10 Dec 2017

Tam Cam: The Untold Story (Veronica Ngo, 2016)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

For her sophomore directorial effort, actress Veronica Ngo adapts The Story of Tam and Cam which is a Vietnamese version of Cinderella... until you realize there's more to it after the slipper fits and our heroine marries the king (demoted to prince-regent in the film). The poor girl is sent to death and reincarnated several times until she is back to being her old self (well, sort of) to exact a grisly revenge that involves boiling water and cannibalism on her wicked step-family.

Staying as true as possible to the original tale and simultaneously toning down its grimness, Ngo weaves in some politics, martial arts and large-scale battles into the narrative and spices up the proceedings with the scheming Magistrate who's actually a demon in disguise. Oh, and she buffs the prince's role and gives him a few sidekicks in order to promote the members of the V-pop boyband 365 she produced at the time (they went on hiatus shortly after Tam Cam was released, notwithstanding its success at home).

All of her commercial-wise slyness is matched by pretty solid helming skills and a keen sense of camp - she successfully juggles a number of subplots and tonal shifts, while portraying the vain femme fatale of a step-mother, Di Ghe, with unrestrained flamboyance. Sovereign as the antagonistic hussy, she finds her male counterpart in Huu Chau whose stylized eyebrows and evil laughter suggest that we're in the domain of fairy tale archetypes, so almost nothing should be taken too seriously. The rest of the cast also does a pretty good job, especially Ha Vi Pham debuting as the virtuous Tam and 365 singer Isaac as the prince Thai Tu who faces the loss of his beloved as well as the threat of war with the neighbouring kingdom.

However, Tam Cam's strongest assets are its sumptuous visuals - the picturesque sets, the breathtaking vistas and the exuberant costumes - that make it fall somewhere between a Disney-esque fantasy, Yimou Zhang's spectacle and Mika Ninagawa's brightly colored drama. Even the CGI flourishes that look a bit cheesy or rather, video-game-y during the decisive battle between the Magistrate's true form and Thai Tu's inner beast keep your eyes wide open. Besides, the film's budget is about ninety times lower than that of Brannagh's 'reinvention' of Cinderella, yet it still looks amazing and provides more fun.

8 Dec 2017

ArteKino Bits (The Last Family / Colo)

The Last Family (Jan P. Matuszyński, 2016)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

This Mortal Coil's Song to the Siren triggers an avalanche of emotions after two hours of a compelling, if slightly and occasionally tedious drama sprinkled with tiny and most welcome bits of keen, quirky as well as black humor in Jan P. Matuszynski's first, yet assured foray into narrative film - a moody, poignant, gray-dominated biopic of the Polish maestro of dystopian surrealism Zdzisław Beksiński.

Based on Robert Bolesto's screenplay (his best work so far), The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina) boasts grungy, stringent cinematography and extraordinary performances by Andrzej Seweryn, Aleksandra Konieczna and Dawid Ogrodnik whose Zdzisław, Zofia and Tomasz Beksiński, respectively, are often seen in tightly confined spaces generating the powerful atmosphere of death and claustrophobia.

Colo (Teresa Villaverde, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Cracking under the pressure of real life - 'the shittiest thing ever', as one of the side characters describes it - is served as the (bitter) main course in Teresa Villaverde's relentlessly bleak and a 'tad' overlong drama of a dysfunctional family (barely holding on thanks to materfamilias) and disenchanted youth (swimming in the sea of suicidal thoughts) amidst economic depression, portrayed in austerely beautiful compositions that reflect loneliness and hopelessness of the lost characters.

The feeling of detachment pervades the mundane, yet somewhat odd story in which the most relatable character is an adolescent girl, Marta (Alice Albergaria Borges in her calling-card debut), whose love for her tiny pet bird provides some of Colo's most touching moments.

Both films can be seen at ArteKino official page,
until December the 17th (Europe only).

7 Dec 2017

The Taste of a Jubilee

My 30th list for Taste of Cinema includes ten recent lesser-known films that you might want to track down and check out. And yes, I do know that 2000 is the last year to the 20th century, but the editors probably decided to change the title because most of the entries do belong to the current century.

