while Steve refuses to dignify his parents’ squabbles with even a word. The pair’s stories are teased rather than told, and the audience is given only enough information to understand the nature of their conflicts.

If the above description has you thinking of a sub-standard Noah Baumbach family dramedy, think again. Using a consistent colour palette of blue and green and a moody (if melodramatic) soundtrack, Harpreet Dehal amplifies his characters’ anguish, and the more elusive the storytelling gets, the more the audience feels sympathy. Camerawork is shaky but purposeful, with many scenes framed asymmetrically to mirror the disequilibrium in the characters’ lives. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is the mature pacing – multiple angles of scenes add dimension to the experience, while patient close-ups eschew action for emotional depth. Though technically precocious, Dehal tries to tackle too many issues at the same time and the result is a little dishonest, particularly in the dramatic moments, but the amateur cast do a decent job of fulfilling their roles. Gentle but touching, Oceania is an episode of teenage angst, culled straight from the source.

Download Oceania at Harpreet Dehal’s website here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


In the same vein as Capturing The Friedmans, Must Read After My Death is a documentary which tells its story through family footage and recordings. The focus here is the faltering relationship of Allis and Charley, the deceased grandparents of director Morgan Dews. Dews came across the recordings in his grandmother’s house shortly after she died, and came to truly understand their issues through the editing process. Charley, suave but troubled, worked in Australia for a third of the year, leaving Allis at home with their four children, and it becomes clear that this is what put a strain on the relationship. Through Dictaphone correspondence, we learn of Charley’s alcoholism and popularity with the women, as well as Allis’ struggles to keep her family happy.

Though clearly meant as a tribute to his own grandparents, Dews has essentially created a moving portrait of any American family striving to keep up appearances. Inadequacy is a frequent topic, as if Allis and Charley lived their entire lives benchmarking themselves against ‘the American dream’. What is fascinating about the film is what isn’t shown – Allis talks a little about her first marriage but Charley avoids discussing his. Whether it was Dews’ decision to exclude any reference to these issues or if there simply wasn’t any discussion of it, it contributes greatly to the viewer’s understanding of this couple as human beings. A daringly personal project, Must Read After My Death is a beautiful, caring tribute to Dews’ grandparents, brimming with love and nostalgia.


Thomas Köner is a German media artist who works in both video and music, combining the two to create unique ambient experiences. His area of fascination seems to be the North Pole, and all of his installations focus intently on the natural beauty of this area. This project, Nuuk, comprises a series of desaturated images of the Greenlandic capital, ice sheets dominating the screen, and the framing often suggests that these stills could have been culled from CCTV footage. One image, taking in a snow-covered street lined with drab apartment blocks, slowly mutates into a nocturnal scene, coloured lights emerging from windows. The music gently sweeps the viewer through the experience, using a variegated wall of electronically produced tones.

If it had to be categorised, Nuuk would best align itself with the voyeuristic works of James Benning and Sharon Lockhart, its wordless presentation encouraging the viewer to let go of all previous understanding of cinema and enjoy the experience. One is led to feel as if the music is somehow being produced by the ice itself, as there is a deep, raw quality to the soundtrack that defies musical classification, and the texture of the video harmonises with this. Though successful, it is tempting to consider what effect the film would have if there was movement in each ‘still’, for example if a person were to be seen walking through the city scene. Not for the impatient, Nuuk is a twenty-minute film in name only, and deserves one’s full attention.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


Mee pok is a variety of noodle served in coffee shops and street stalls alike, often accompanied by fish balls. The unnamed hero of Eric Khoo’s debut feature, the titular ‘mee pok man’, deals exclusively in the foodstuff, and the all-night licence on his restaurant means that he meets some interesting characters. With a constant stream of customers from all walks of life, the mee pok man finds it difficult to keep his mind on one thing, except for long-suffering prostitute Bunny who frequents the restaurant with her gal pals. The mee pok man is intimidated by the men in Bunny’s life, but when her pimp beats her up and abandons her, he seizes the opportunity to become her knight in shining armour. The two grow close, but how far can this relationship go in such a day-to-day existence?

