Archive for the ‘Movie Festivals’ Category

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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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Night Visions 2008: MH

October 28, 2008

Less than a month was given time to recover from the Hiff load until it’s already time for the next film festival, this time something shorter, something that turns movie watching into an extreme sport; Night Visions: Maximum Halloween 3008. Night Visions is a one weekend film festival celebrating mainly horror, fantasy and cult cinema (plus a few mainstream advance screenings as a filler). The festival is held twice a year; the main event Maximum Halloween in October, and Back to Basics in May/April. Following the tradition the event was held in Maxim; the oldest movie theatre still operating in Helsinki. It’s located only a few hundred metre from the famous Helsinki Cathedral.

The structure of the fest is simple; friday is the warm up night (films staring at 21:00 and 23:00), and saturday the actual festival night (films playing from 21:00 to approximately 11:00). There’s always two films playing at the same time so you can choose which one to see. Although two is not so much to choose from it’s not a big problem as the program is trictly customized and the target audience rather narrow. The festival is mainly targeted at hard core film geeks willing to fight the exhaustion and sit through the whole night. If you High School Musical 3 is on top if you “to see” list, you’ve come to the wrong theatre.

Friday: Warm Up

The festival kicks off with one of its most interesting new titles; Ryuhei Kitamura’s Hollywood debut The Midnight Meat Train (2008 ). Kitamura & Hollywood doesn’t sound like a promising combination, but the feedback has been highly positive, and for a reason. Using a Clive Barker novel as a base, Kitamura delivers a strong horror film that borrows its atmosphere mostly from the late 80’s / early 90’s American horror cinema. The director has left out his usual trickery for the most part and remains loyal to the source material; this is far more Barker than Kitamura. Bradley Cooper plays the lead role, but it’s Vinnie Jones as a giant butcher that takes his work to the midnight train once the day closes that really stands out. The only notable negative is the use cgi gore effects, although they don’t come even close to sinking the film. Humour is used very sparsely, and it works. Also bonus from sticking to the simple but effective base idea, instead of trying to spread it out too much to please bigger audiences.

More horror follows when Quarantine (2008 ), the American incarnation of last year’s over-rated Spanish horror hit [Rec], finds its way into my schedule. Rationally thinking, it would’ve been a better choice to go see Tokyo Gore Police instead, but since I wanted to save Eihi Shiina’s mini-skirt to saturday night, I ended up into a half empty theater, hoping the film wouldn’t be as bad as it had every reason to be. And thankfully it isn’t. It is a direct copy of [Rec] as far as screenplay goes – meaning the whole story of a group of people who get stuck in an apartment building when the government, without telling the reasons, isolates the building and allows no one to leave is seen through a reporter’s handhelf camera -, only this time shot in English and with a new cast. Technically, however, it’s an effective movie and better than the original.

[Rec] suffered from realism; the panicking and yelling characters became more irritating than likable during the film’s course. The American cast handles this aspect a tad better, perhaps making the pic less convincing to some, but overall more enjoyable. Another nice improvement is the cameraman who is given slightly more characteristics than his counterpart in [Rec] that never grew into something more than a walking camera. Admittedly the character development is not deep, and having an African-American man in the role, often consoling his nervous white female colleague, feels quite obvious Hollywood calculation, made even more obvious by making things even by casting another African-American as the bad tempered policeman. Such strong anti-racism is almost racism in itself.

The dark atmosphere continues outside the theater; it’s raing, and dark, and 1 am. I run to the train station where my buss leaves, it’s only about one kilometer from the movie theatre. When I arrive, I see several policemen in front of the station. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s a bunch of bald men standing in rain and arguing with the police. Some bystander mentions racism, but I’m not sure if it was related to the incident. Either way, once again it’s a moment when I’m not proud of my home country. When the buss leaves, I count five police cars plus one that I think belonged to the law enforcement but was a civil model.

