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HIFF 2009

September 23, 2009

First, I must apoligize. This year’s Helsinki International Film Festival report (aka Rakkautta & Anarkiaa / Love & Narachy) is short and written without too much thought put into it. That’s because I’m in a huge hurry. Later this week I will fly to Hokkkaido to become an exchange student for the next 12 months or so. Because of all the preparations that need to be done I could only go to the festival for 3 days (it’s 11 days in total) and watch no more than 12 movies. I had two more scheduled but something came up and I could’t attend those screening. I gave the tickets to my friend. Now I’m back at my hometown (500 km from Helsinki) writing this post as fast as I can. Sorry for the typos and strange grammar; I don’t have time to read this throught twice.

Friday

I had my first screening at 16:00, although I arrived Helsinki already at 11:30. After a lunch I went to check out my friends place (never visited him in Helsinki before) because that’s something you wanna do when it’s daytime and not after the last film when it’s dark and you get completely lost and then russian mobsters rob and kill you. Another thing I had to do before the films was to get my student visa from the Japanese embassy. That only took 15 minutes, so I had plenty of time to have another meal.You need to eat well before the films start, because my schedule is tight and usually doesn’t even leave room for brabbing hamburgers. Instead I carry some bread in my bag, in case feel starvation death is about to reach for me.

My festival program opens with violence, black suits, good music. Just Walking (2008) is Mexican crime thriller that introduces two storylines that will later merge. In Mexico a handsome and extremely cool hitman Gabriel (Diego Luna) is mafioso Felix’s right hand man. They are planning a big drug deal with an Asian gang. At the same time in Spain four women attempt to rob the Russian mafia. They fail and one of them is captured and sent to jail. Some time later one member of the group, now living in Spain, becomes Félix’s wife. It doesn’t take her long to get bored , and come up with a plan steal his husband’s money. Just Walking’s (titled after a song, not the film’s tempo) best twist is to set likable characters on both sides and this way avoid a simple good vs evil setting. Audio-visually the film is mostly good, but occasionally leaning too much on intentional cool (the director is an admirer of Quentin Tarantino, but thankully not a talentless copycat and does have his own style as well). The film’s biggest short coming is the ending, which misses many opportunities in terms of characters, and also lacks real punch. But all in all, it’s a stylish film.

Also known for visual style is director Park Chan-wook, who misfired with the miserable comedy I’m a Cyborg But That’s Ok (2006). His new vampire film Thirst (2009) however is a positive surprise. Song Kang-ho (The Host) plays a Korean priest, who volunteers in medical experiments. He walks out as the single survivor, but soon discovers he has developed a new kind of taste for blood. Thirst received some additional publicity during the casting process when Park was reported to have great difficulties in finding an actress for the sexually explicit leading female role. He did manage to cast the role eventually, but it’s not hard to guess what type of actress would accept such a role. But there’s a surprise; Parks finding, Kim Ok-vin, is by far one of the most attractive actresses in Korea. Besides, the fuss appears to have been heavily exaggerated; even if Kim may not quality as an idol after this mixture of sex and religion, none of the content is of very graphic in nature. Her performance is also good to certain extent. During the second half of the film melodrama takes over, but that’s mainly the screenplay’s fault. Some of the scenes in the beginning even reach the level of excellence of Park’s best films. Violence, eroticism, and absurd comedy are in good balance. On the negative side the film is a bit too long can’t quite hold up till the last scene. Nevertheless, Thirst is quite an enjoyable film and an interesting take on the vampire genre.

I’m very glad Park succeeded with Thirst because the price I had to pay for being able to see it was not only the film ticket, but it also meant missing the Russian film Morphia (2008), which was screened at the same time. I saw director Aleksey Balabanov’s previous film, Cargo 200 (2007), at last year’s HIFF, and found it quite good. But after Thirst thankfully didn’t have to feel sorry for the decision I made, and I really wouldn’t have had time for self criticism either because the next screening, Kinatay, was scheduled to begin only 2 minutes after Thirst was to end. And of course it was playing in a different theater. I stole myself additional 2 minutes by rushing out from the cinema as soon as the Korean ending credits hit the screen, and then made a Shuffle (1981) esque sprint to the next theaters. I arrived on time, managed to exhaust myself for some reason. Maybe it was because I had too much stuff to carry, and I was over-dressed as well. In any case, the next 15 minutes I wasn’t sure if someone sitting behind me was kicking my chair, of if it was just in my head. Go figure…