Through patient development of each character, Khoo plays the story out at a decent pace and gives particular consideration to the audience’s experience. We see Bunny before we learn about the mee pok man’s longing for her – the film challenges the viewer to see the warmth and vulnerability in Bunny in the same way that he does. Bunny herself has the potential to be a fascinating character, caught between the prospect of cosmpolitan living with her English photographer boyfriend and her drab career in the underworld, but there is little convincing emotion brought to the role. Though marvellously lensed, Mee Pok Man is a middling experience that will leave one wanting.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


Based on Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game follows a group of people who find themselves on a remote island for different reasons. Eve and Martin are siblings who, alongside two sailors, were the only survivors of a shipwreck. The four have been guests at the home of the Russian Count Zaroff when newcomer Bob, freshly marooned from a shipwreck, arrives on the scene. Bob and Zaroff appear to hit it off quickly, having both made a living through hunting, although Zaroff claims to have found an even more exhilarating prey on the island that he refuses to name. In a matter of days, Martin and both sailors have disappeared, and as Bob and Eve search the house for him, they learn of Zaroff’s horrific pursuit, correctly guessing that they are next in line.

Shot on a budget of $200,000, The Most Dangerous Game turned out to be more bankable than the 1933’s expensive King Kong, with which it shares actress Fay Wray, and certainly rivals it for entertainment value. The set-up is simple but brilliant, and even though the eventual outcome is obvious to the modern viewer, the suspense is kept up at a decent pace. As with many other contemporary films, the acting and screenplay are excessively camp, particularly Leslie Banks’ hammy portrayal of a Russian count, but fans of Béla Lugosi and early B-movies should recognise this is par for the course. Funny and sinister in equal parts, The Most Dangerous Game deserves a revival.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


Independent avant-garde filmmaker Adam Cooley has been pulling in the plaudits over the past few years with his uncompromisingly back-to-basics approach, making use of freeware such as MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker to keep his budget at an absolute minimum. Nothing Is More Beautiful Than Nothing is the second instalment of what the director calls his ‘No Trilogy’, a body of work shot in a matter of months and intended to be viewed in one session. The film is a collection of vaguely associated short films produced around the time that Cooley had split up with his girlfriend (to whom the film is dedicated), and she occasionally features. The project is bound together by a gently ambient soundtrack.

While the role of an experimental film is undoubtedly to deflect the viewer from the screen while still holding their gaze, and the bulk of Cooley’s work appears to be designed for this function, Nothing is surprisingly accessible and markedly more direct than his other films. With the self-appointed task of documenting a painful time on film, Cooley sheds some of the layers of punkish deviation and displays himself in an intimate light, although ‘characters’ still exist, including a dragon mask that acts as his advisor. The most touching moments are the simplest – a peculiar riff on Super Mario Bros. comments humorously on gender difference – but Cooley upholds his frenetic editing style, frequently changing the speed of audio. It might not speak to everybody, but Nothing is an unconventionally personal work.

Watch the film on Youtube here, or on Vimeo here

Friday, 9 July 2010


A follow-up to Liu Jiayin’s debut feature, Oxhide II continues the set-up as the director and her parents go about an average day in the house. This time around, the family sit around the table for a dinner of dumplings, discussing problems and the wavering future of their handbag stall. Mother and Father prepare the food at a leisurely pace, perhaps preoccupied with the worries of tomorrow, while Daughter joins in only at the instruction of her Mother. Despite the almost ceremonial diligence the ingredients are treated with, the completed meal arrives on the table with little fanfare, and conversation stays on the subject of Daughter’s inadequacy and clumsiness.

It is easiest to say that Oxhide II is deceptively simple. In keeping her camera static, Liu ensures that the family (and their cats) are the only moving objects, and our focus is thus drawn to their actions alone. Unfortunately, its simplicity is also its downfall, as an attempt to form a more minimalist narrative removes some of the heart that was seen in the film’s predecessor. An exceptionally long take in which Daughter chops vegetables carries a certain cultural relevance as well as establishing her status in the family, but may not have needed to last as long in order to make an impact. Nonetheless, there is something new to Oxhide II as a basic daily ritual is given a feature-length presentation, and the viewer is left to ponder how much one can learn about life if they look closer.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Mikio Naruse’s first sound film, Three Sisters With Maiden Hearts centres on the relationship between three siblings living in a geisha house run by their curmudgeonly mother Hahaoya. Oren is the prodigal older sister, independent-minded but somewhat ignorant in her plans to start a new life with her husband. Osome is the middle sister and the most responsible of the three, playing shamisen in local bars to support their mother. Youngest sister Chieko, a cabaret dancer, seeks little more in life than love and affection, and appears to find it in Aoyama, an older shop owner. It is her choice in life that Hahaoya disapproves of the most, and she spares no consideration for her innocence.