Saturday: The Festival Night

Bangkok Dangerous remake, or Into the Mirror remake? Obviously the mean spirited festival ministry did this on purpose, making the audience choose between two Hollywood remakes of Asian movies. The logically thinking side of my brains tells me to go see Mirrors (2008 ). Director Alexande Aja’s career has gone downhill ever since his brutally effective debut Haute Tension, but assumably he’s still capable of keeping the tech side under control. Also, the festival is playing the uncut version – the US cut was edited for R-rating.

But I can’t help myself. In the promo pics of Bangkok Dangerous (2008 ) Nicolas Cage looks so utterly confused and spiritually absent that I just have to get myself a ticket. Bangkok two way it is. And it’s a decently good trip. Brothers Pang deliver an average assassin pic that surpasses the Thai original simply by lacking the revolting disco direction it suffered from. Sentimentialism is also kept under control this time. The oriental location works, but feels a bit under-exploited.

The first thing the fans and non-fans of the original notice is that Nic talks. The main character, now an American killer for hire, Joe, is no more a deaf-mute. It’s a shame, really, as the thought of Cage as deaf-mute assassin lost in the streets of Bangkok sounded quite delicious. But the good thing is that the Pang bros have created an entirely new screenplay that only throws a few familiar elements into the mix. One of them is the female lead Charlie Young who – here it comes – is a deaf-mute. Her role is not very extensive, though. Cage and his enjoyable art of acting from the fourth dimension dominates the pic.

Up next is the first of the three UK horrors shown on the fest, two of which I would see before the night has turned into a day. Eden Lake (2008 ) is a debut film by James Watkins. A couple’s holiday to nature turns into a nightmare in a way that references the problems of the real world in many ways. Technically a superb film, with a very good cast and beautiful locations, but unfortunately the screenplay takes continuous turns to the wrong direction. It fails to surprise the viewer, and lowers the audience dedication by too often doing the exact thing you were hoping for not to happen. It’s a shame as Eden Lake is a strongly involving film that could’ve been really great if it was better written.

Yoshihiro Nishimura’s literally jaw dropping gore opus Tokyo Gore Police features some of the most impressive handmade special effects in recent memory. And plenty of blood (four thousand litres were used, according to the director). Audition’s Eihi Shiina stars as an engineer hunter tracking down mutants who can replace body parts with deadly weapons such as chainsaws. Yes, it’s Blade Runner in red. Sometimes Nishimura tries too hard – the wrist cutting scene in the beginning being a good example – but he’s also got some sense of style; the main character drives an old Saab turned into a police car in the Shinjuku neon light jungle. Additional fun is provided by movie director cameos, including Takashi “I hate the Japanese” Shimizu, and Paul Verhoeven esque commercials (Suicide is kawaii!!, by Noboru Iguchi). All in all, it’s unbelievable Nishimura managed to shoot this all in just two weeks and with no time for rehearsals. Thrilling trash, just don’t expect technical merits on other areas than special effects.

Back to traditional celluloid film. A few years ago when Paul Andrew Williams made his debut with a hard hitting but slightly pretentious London to Brighton he advised new film-makers to avoid shooting in digital as it always looks worse than film. Obviously he had little idea what he was talking about, but having personally just sat through a painful reminder of how poor digital formats can look like when used incompetently, Williams’s preference for traditional film came very much welcomed indeed. In The Cottage (2008 ) Andy ’Gollum’ Serkis and Reece Shearsmith play two men with an intention to make money with a kidnapping plan. Things go worse than possible. Instead of a thriller or pure horror, The Cottage is a comedic no hold barred ride that will surprise more than once. It the first half doesn’t work entirely, though, and the music choices are less cleaver than the one responsible for them probably thinks.

Before the next film there was a bit a of extra program, with four volunteers picked from the audience to act in a post apocalypse short play. The first player got a big advantage as he was given a cardboard bazooka – the only prop there was. The rest had to rely on their improvised ”Give me fuel, bastards” -lines. The winner got something, but I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps it was the Speed Racer promotional item that was for share (yet another sign of the festival ministry’s twisted sense of humour). Later in the morning competitors had to get into mood for a horror film to come by building WALL·E models. It’s hard to say who were more confused; the players, or the audience.

