Saturday, 27 November 2010


One of the more unsettling trends in modern cinema is the pseudo-snuff film, designed to trick the viewer into believing they are witnessing an actual murder. This trend is manifest in Hollywood’s brief obsession with torture porn, but few prominent films have chosen to combine the gore with another contemporary trend, the handheld first-person horror. Enter Korea’s The Butcher, a low-budget independent feature just over an hour in length. The titular character is the pig-masked leader of a group of snuff filmmakers, who keep a selection of victims tied up in a basement in preparation for their films. In between torturing their captives into terrified silence, the group discusses the best ways to profit from their horrific scheme.

Clearly inspired by visceral B-movies and Japanese V-cinema, there is nothing new in The Butcher that hasn’t already been achieved, and one wonders what, if anything, director Kim Jin-Won is trying to say. The film switches between the views of two cameras, one held by a member of the Butcher’s group, the other attached to a female victim. One could be generous and suggest that Kim is making a statement about the sort of viewer who indulges voyeuristically in the genre, but there is too much fantasy in the film’s construction for the director to be excused. To his credit, there are moments where it is easy to forget that this is a fiction film, the low production values adding to the realism, but for the most part, The Butcher deserves no attention.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


The first of Fassbinder’s films to receive significant critical attention, Pioneers In Ingolstadt concerns the construction of a bridge in a German village, spearheaded by a select group of soldiers. Our protagonist of sorts – the story jumps between various characters – is Berta, a reserved young woman who falls almost instantly for a soldier named Karl. Unlike her vampish friend Alma, Berta struggles with sexuality, and her romantic manner jars with Karl’s impatience. Alma, on the other hand, is content to manipulate the men to feed her desires, and by her own assertions is ‘well-liked’ by the visiting soldiers. Before long, the task at hand is forgotten in a long weekend of debauchery.

The film is an adaptation of a play by Marieluise Fleißer, and carries much of the expected theatricality in its mise-en-scène. Fassbinder’s angle on the play is led by gender stereotypes, and he uses his burgeoning film style to experiment with these conventions. The soldiers’ presence in the town is seen as intrusive, almost unwanted, but charged with erotic potential. Men are simultaneously portrayed as heroes and beasts, lycanthropes whose desires get the better of them at night, while the women’s envy is borderline Freudian. The bridge, too short to necessitate much attention, provides a symbol for the relation between the military and small-town Germany, while another motif, a moonlit park bench, provides a setting for various dalliances, sexual and romantic. It might not be a classic, but Pioneers In Ingolstadt is vital viewing for the Fassbinder fanatic.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare opens with a montage of people having their photograph taken and then being told to ‘have a seat please’. The people appear to come from diverse backgrounds and all of them look apprehensive. The setting here is a welfare centre, crowded with people in varying degrees of desperation trying to claim benefits for their circumstances. The camera sits in on consultations, learning the ins and outs of individual problems, the government’s representatives trying their best to deal with each case humanely but fairly. Sparks fly between agitated claimants and black policemen, with deeply racist accusations forming the basis of pointless arguments.

At almost three hours, Welfare is an intense experience, and it’s clear that Wiseman had a wealth of good footage to sift through. Although the camera often gets uncomfortably close to its subjects, few are conscious of its presence and a lot of personal information is exchanged, making for a documentary rawer than Wiseman’s earlier works. We as the audience spend enough time with each claimant to share their pain and frustration with the benefits system. Welfare shows off Wiseman’s photographic bent, his portraits of people in trouble echoing the work of great photographers such as Manuel Rivera-Ortiz. Given the length of the film, there are several opportunities for one to question the necessity of Wiseman’s neutrality, which occasionally borders on inactivity, but it is important to remember that these subjects are halfway between situations, and it would be unfair, even wrong, for Wiseman to interfere.


Fresh from a broken marriage, Wei Ming moves to Shanghai where she becomes a music teacher and writer. Wei manages to get her book published through a friend, but it quickly transpires that the publisher is only interested in Wei’s status as a young woman. Additionally, Dr. Wang, the headmaster of the school where Wei works and the husband of her friend, takes a shining to his new employee, but fires her when she spurns his advances. Destitute and needing to support her ill daughter, Wei reluctantly becomes a prostitute, and when she discovers who her first client is, her burning shame leads her to new lows.