There was a bit of kick toward the audience in the film as well. This spring Roger Ebert apologized Vincent Callo for calling The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of Cannes film festival, because he thought the honor belonged to phillipino film Kinatay (2009). The Cannes jury replied by awarding Brillante Mendoza as the best director of the year. Kinatay follows a normal man’s one night journey into the heart of darkness. And it is dark; 75% of the film takes place night time, and there’s no ”movie lighting” or steady camerawork. The director aims at documentary style, or perhaps even snuff style, some exaggerator might say. Many have also compared Kinatay to Gaspar Noes’s films such as Irreversible. It’s hard hitting story and may be easier appreciated as an experience than genuinely enjoyed while watching. But it needs to be seen from a good print, because this is perhaps the darkest films ever made. In the festival screening I attended we got to enjoy a terrible digital projection that made it completely impossible to see what was going on most of the time. No wonder approximately 10% of the audience walked out during the film. However, a far superior presentation for this film is possible. For this reason I have not given a rating for the film (in the form I saw it, it would be a 1).

And then, the award for the year’s most mentally insane motion picture goes to… Yatterman (2009). The year’s best film on the other hand… well, that just might be Yatterman, too. Based on a 1970’s anime series Yatterman is an over-the-top adventure in which Yatterman 1 (Sho Sakurai from Arashi) and Yatterman 2 (Saki Fukuda with blond hair) battle evil Doronjo (Kyoko Fukada) and her two dumb helpers around the world, usually destroying half of the city in the process. Also included are all kinds of robots from mecha dog Yatterwoof to Doronjo’s various battle tanks. Yatterman is basically two hours of non-stop, high energy insanity. The maniacal musical scene in Jackie Chan’s City Hunter’s would be the best comparison. There’s dancing and singing, huge explosions, robots trashing the streets, clumsy villains usuing Fukada’s breasts as air bags, and a mountain of schoolgirls (literally). The tempo is amazing, and, apart from one scene at the end, never runs out of fuel. The leather dressed Kyoko Fukada is the film’s real star, playing a role somewhat similar to Chiaki Kuriama in Miike’s previous family fantasy The Great Yokai War. She’s not quite on par, but the film is ever better. However, it must be said that the amount of sexually crude jokes inserted into a family film here is mind staggering. Yatterman is Takashi Miike’s craziest film by a mile. It’s also his best.

Saturday

Since the Russian mobsters failed to get me last night, I was ready for another load of films on Saturday. I begin my day by writing notes about the films I saw yesterday (how else could I write mini reviews with even the slightest accuracy) and then walk to the city centrum with my friend. I believe owe him a pizza, because he allows me to sleep on his floor. Actually, he even had an extra matress, so it softened my festival experience nicely. Usually I don’t have and don’t even ask for such luxory. But still, I should have taken use of the luxory transportation that the local buses offer. Now I left a bit too late and almost had to run to make it on time to pizzeria and the film that would follow.

That film wasn’t just your average festival filler. United Red Army (2007) is one of the movies this decade will be remembered for. 1960’s / 70’s pink rebel Koji Wakamatsu has made a 190 minute film about student activity that lead to the formation of the extremist group United Red Army in 1972. The film begins almost as a documentary, filling the firts 15 minutes with narrated news footage and cutting in short scenes with actors. After the opening this composition is flipped; the archive footage becomes supporting, and actors take over. Wakamatsu depicts the birth of the movement, and shows how common sense and good intentions get lost and become insanity when the passionate youngsters begin their armed training at the mountains. This part of the film goes on for a bit too long, but it doesn’t weaken the film’s incredible impact. Wakamatsu’s approach is admiring, critical and intelligent. This has been a very personal project for him; Wakamatsu financed the film himself, and can no longer even return to his home. That’s because the limited budget forced him to use his own house in the film and burn it. But it was worth it. United Red Army is a masterpiece.

That can’t be said about Tony Manero (2008) I’m afraid. Instead a word of warning is needed here; this Chilean film about a low life killer obsessed with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever is not quite exotic film finding some audiences may be expecting. Instead Tony Manero is a naturalistic drama about the most repulsive leading character in recent memory. He’s a killer and thug who beats defenceless elderly people to death and steals their money. Needless to say, he doesn’t treat his family much better. The main character is intended as an allegory for the country’s state in the late 70’s.There may be an audience for this kind of misery-cinema, but I’m not among them. Casual viewers will find little else to enjoy than the two Travolta dance scenes. The lead actor Alfredo Castro’s face looks like a mix of Al Pacino and Christopher Walken.