Battletruck: Warlords of the 21st Century (1982). In the recent uprise of Ozploitation (thanks to the documentary pic Not Quite Hollywood) this New Zealand post apocalypse pride could also find a new audience… perhaps its first major one. The basic elements are all there; armored trucks, lonely hero, and deadly battles for gasoline. What’s extra are the fine landscapes of New Zealand, effectively used in a couple of ’helicopter tracking shots’ but otherwise playing little role in the story. The title truck is driven by a villainous bunch that oppresses the ordinary poor people. Michael Beck has to stand up for them. The middle third features some dead moments but the action is rather good and the armored truck itself leaves no room for complaints.

Where’s that energy drink I brought with me? I fell asleep for 5 seconds during Battletruck (basically I was just having heavy thoughts… and then I noticed my eyes were closed…) sometime around 6 am. Energiajuoma, it states in Finnish in capital letters. The small printing says ”don’t drink before going to sleep”. Ah, exactly what need. Hope it’s good… uhg, no such luck. It tastes awful. But that’s not such a bad thing actually. It has an instant effect; every time I take a gulp I have to twist my face like Jim Carrey in a mid 90’s comedy and that alone keep me awake for 15 minutes at one go. Also, I better take this chance and eat those two buns I stole from school (one day they’re gonna catch me for that) on Friday.

A famous video nasty title with a creepy cover art that burned into my memory at young age, I Drink Your Blood (1970) turns out a hippie movie instead of the monster splatter I was expecting. But it’s not about free love and flower girls. No, these hippies are dangerous! I Drink Your Blood is a nice piece of unintentionally funny American exploitation cinema that works best when seen with people who have at least some understanding for the genre. The screenplay is wonderfully illogical; you’ll find yourself confused more often than not. Apparently the pic was originally rated X by MPAA, which sounds pretty far out considering the content. Perhaps 38 years ago someone did take the film with some seriousness.

If my memory serves me right, this is when the last remaining Saw 5 raincoats were given away. They really had hard time getting rid of those! Other, real prizes were also handed out to the lucky ones, although I believe the main prize went to the festival ministry after the came to the conclusion there no good competitions left and it would be easier if they just kept the items themself. The audience got smaller stuff, like posters and other items they had to discard but were too large to fit the trash bin…

The grande finale for the night, Robotrix (1991), a classic Category III title combining sci-fi, sex and kung fu. Amy Yip – delivering her usual Yiptease (the art of jumping around naked without ever really exposing anything) – and Chikako Aoyama – with a bit less restraints in front of the camera – star as female cyborgs after a mechanical villain (Billy Chow). A bunch horny male cops give ”support”. The outrageous film would’ve been great fun even normally, but as the last film of the marathon, watched at 8:45 am, after 6 other cult and horror films, it was a riot. The applauses during (especially when Chow disposes the dead prostitute) and after the film were all well deserved. No better way to end the festival.

Epilogue

Another great Night Visions experience. Big thanks to the organizers. The program was good, and so were all the films (keep in mind I’m using very harsh rating scale, with ”positive toned” ratings beginning from 1.5, and 2.5 equaling to a solid film). Looking forward to Back to Basics in Spring 2009. Films saw at Maximum Halloween 3008 in the order of viewing:

The Midnight Meat Train – 3,5/5
Quarantine – 2,5/5
Bangkok Dangerous – 2,5/5
Eden Lake – 2,5/5
Tokyo Gore Police – 2,5/5
The Cottage – 2,5/5
Battletruck – 2,5/5
I Drink Your Blood – 3/5
Robotrix – 4/5

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Hiff 2008: Part 3

October 1, 2008

Friday, again

Back to Helsinki. This time I had better luck; I had decided not to skip any afternoon lessons at school and take the 3:30 train. Unintentionally wise decision, considering I had forgotten about the accounting test that took place at 12:30.