Partly based on the tragic life of actress and writer Ai Xia, New Woman is typical of the golden period films in its portrayal of the lower classes in Shanghai, but there is something unusual in its revelation of the facts. Though not immediately obvious, the film is a commentary on the semi-reality created by the world of cinema – Wei, substituting for Ai Xia, is taken for a ride by the promise of success, when it is only her image and sexuality that is desired. In a sinister twist of life imitating art, lead actress Ruan Lingyu, a prolific star at the time, committed suicide not too long after the release of the film, tired by the constant vigil of the press. With some bizarrely shot sequences and a disturbingly heartfelt performance by Ruan, New Woman is an unforgettably dark slice of cinema.


After a bizarre encounter visiting their respective fathers in prison, teenagers Kinichi and Akiko fall into a troubled relationship that leads them deeper than they bargained for. Having won money on a bet at the races, the pair confide each other’s money woes, learning that their priorities lie on rescuing their fathers. Kinichi is determined to make bail of 100,000 yen for his father, who has been imprisoned for election fraud, and realises that he will have to call upon his estranged mother for help. Akiko decides she must pay back the 100,000 yen of public funds that her father embezzled, but her job as an artist’s model fails to fetch enough to cover her mother’s hospital bills, let alone her father’s release.

For those familiar with the work of Yasuzo Masumura, Kisses might feel a particularly tame debut film, but that’s not to say it lacks his flair. Though not exactly the twisted duo of Nagisa Ôshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, Kinichi and Akiko’s forced independence seems representative of the post-war period, but Masumura allows his characters to enjoy the freedom they are also given by their circumstances. A sequence at the beach allows the young couple to experience the simple joys of being a teenager, before the streets of town remind them of their harsh reality. There are some superb shots too, particularly as an untethered camera follows the couple as they motorcycle to the beach. The story might be forgettable, but it’s hard to finish Kisses unmoved.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


In the opening scene of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Rio Das Mortes, Hanna Schygulla repeats to herself a passage from a childcare book about achievement, indirectly teasing the two protagonists who are to be introduced later. Mike and Günther, feeling unfulfilled by infrequent employment and soured relationships, decide to unravel the mysteries of a treasure map, plotting a trip to Peru in the hopes of finding gold. Mike’s girlfriend Hanna doubts the men’s ability to organise such an excursion, but is crushed when they succeed, and tries to find whatever means she can to stop them.

One of ten films made by Fassbinder between 1970 and 1971, Rio Das Mortes appears to have suffered the most from a lack of focus, with thin characterisation and an unproductive narrative. Whereas the chain-smoking hedonists in his earliest films were consigned to their worthlessness, Mike and Günther are given a misleading goal and take an hour and a half to fail it. And even though the plot promises exploits of Herzogian proportions, there is not enough time in the film for anything to build up, and more importantly, nobody in the film appears to realise that Rio das Mortes is in Brazil. Whether intentional or not, the film offers a host of awkward laughs, particularly during a woeful fight where Günther’s trousers split. There are glimmers of the familiar Fassbinder here, with Schygulla stealing the scene as ever, but all in all one wonders who, if anyone, was driving the film to its conclusion.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Fourteen-year-old Violette is the rebellious daughter of a 1930s bourgeois family, already competent at manipulating adults despite her immaturity. Dressed in head-to-toe fur, she sneaks out of the house to bars where she works as a prostitute, using her earnings to fund her partner’s spending habits. When the family doctor reveals that she has syphilis, Violette manages to turn the situation to her advantage by claiming her parents gave her the disease genetically. In a cold-hearted decision, Violette dupes her father into drinking poison so that she can falsely accuse him of molesting her. As her situation worsens, she learns the hard way that every action has its consequence.