Now, according to my original schedule, I was to see The Hurt Locker and North next. But since Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglorious Basters also interests me, I decided to go see it instead outside the festival program. Inglorious Basters isn’t playing in my hometown yet, and I don’t want to see it in Japan either because the film’s dialogue is 30% English, 30% German, and 40 French. My kanji reading isn’t even close to being up to following Japanese subtitles in a film. But I return to the festival alter in the evening to see another Takashi Miike film.

Unfortunately Crows Zero (2007), an adaptation of a high school action manga by Hiroshi Takahashi, is 30 minutes too long, and more often dull than exciting. It’s obvious from the terribly edited, flashy opening action scene that many of Miike’s stylistic choises don’t work this time. Manga haired tough guys beat each other and form alliances in the notorious ”School of Crows”, but it’s mostly the comedy bits that manage to entertain. Another asset is punk; the brilliant opening credits scene echoes of Sogo Ishii. Unfortunately it’s followed by Meisa Kuroki’s R&B, something that shouldn’t even be in a film that should be rage and anarchism from the start to end. Miike also fails with the yakuza content; there is only bad cliches on offer. While clearly a mainstream film, it’s the violence that sets Crows Zero apart from similar style American productions that would probably aim for the pg-13 category. Miike has given up on his old gore shockers, but the kicks and punches in Crows Zero feel and look like they could make a hole in one’s face. The final fist fight, which is the only truly exiting action scene in the film, is the best example of this. Not dance-like soft-martial arts scene, but a genuinely masochistic beat the shit out of each other match.

Sunday

Last night I succeeded in something that I’m slightly proud of. I managed to return to my friends apartment without waking him up. Even though I hit the same chair three times and also has some disagreements for the closet door that was on my way…. Yes, it was very, very dark, and I didn’t want to wake him up by turning the lights on. The time was around 2am. The film ended after one, but not being familiar with the night busses of Helsinki, it took me some time to find the right one. I discovered half of the bus drivers don’t even know the major streets in Helsinki…

In any case, the Sunday opens with a very positive surprise. The British film The Tournament (2009) is one of the several recent Battle Royale soft variations… although ’soft’ is not exactly the best word to use when describing this ultra violent old school actioner. 30 of worlds deadliest assassins gather to play a survival game; the last man standing wins. A normal (fully populated) city in England serves as battle ground. The premise is delicious, and outcome is just as great…. and messy. Head explode and bullets rip off arms when 9 assassins find themselves at the same strip club at the same time in one of the film’s numerous action highlights. The budget appears to have been unsually big for such honest violence entertainment; there is no obvious cgi but real cars blown up to the sky, and of course genuine fake blood splattered all over the walls. The most memorable characters include Chinese kung fu killer (Kelly Hu), amazing french parkour expert armed with double pistols and sniper rifle (Sebastien Foucan), and Ving Rhanes the general bad mofo. And of course Robert Carlyle as a drunk priest who becomes a player by accident when someone throws a tracking device in his coffee! The Tournament is Rambo for 2009.

More action ahead, this time from Thailand. It may not become a huge surprise, but Ong Bak 2 (2008) has a problem with its story. But this time it’s a serious problem. A lot of people complained that earlier Tony Jaa films like Tom Yum Goong didn’t have proper story, even though these films had a good flow and sometimes even a greatly enjoyable ”who stole my elephant” storyline. But people would have preferred some bullshit cliche collection storyline to be inserted. The 16th century set Ong Bak 2 actually takes one very small step to that direction, and it immediately becomes a drag. Anything related to characters and storyline only slows Ong Bak 2. The entire first hour is quite miserable actually; not even the fight scenes manage to impress (not counting a couple of great stunts). But it’s the ending that makes Ong Bak 2 worth seeing. The 20 minute action finale comes pretty close to being the best martial arts scene ever captured on film. It doesn’t make the preceding hour any better, but it does make the ending worth seeing once, twice, maybe thrice. It will be interesting to see how Ong Bak 3 continues from here. One new trick the filmmakers have learned is mure fluent but also faster editing. It’s not entirely a good thing.

After two violent action films a change of tone on at place. During the past 10 years director’s like Ryuichi Hiroki, Shunji Iwai and Hiroshi Ishikawa have re-invented Japanese drama film by making more intimate, often digitally shot films that move away from the classic Ozu style. Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking (2008) on the other hand is more old fashioned film. Koreeda marches characters from several generations in front of the camera for a family meeting. The middle aged son (Hiroshi Abe) and his new wife and son visit his parents and siblings in the old family house. There is no clear storyline, but rather 24 hours of one family’s life captured on camera. Koreeda’s idyllic images and slow tempo have won the critics over, but without the actors Still Walking wouldn’t stand on its feet. Hiroshi Abe and Yoshio Harada’s (the father) performances are a pleasure to watch. Some of the other actors, or rather their characters, do not get much room and make the first half of the film quite poor and uninteresting. The film improves later when there are fewer characters left. Another reason for the film becoming better during its second half is the director’s dry approach; there is little else than the characters, and they only become interesting once you get to know them better. In Koreeda’s hands that takes time.