I always thought Kiyoshi Kurosawa might be able to pull out a great movie if he left the ghost out. That’s exactly what he does in Tokyo Sonata (2008 ). Kurosawa crafts a slightly satiric downfall drama that becomes increasingly humoristic, even absurd. It all begins when a white collar father loses his job, and is too embarrassed to tell the truth to his family. Some of the plot turns don’t even attempt to be believable, but Kurosawa evens the affair with restrained visual style and relatively slow pace. The soundtrack works quite well. After halfway, during Koji Yakusho’s comedic appearance, there’s a long continous take where Kurosawa’s skill really shows.

One of the less amusing festival rituals in eating while walking. With too little time, too many movies, and a stomach telling you food is needed right now you have no choice but to combine actions to save time. McDonalds is your friend. Cheese burger would take too long – it was crowded – so I only take french fries. I also have a bun that I ”stole” from the school restaurant earlier today in my bag. Itadakimasu!

Soviet Union. 1984. Not a very good time and place, according to Aleksei Balabanov’s film Cargo 200 (2007), which, for some reason, I thought was about illeagal army operations. This turned out false assumption, for the most part. Rather than telling an important story it’s a fraction of hell, a few randomly chosen dark days in the countryside, later clashing with bleak industrial views. Balabanov steers the pic with great originality; it is impossible to foresee the upcoming events. Even more impressive is the terrific soundtrack. Characters and actors are good enough, although the female lead doesn’t always convince. Dark humour is constantly present.

Saturday

War plan needed. I have five movies scheduled for saturday, but, if possible, I’d also like to fight the hunger at some point. I walk into a pizzeria in Kamppi with hopes of taking use of their luch offer. But I forget it’s Saturday. Can’t help it, I don’t have time to find another restaurant as I need to be at Bio Rex at 1:00. I make it in time, although I wish I didn’t as I get to see the enormously irritating festival trailer for the 15th time. Do they really need to show that at the beginning of every film in Bio Rex?

More Cannes glory. Do-yeon Jeon scored the best actress award for her role as a suffering single parent in Secret Sunshine (2007). She gets to display some drastic changes in her character, but the performance is a bit hard to enjoy when every turn only aims at cheap melodrama. It’s a shame, as there are some good elements, like the first, humoristic 50 minutes, and Kang-ho Song, who is very good as a likable loser who falls in love with the lead character. Unfortunately, the majority of the film is so incredibly shabby that it buries all the positives. 2½ hour running time doesn’t make it any easier to endure.

A good film is now needed more than ever, but the ticket spells Sky Crawlers (2008 ), a potential crowd pleasing effort by Mamoru Oshii. This is fortunately not the case. Sky Crawers doesn’t go overboard with philosophing (like the director’s previous film; Innocense), but it’s pure Oshii from themes of identity and soul to lack of comprehensive answers. It’s not Oshii at his most effective, and suffers from some over-length, but it’s a fascinating piece set in unidentified time and place in the future. The numerous air battles are well done, and the final touch is given by Kenji Kawai’s terrific score. Big names Rinko Kikuichi and Chiaki Kuriama voice the most important supporting characters.

Time clashes rarely do good to cinema. Wong Kar Wai’s masterful wuxia drama Ashes of Time opened in 1994, after a long and problematic production. The stylish, emotional and a tiny bit insane film became a fan favourite, but never received a home video treatment it deserved. The available dvds all failed to do justice to the film. Part blame was to the available source prints, which were all in poor condition. Some of the problems could never be solved, as the film was shot using various film materials, not always very successfully. Instead of simply remastering the best sources available Wong decided to rework the whole film and release it theatrically as Ashes of Time: Redux (2008 ).

Financially it was a cleaver move; it didn’t take Sony long to pick the distribution rights. A better availability of the film in the future should be guaranteed. Unfortunately that’s were the good new end. The new remastering is a disaster. The image is now glazing orange / green, even dark at times. Dirt and scratches are gone, but so is film grain, at expense of sharpness of course. Digital touch shows in numerous new reflection effects. In the beginning there’s an apocalyptic cgi sun added next to the swordsmen. New and appalling opening and closing credits have been added.