A precursor to the early works of Michael Haneke, Violette Nozière is an unusually disturbing social drama, its characters too gullible to defend themselves. Isabelle Huppert is astonishing as the titular character, a believable enfant terrible considering her age at the time (twenty-five), and a stunning cinematic presence as ever. Director Claude Chabrol is subtler than his contemporaries in his treatment of the bourgeoisie, but his target is still clear, particularly in the reaction of Violette’s parents to her syphilis. Chabrol equates precocious sexuality with criminal behaviour, but simultaneously identifies the issues with chastity in modern society. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the film is its rhythm – Violette’s contempt for her parents isn’t sufficiently substantiated – but the Freudian overtones keep the action convincing even at its strangest moments. An underrated oddity, Violette Nozière is a film not to be taken lightly.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


In multimedia artist Péter Forgács’ fiction film Own Death, the protagonist is heard and often not seen, presented to the viewer through found footage and photographs as he describes his life after the near-death experience of a heart attack. The protagonist, assumed to be a publisher or printer, is very aware of his physical vulnerability and often refers to his reaction to his environment (sweat and muscular pains being particular favourites). But as he unravels each moment of pain or suffocation, the images suggest a secret joie de vivre, a longing to fulfil the dreams he had almost lost forever. Occasional segments of text, echoing the narration, appear across the screen in a typewriter serif.

Forgács’ interpretation of Péter Nádas’ novella is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway, creating a new text from several existing texts, and the bricolage of dozens of people’s lives hint at reincarnation or a desire to be anyone else. Newly shot footage flows adds motion to an otherwise sedentary slideshow, and intimacy is afforded to images of fingers and faces through use of gentle musique concrète, care of Béla Tarr’s frequent collaborator Mihály Víg. Whether deliberate or not, the narration is frustratingly anodyne and monotone, and one wonders if we are meant to celebrate the protagonist’s ability to articulate his pain, or to merely suffer with him. Moreover, the man’s thoughts often feel repetitive and steal the footage of some great mythic potential. An intriguing experiment, but one that never leaps off the screen as it should.

Monday, 8 November 2010


A facsimile of American Idol, Super Girls is a music competition which drew in an alarming 400 million viewers at its peak before being banned by the government. This matter-of-fact documentary follows the lives of aspiring contestants hoping to replicate the success of former winner Li Yuching, who for many young viewers exemplified the modern, westernised China that the government had tried to restrain. One girl, underage but in possession of a fake ID, sells pens to her competitors to make some cash on the side, while another has quit her job with confidence, asserting that she would pay a large sum of money if it granted her fame. But while their life may be interesting for the outside world, these girls’ dreams and desires are wonderfully uncomplicated – to become a Super Girl.

About five minutes into Super, Girls!, one realises how striking it is to experience a Chinese vox pop, with statements coming from the heart rather than the state. Relics of the ancient appear in the girls’ habits and beliefs – the word ‘destiny’ is frequently mentioned – but their image is very modern. Director Jian Yi conducts interviews with a range of relevant people rather than riffing on the starry-eyed teenager repeatedly, and it’s interesting to hear the perspective of the parents who seem to doubt their own children’s prospects. Though brilliant commentary abounds, the film requires a little more structuring as some conversations cut short, but for what it is, Super, Girls! is a fascinating slice of life.

Find the film at DGenerate here.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Davis and Bennett are agents for a company known as Veridical, whose business it is to remove skeletons from people’s closets, performing a new age ritual before embarking upon a time-travelling fact-finding mission. One such assignment puts the boys to work at the countryside house of Jane Baron, a presumed widow who has resorted to digging up the grounds to find her missing husband. Jane’s taciturn daughter Rebecca, upset by the men’s presence, tries to disrupt the procedure to preserve the memory of her father, while Davis’ prickly disposition and preoccupation with a snapshot of his own past keep him from doing the job properly. When the investigation comes to a head, both men realise how much of themselves they sacrifice by exploring other people’s pasts.

Developed from a ten-minute short, Skeletons is a surprisingly successful mix of uniquely British humour and sincere existentialism, fostered by a team of people who clearly cared for their creation. First-time director Nick Whitfield is cautiously subtle with the set-up and the eventual pay-off, and the motif of Davis’ treasured memory is a sentimental touch, rather than the fairground attraction it would have been in Inception. Comic duo Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley, in the roles of Veridical’s metaphorical ghostbusters, work brilliantly off each other, both rotund (in conflict with the film’s title) but vastly contrasting in personality. There are points in the film where one wishes the edits would slow down, but ultimately the film affords enough room for every type of moviegoer.