A snapshot from Polina (Valérie Müller & Angelin Preljocaj, 2016)

6 Dec 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorghos Lanthimos, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

Five reasons why you should watch The Killing of a Sacred Deer and ignore Mother! (yeah, it's like comparing a refreshing, orange-flavored gelato to a disgusting rotten apple, but I just couldn't help mentioning and being negative towards that pseudo-whatever offering by the hack and former Satoshi Kon-impersonator Darren Aronofsky):

1. Barry Keoghan - The entire cast performs admirably, but this 'kid' stands out as the most brilliant actor of them all - he nails his bravura turn with the subtle micro-expressions, soul-piercing looks and amazing self-control, deep-diving into the role of a teenage boy whose presence gradually turns sinister. Each of his appearances is a scene-stealer.

2. Dark (tragi)comedy - Once again, Lanthimos succeeds in imbuing his work with the right balance of dry (or rather wry) wit, utter absurdity, sophisticated audacity and pitch-black, deadpan, sardonic humor that simultaneously makes you laugh (or chuckle, at least) and feel extremely uneasy, regardless of how comfortable your seat is.

3. Precise direction - Kubrick's spirit had been restless during the shooting of this intense, bizarre and  stone-cold psychological thriller, possessing its (methodical) director and guiding him along the way. And when the influence threats to become overwhelming, you get splashed by the awkwardness of the Greek weird wave, and it all happens in regular, hypnotic, expectation-subverting rhythm.

4. Imposing visuals - The starkly beautiful wide-frame cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis (whom Lanthimos entrusts with handling the photography for the third time and for a very good reason) perfectly captures the twisted, ironically mythologized reality of a contemporary bourgeoisie. Their clinically clean world is a slightly distorted reflection of our own, exposing all of its irrationalities with brutal honesty.

5. The soundtrack - Haunting, spine-tingling, eargasmic...

5 Dec 2017

The Rub (Péter Lichter & Bori Máté, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

By courtesy of the Hungarian filmmaker Péter Lichter (Frozen May), I present to you his sophomore feature co-directed by Bori Máté and earmarked for a 2018 release. A glimpse into the future which sort of clings to the past...

Described as 'a psychedelic retelling' of what is usually considered to be Shakespeare's greatest play, The Rub unfolds 'within the mind of the protagonist'. However, in spite of the fact, a quote from Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the last thing you'd expect to see in the opening epigraph (the same goes for Stalone and Schwarzenegger).

Or maybe it isn't? It has been approximately two decades since I read Hamlet, so I can't say for sure whether the 'Bard of Avon' is turning in his grave or his spirit applauds or does whatever the spirits do as a sign of approval. But, what I can say is that I don't recall a bolder and more revolutionary rendition of the well-known tragedy.

Minimalist in terms of the cast, considering it stars only Szabolcs Hajdu as the voice of the royal Dane, The Rub compensates the lack of characters in the traditional sense of the word with its experimental visuals. It utilizes hand painted celluloid strips of various films, from The Tales of Hoffman to Terminator 3 to Melancholia, which erode and decompose before your eyes, establishing simultaneously trippy and contemplative atmosphere.

Technique-wise, it is a natural progression from Lichter's short films, such as Look Inside the Ghost Machine (2012), No Signal Detected (2013) or Pure Virtual Function (2015). And it looks absolutely fantastic or rather phantasmic, with its erratic, aggressive textures pulsating to hypnotizing effect, complemented by the brooding low-key monologues and miasmic soundscapes (kudos to Ádám Márton Horváth).

The intrusion of a few lo-fi (VHS?) sequences shot in an empty movie theater and its projection booth add a hint of nostalgia to the 'abstract proceedings' that seem to capture the echoes from the other side. The theme of transience is the main course or everything is just a dissolving dream which is but a shadow.