Perhaps even worse is the ”improvements” made to the soundtrack. New surround effects in some of the fight scenes are only needless, but disrespecting Frankie Chan’s pitch perfect score is unforgivable. Much of the original music is gone while some has been remixed into inferior versions. Most of the time the images are accompanied by Yo Yo Ma’s new, dull desert drama music. Editing wise Redux omits several scenes from the original film, such as Leslie Cheung’s fight in the beginning, and footage from the ending. A couple of additional flowers have added to the film, for some reason.

It’s unbelievable how much these, and other changes, weaken the film. A bad movie it it still not, but a lot less effective. Stylistically it’s now more in line with Wong’s recent, more coherent drama features. This will probably appeal to overseas critics, but the bite is gone. This is, however, not the first time Wong adjusts his film. He already made an internatinal cut of Ashes of Time long ago, that omitted most of the fight scenes among others. This cut has been despised by fans, but compared to Redux it was a small compromise. Changes of the original cut ever seeing the light of day in remastered for seem close to zero.

More respect for original works can be found in Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008 ). Mark Hartley’s doc introduces the audiences to Australian exploitation films from nudie features to nature splatter and carsploitation. A large number of films are referenced, with a huge amount of fun clips that make you want to add some Aussie trash to your dvd shopping list, but the approach could be more indepth. Interviews consist mostly of 10 second speeches from the filmmakers, and Quentin Tarantino, who shares is enthusiasm in his usual motormouth fashion. Perhaps most memorable stories are shared by Dennis Hopper and his co-workers. We also learn that Wang Yu was an asshole with big ego.

One of the festival traditions, aside annual Miike and Ghibli features, is to have something less than sophisticated from Thailand. This year’s pick was Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008 ), which dumps the director’s regular star Tony Jaa in favour of having a female lead (JeeJa Yanin). The story of a autist girl who gets in trouble with the local gangsters and learns martial arts by watching Bruce Lee films on TV isn’t over-written for sure, but the basic idea – having a cute, 22 your old girl beating the shit out of 120 opponents – is fun of course. In your usual Thai style half of the villains appear to be transvestites. There’s also a hilarious, cgi enhanced slow motion shot of a fly getting electrified. The finale, which is a series of completely insane and incredibly painful looking stunts, sets the genre bar once again a bit higher.

Sunday

Back to backpacking mode. It’s the last day day of the festival. Since I still have a movies to see, and a train to catch, I have to drag my stuff into the cinemas once again. In practice it means I’ll be sitting on the end of the row set, where the visibility to the screen in less than ideal. But it’s better this way; I doubt other cinema goers would appreciate it if I sat in the middle and blocked the way with my carryings.

As mentioned before, Hiff has good relations to Studio Ghibli, and this time it really paid of. The festival got a special permission to hold a digibeta screening of their 1993 film Ocean Waves. Being a TV production no true cinema prints exist. The audience nevertheless thanked for the opportunity and filled every seat in the cinema. The endlessly fun and cute, but still somewhat realistic (compared to Ghibli’s better known fantasy films) school drama is about two high school students who fall for a Tokyo girl. Perhaps the most enjoyable film in the festival.

The end, according to my original plan. But then, a few days ago got the brilliant idea to match my film and train schedules as well as I could. Instead of waiting over an hour for the train I might as well go to the movies. But if I do that’ll miss the first train. Therefore, I have to go see two films. The latter one of them would be a festival advance of Son of Rambow (2008 ), a viewing decision I stared regretting already before film started. Originally I thought the idea of a British film where two kids who get to see The First Blood and start making their own adaptation sounded good. Obviously a result of festival exhaustion (in the lack of better excuses). The film provides a few good laughs, but is safely made family entertainment from a big studio with no courage or wits for a single surprising turn.

Therefore, the moral finale for 2008 Hiff was the re-viewing of Evangelion 1.0: You’re (Not) Alone (2007) in the small but cozy Kino Engel 1. A good film deserves more than one viewing, I always thought. Today I also have enough time to stay till the very end – something you rarely get to do when you stuff your days as full as I do – and see the preview of the upcoming part 2. It doesn’t look overly promising, but big anime trailers rarely do. I’ll be looking forward to it, and asking myself whether I should also purchase the original TV show or not. Maybe I’ll try to refuse the temptation.