A lot of time must also be reserved for my last film, which is a 5 hour double screening. Red Cliff (2008 / 2009) was John Woo’s return to Hong Kong and it wasn’t a modest one; all time highest budget in an Asian film, and approximately 100 000 men borrowed from the Chinese army to avoid the use of little cgi soldiers. And yet, there is a fair bit of cgi in the film, and not nearly all of it is well done. Another problem is characterization and supplementary story bits that aren’t very engaging. This kind of period drama has been seen before and done better, and without a clumsy love scene that Woo has for some reason left in his final cut. However, the epic scale and highly interesting war scenes keep even the first half of this film entertaining, and it’s Part II that truly shines. Once the dry set up is done, it’s hard core war tactics were brains matter more that manpower take over. Part 2 also introduces plenty of humour and it works far better than expected. Even the cgi is better done, although an overused ”ripped screen” transition effect is introduced. The final war scene is probably the most impressive war sequence even shot on film; kind this of sequence movie theaters were build for. Still, Woo remains honest to his old trademarks; heroism is emphasized more than realism, and white doves fly above the battle grounds.

Verdict:

Just Walking (Spain / Mexico, 2008) – 3/5
Thirst (South-Korea, 2009) – 3,5/5
Kinatay (Philippines, 2009) – ?/5
Yatterman (Japan, 2009) – 4,5/5
United Red Army (Japan, 2007) – 4,5/5
Tony Manero (Chile / Brazil, 2008) – 1/5
Crows Zero (Japan, 2007) – 1,5/5
The Tournament (UK, 2009) – 4/5
Still Walking (Japan, 2008) – 2,5/5
Red Cliff: Part 1 (HK / China 2008) – 3/5
Red Cliff: Part 2 (HK / China 2009) – 4/5

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2 comments

  1. I’ve had the chance to see both “Still Walking” and “Tokyo Sonata” this year at the NipponConnection on the same day. And I have to admit that I couldn’t follow you ranking Kore-eda’s work so much lower than Kurosawa’s. For me, “Still Walking” was actually more coherent, convincing and compelling. It seemed to me like Kurosawa wasn’t sure where he wanted to go with his film and what message he wanted to send, thus all those turns not just in plot but also in atmosphere. Seemed to me rather immature compared to Kore-eda.


  2. Good comment. I can perfectly understand your view. Still Walking is indeed more coherent of the two, but it’s also meant to be. Kurosawa’s film is a humoristic tragedy that doesn’t aim for maximum realism. It begins as a rather normal family movie, but every turn it takes is more and more tragicomic, even slightly surreal. It’s a social commentary, yes, but one of Kurosawa’s primary methods is satire and exaggeration. This combined with some “depth” in the execution of some individual scenes (the long car tracking shot with Koizumi and Yakusho) created something that really appealed to be – something that is well balanced between “classic dry family drama” and over the top drama like “Memories of Matsuko” (ok, quite far from that terrible film, thankfully, but you get the point).

    Still Walking on the other hand is – as far as I can tell, which isn’t all that much considering my limited knowledge of this genre – more Ozu-type, traditional drama. I tend not the be the biggest fan these type of films. Without meaning to make any generalizations, I think character oriented drama films have greatly improved during the last 10 years as compared to past decades. Partly thanks to digital cinematography, directors have finally brought the camera “to the skin”… so close to the actors that it feels more real than fiction. Digital cinematography gives a film a less cinematic look. It’s kind of like acting without make up; you’re more exposed. I really like this. All About Lily Chou Chou, Tokyo . Sora, It’s Only Talk are some of my favorite films. A bit less successful but still good examples of this style are Hiroki’s films Tokyo gomi onna (Tokyo Trash Baby) and Vibrator.

    In my eyes Still Walking represents the old school drama filmmaking – more theatrical, more scripted, and with a glossier or softer visual look – which I often (not always) find less interesting.

    Of course, Still Walking and Tokyo Sonata are not opposites. Tokyo Sonata is largely built on the same old school groundings as Still Walking. But it was the “incoherence” that steps in that made it very enjoyable in my books.

    A few screencaps demonstrating the “new style” that I like

    All About Lily Chou Chou

    Tokyo . Sora

    Vibrator



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