1 Dec 2017

The Other Side of the Underneath (Jane Arden, 1972)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼
"Strength, little girl, is madness. And madness is the persistent belief in one's own hatefulness."
If Inland Empire is "about a woman in trouble", according to David Lynch himself, then The Other Side of the Underneath could be labeled as a film about a woman in very, very deep shit, pardon my French. An uncompromising exploration of schizophrenia and the numerous other psychological disorders, as well as an edgy statement against the values of patriarchal norms, Jane Arden's directorial debut is indisputably one of the most unsettling pieces of underground cinema ever created.
Imbued with raw emotions which are rarely emerging from the positive spectrum, it introduces the concept of filmmaking as a group therapy, with the members of the director's feminist troupe Holocaust starring (reportedly on LSD) as mental asylum inmates. The therapist role is reserved for Arden herself who goes as far as to bring her "patients" on the verge of tears, as well as force them to externalize their innermost feelings and darkest traumas. Taking the stance of a radical anarchist, she eschews the story in favor of the boundary-pushing performances (the one by Sheila Allen as Meg the Peg being the most memorable), ear-piercing cello improvisations and grainy, gritty imagery of frequently iconoclastic beauty to pull us down the spiral of madness.

Her savage and to a certain extent exploitative, yet extremely personal experiment is like a missing link between Tom White's Who's Crazy and Frans Zvartjes's Pentimento; a spiritual predecessor to Švankmajer's Lunacy, with a dash of Jodorowsky and Russell thrown in. It blurs the boundaries between an unforgiving reality and an absurd, surreal fiction informed by Jungian symbolism, which is further emphasized with the almost Fellini-esque sequence of a "jolly picnic" shot on the hills of South Wales, with a group of tinkers, gypsies and mentally handicapped people from the area. Bold, dirty, rough and intense, The Other Side of the Underneath is not an easy watch, but then again which portrait of a distressed mind is?

21 Nov 2017

Antiporno (Sion Sono, 2016)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

When Nikkatsu studio (the very same one that once orchestrated the expulsion of the recently deceased maestro Seijun Suzuki) asked Sion Sono to contribute to their revived Roman Porno series, it must have slipped their minds he is considered the norm-breaking enfant terrible of the Japanese cinema. Or maybe it didn't? Maybe they got what they deserved... pardon, wished for?

The rules of the abovementioned sub-genre dictate less than eighty minutes of length and a softcore sex scene every ten minutes. Indeed, Antiporno does not exceed the canonic time-frame (which makes it Sono's shortest feature to date) and there are sex scenes now and then, but they are conceived as anti-voyeuristic rather than titillating acts solely to serve the author's deconstructive agenda (think Ming-liang Tsai's The Wayward Cloud).

Speaking of deconstruction, what initially appears to be pretty close to a filmed stage play (and what a gorgeous one at that!) soon turns out to be (a mild spoiler ahead!) a film within a film within a heroine's mind or something along these lines. As the story (of a woman's emancipation, sexual awareness and repression, as well as position in Japanese movie industry and society) progresses, the viewer falls deeper and deeper through the rabbit hole of an incessantly altering reality.

The first time we meet our protagonist, Kyōko (Ami Tomite, who has lately become Sono's regular star), she lies on her bed, almost naked, as if she has just awaken after a wild night of sweaty fun. Pulling her panties up, she lazily gets up, as her chic minimalist pop-art apartment screams in primary colors (mostly yellow). Her morning routine involves peeing and talking to herself in a broken mirror, some prancing around in a fluttering tulle dress and conversing to her (imaginary?) sister about butterflies and a lizard trapped in a bottle which are clear metaphors for her virgin-whore 'condition'.

Following the arrival of her assistant, Noriko (the outstanding Mariko Tsutsui of Harmonium fame), is the no-holds-barred portrayal of their sadomasochistic relationship and Kyoko's spiraling into madness which requires both actresses baring their all, not only physical, but emotional as well. With their commitment unwavering and the eccentric, over-the-top performances by supporting (mostly female) cast, Sono delivers the most feminist work of his career which is a great accomplishment for someone who has been frequently accused of misogyny.

And make no mistake - his inner fighter for women's rights doesn't shy away from using any tool and strategy to make her point, and not to mention she couldn't care less if you call her a cruel bitch. On top of that, he has a lot to say about art in general, whether his peers and the potential audience will like it or not, and he pulls you into a relentless, somewhat absurd and highly critical game of guessing and shame. All the while, you are treated to the astonishing imagery ranging from dreamy to lucid, but always uncomfortably sensual (kudos to Takeshi Matsuzuka for the superb art direction), with the cathartic (or rather, hysterical) finale redefining the term 'eye-candy'.