Epilogue

Nobody likes epilogues, so lets keep it short. The festival sold 48 369 tickets, although the number will go above 50 000 once a couple of special screenings have been held around the country. Also thanks to the festival for handing out free dvds in screenings related to Asia. I picked Once a Cop, Big Bullet and Full Alert. I don’t know if it was due to appreciation towards the audience, or distributor having problems clearing their stock, but it was a nice surprise. Finally, below are listed the 24 films I saw on the festival. The list is arranged by rating. However, films sharing the same rating are in no specific order.

Ocean Waves – 4/5
Tokyo Sonata – 4/5
The Art of Crying – 4/5
Evangelion 1.0: You’re (Not) Alone – 4/5
Cargo 200 – 3,5/5
Sky Crawlers – 3,5/5
Chocolate – 3,5/5
Martyrs – 3/5
Death Note – 3/5
Uncle’s Paradise – 3/5
Ashes of Time Redux – 3/5
Gomorra – 2,5/5
Three Monkeys – 2,5/5
Heartbeat Detector – 2,5/5
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A – 2,5/5
Not Quite Hollywood – 2,5/5
Occident – 2/5
Lorna’s Silence – 2/5
Son of Rambow – 1,5/5
Captain Abu Raed – 1,5/5
Secret Sunshine – 1/5
Appleseed: Ex Machina – 1/5
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – 1/5
Vexille – 1/5

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Hiff 2008: Part 2

September 30, 2008

Sunday

No films until 1 pm equals to good night sleep. With plenty of time to spare I decide to walk rather than taking a bus. The wether is fine, and a 50 minute walk never hurt anyone. I eat my regular festival meal kebab with rice (not the best food the town has to offer, but does keep you full till the next morning, which is the main point) at the railway station. They still incorrectly claim in their front window that it costs 8.40€, while the actual price is 6.90€. The correct price can only be seen in a poster pointing inside. It’s been like this for a year already. People not willing to pay 8.40€ will stay away, and anyone entering the restaurant would’ve been willing to pay the full amount. Brilliant business.

Filmwise the day begins with a 142 minute risk; La Question Humaine aka Heartbeat Detector (2007). A surprising connection between modern, male oriented company world and crimes of the past is found this social noir. The overlong piece could do with 20 minutes of trimming, but the execution is stylish, and one can’t deny the film’s merits in introducing an interesting theory. Those who take cinema too seriously will probably grow a healthy bunch of gray hairs before the ending credits roll.

No Parking (2008 ) at Maximun 2. Perhaps the Spanish distributor over-estimated our language skills, or more likely was too lazy to double-check the package heading to the country of polar bears, leaving us with an unsubtitled print. I end up to Kinopalatsi to see Captain Abu Raed (2007). An unfortunate change in schedule, but I don’t feel to upset about it since I had some slight interest for the film anyway. A bigger problem is that I’m feeling hot as hell. Fever perhaps? I try to feel my forehead. It smells of chocolate… no, it’s the girl next to who me eating chocolate cake. Everything fine then.

”Jordan’s Amelie”, one critic praised. The good meaning film follows an old man who delights the kids of the neighborhood by telling them made up stories of his adventures as a flight captain. In reality the poor man is a cleaner at the airport. The hopelessly sugary film later takes a turn into darker family hell territories, without much success. Syrup is cheaper at grocery store, and can be served in smaller portions. Abu Raed runs over 100 minutes. Still, with Nadim Sawalha’s cordial performance you don’t feel like bashing the film completely.

Vexille (2007), a computer animation by Fumihiko Sori, the director of Ping Pong and the upcoming ”female Zatoichi” Ichi, is a prime example of the worst type animated garbage Japan has to offer. Although the setting – future Japan completely isolated from the rest of the world – sounds interesting, the film achieves nothing. It’s loaded with nerve wrecking slow motion action scenes and fearless heroes and robots that share equal charisma. Worst of all is the loud soundtrack that makes the poor viewer develop suicidal thoughts. The positives of this problem-waste are few and far between; there’s a decent piece of music in the opening credits, followed by a rather exiting ”death star invation” 95 painfully long minutes later.