Naruse makes great use of sound to bind together the sisters’ stories, drawing comparisons by use of incidental music and voiceover. At times it is hard to follow the plot, not only for the overlapping storylines, but also because Hahaoya treats all the geishas in the house as her own children. This is perhaps what sets it apart from Naruse’s earlier work, as the family dynamic is corrupted and replaced by a disciplinarian hierarchy which blurs the lines between work and play. There is warmth between the sisters, particularly Osome and Chieko as they worry about Oren’s eventual fate, but the stronger feeling is that of distance. Chieko’s relationship plays out in secret and is made to feel unnatural, and by the end of the film one wonders if she will follow Oren’s path.


The Mesa is an unusual community of four hundred people living in the desert five miles away from the Rio Grande, whose life ‘off the grid’ means existing outside the law, but also not having access to electricity or running water. The community is founded a survivalist attitude towards the modern world – as one resident puts it, “we don’t dial 911, we dial 357 – .357 Magnum”. The group interprets the space they inhabit as the last corner of America which is truly free, and revel in a do-it-yourself approach which sees houses made from mutilated car wrecks and food cooked over log fires. Some of the members served in the military in a previous life, and their reason for living in the Mesa is clearly bred from a disillusionment with the intents of the U.S. government. While most of the community is of sound mind, a few residents testify to the potential to go insane in such an environment.

At just over an hour in length, Off The Grid: Life On The Mesa is essentially a glimpse of the subject rather than an in-depth documentary, but there is still a lot of ground covered. The residents are quite open to explain the source of their emotional struggles, which helps to demystify their reasons for living in such circumstances. The Mesa itself is halfway between a batty micronation and a peaceful, nurturing community, and while it may not seem desirable for living, it does have a loving heart at its centre.


Directed by Hana Makhmalbaf, the 19-year-old daughter of auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame tells the story of Bahtai, a young girl whose dream is simply to go to school. Spurred on by the taunts of her neighbour, she sets out to get herself a notepad and pencil to equip herself for an impromptu trip to the local school. Though unsuccessful in procuring the correct items, she steals her mum’s lipstick to write with and heads out to the school. En route, she is bullied by a group of boys who are pretending to be the Taliban, an experience which distresses her greatly. When she finally gets there, she finds that her dream could never be as good as she had imagined in the current circumstances, and a further encounter with the Taliban boys appears to push her to her limits.

The title makes reference to the Taliban’s explosion of the Buddha statues in Bamyan, and we see first-hand footage of the shocking incident before the first credit is up. Though never sensationalist or sentimental, the film is deeply upsetting for its portrayal of oppression under Taliban rule, and the adults’ lack of presence serves to highlight the issues. Bahtai is portrayed consistently as a child – Makhmalbaf never pretends that she suddenly has the capacity to understand the socio-political gravity of her journey – and it is this that gives the film its strength, particularly as nobody else in the film treats her with appropriate consideration. An important film.

Friday, 2 July 2010


In the poorer quarters of Osaka exists a network of young criminals, seemingly rejected by society and forced into a life of unsavoury exploits. Shin and Ohama are leaders of warring gangs whose main concern is protecting their respective territories. Ohama’s gang appear to have the upper hand, as much of the film follows Shin balancing menace with fear. Caught up in the fracas is the naïve Takeshi, a do-gooder who finds himself in too deep after trying to sample to gangster lifestyle. Shin sees a little of himself in Takeshi and takes advantage of his innocence. Rivalling Shin’s propensity for manipulative behaviour is Hanako, a duplicitous prostitute who runs an illegal blood transfusion scheme. The two engage in a passionate affair, but Hanako’s opportunism soon pulls Takeshi into a dangerous situation.

Many of Nagisa Ôshima’s detractors have pointed out that he wallows in misery and destruction without offering a solution, but it is exactly this attitude that makes his early works so vital. Admittedly The Sun’s Burial lacks subtlety in its attempts to sketch a metaphor for Japan – the title in particular spells it out – but there is heart in Ôshima’s mission. The character of ‘the Agitator’, an embittered war veteran who observes the turf war dismissively, is the ghost of Japan past, and a brief glimpse of an optimistic banner ushers in a new Japan, one to exist in the future after the film. Gorgeously shot and scored, The Sun’s Burial is a historically important, deceptively nihilistic thriller.


Echoing a lot of the experimentation he had done with music, John Cage’s only feature film project One11 And 103 pares film down to its most basic concepts. The subject here is light itself, the very Urschleim of photography, and its behaviour in the film often runs in counterpoint with an orchestral work that Cage wrote specially for the project. Employing what sound theorist Michel Chion calls ‘synchresis’, the film binds both sonic and visual experiences together through mood and intensity. Though Cage and fellow composer Andrew Culver specifically designed the lighting arrangement so that it would be randomised to some degree, there are several audio-visual harmonies throughout the film. The grain of the film adds an extra urgency to these photographic abstractions.

It would be cliché to call the work ‘brave’ for its simplicity, especially in light of the achievements made earlier by artists like Norman McLaren and Tony Conrad, but there is something excitingly new about One11 And 103, even seeing it 18 years later. Being denied the ability to gauge even space or time in a film is an alienating experience, and this is precisely what Cage and Culver appear to reference in their collaboration. Naturally, it can get quite frustrating to watch, even if one knows what to expect from Cage. The audience is always kept on the surface of the film, but the more open-minded viewer may sink deeper, finding elementary patterns in either the visuals or the composition – this could easily be minimalism’s Fantasia.


Despite its size, Ethiopia has never experienced a particular boom in filmmaking, with features only occasionally being released. Much of the Ethiopian film ‘industry’ has fallen on the shoulders of ex-pat Haile Gerima, perhaps best known in the West for his historical fantasy Sankofa. While studying at the UCLA, he produced four films, the last of which was a feature called Harvest: 3,000 Years. This film follows an impoverished family as they eke out a life working for a selfish landowner. Though most of the family endure his domineering ways, fully understanding that this may be the only employment that can keep them afloat, daughter Beletech is at odds with her situation, refusing to conform to the landowner’s expectations of her but never gaining fulfillment from doing so.

Harvest carries along at a slow pace, mirroring the endless labour carried out by the family. It is in this respect that the film loses some of its potential as, while the meditative style is beautiful and certainly appropriate, the unprofessional cast are unable to sustain the experience. Additionally, Gerima refined most of the film’s themes in Sankofa, adding a modern context to portray the idea that the suffering never ends. Nonetheless, this should all be forgiven, particularly as Gerima was still a student when the film was completed. The most significant aspect of Harvest is its provenance, having been completed just a year after the fall of Haile Selassie I, and those looking for an honest historical account will be satisfied.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Challenging the tenets of the documentary, Sharon Lockhart’s hour-long film Goshogaoka portrays a routine performed by a girls’ high school basketball team. The film opens with the team running laps of their school hall-cum-gymnasium, introducing the stage space of this balletic piece as well as its ‘characters’. To a repetitive chant, the girls warm up their bodies with a series of exercises. The monotone of the chant serves to underline the functionality of the drills, with only minor slip-ups in keeping the rhythm together. The exercises progress for about forty minutes before the girls change into tracksuits to act out preparation for a match. The film comprises six still shots more or less equal in length, and the camera never moves from its fixed position, the closed red theatre curtains looming over like a spectator.

Though minimalist in terms of how it operates as a film, Goshogaoka appears to reference other borderline cinematic works, such as Frederick Wiseman’s documentary High School, or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 1. Lockhart worked closely with ballet choreographer Stephen Galloway to produce a routine for the girls to perform that looked realistic but also benefitted the film’s aesthetics, and the effect is convincing. One interesting shot sees pairs of basketball players throwing the balls to one another, a practice which gradually falls out of rhythm and becomes a piece of visual syncopation. Beautifully composed with subtle yet sinister sound design, Goshogaoka is an unclassifiable piece of art, deceptive in its role but a nonetheless magnetising watch.