Getting back to respectable movies, it was a few years ago when I saw Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (2006). Back then I thought this director could easily reach greatness if given a more minimalistic screenplay to work with. Three Monkeys (2008 ) unfortunately takes the wrong path with family drama of a man who takes the blame for fatal traffic accident intead of his boss, and his wife and son now left alone while the father is in prison. However, Ceylan’s use of 2.35:1 aspect ratio is often impressive, and the intentionally slow and detailed pace deserves recognition. The slight disappointment is more because of the director’s huge potential than the film’s failures as an individual product.

Monday

One of the 2008 additions to festival program was screening this year’s Nordic Council Film Price nominees. Included in the competition is a total of five movies, one from each Nordic country. Some of the films have been seen in theaters already before, while some made their Finnish debut at the festival. While I managed to miss each of this year’s nominees, I did find time to examine the winner of the 2007 competition; The Art of Crying (2006).

Crying is fun in this pitch dark comedy from Denmark. The recipe to success is good poker face. Pulsing with seeming Nordic realism – that soon turns out wicked irony – the story of a ”normal” 1970 family takes all the more shocking – and hilarious – turns as it advances. Taboos are broken in the process, and the film is accompanied with a beautiful piano music and countryside setting. Performances are terrific throughout. An intelligent comedy with bite, for once.

Carrying on sad themes next up is Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007), where it’s the audience’s turn to cry. Hong Kong maestros Terence Chang and John Woo in the producer’s chair have brought little extra quality to Shinji Aramaki’s second Appleseed animation, which, according to my weak recallings, fares very poorly even compared to the 2004 original. It’s a rock and roll scifi actioner with plenty of dull slow-mo gunplay and zero character depth. The original source is Masamune Shirow’s manga. While far from the worst garbage the genre has to offer, Ex Machina features no redeeming qualities. It can be watched, but I can’t think of any good reasons to do so.

A notably better movie is Cristian Mungiu’s Occident (2002) that found a new life in the festival circuits after the directors 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007) was crowned in Cannes last year. Occident is a small drama comedy, decently entertaining and most definitely worth a recommendation for the director’s fans, but fails to be anything exceptional. It will probably find it’s fans nevertheless. To me perhaps most memorable about the film was a couple of great moments with the playful soundtrack.

A complete U-turn in terms of content takes place when Gomorra (2008 ), described as the most realistic Italian mafia movie ever made, starts in Kinopalatsi’s sold out screening. With a wide variety of characters and determination to aim at maximum level of realism, the film sacrifices entertainment values a few times along the way, but definitely offers something to think about when leaving the theatre. Because of the scattered structure I also suspect the film might hold up better on a repeated viewing. Those interested in the subject will probably gain their reward immediately.

The break

6:30 tuesday morning. I don’t want to get up, but I’ve got a train to catch. The festival is not over yet, not even for me, but I’m forced to go back to school for a few days. My Foreign Trade teacher has promised me to place a boot in my ass if I don’t deliver my assignment in time. That’s the last thing I need after four days of sitting on rough seats and sleeping on the floor. Besides, there’s a couple of other teachers who also might develop murderous thoughts if I scored too many absence marks. Back to school I go.

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Hiff 2008: Part 1

September 30, 2008

Forewords

The 21st Helsinki International Film Festival, or Rakkautta & Anarkiaa (Love & Anarchy) as it is known in Finnish, was held 18-28.9.2008. Initially I found this year’s selection, especially from an Asian film fan’s point of view, a bit disappointing. However, with approximately 130 films playing in various theaters around the centrum of Helsinki for 11 days I found enough motivation to draw up a festival schedule and prepare for the movie marathon to come.

Friday

I’m sitting in a train, with a four hour ride ahead of me, and not feeling very good. The day has not gone as planned. I was supposed to attend a short test in Marketing Management in school this morning, and then skip the afternoon classes of Financial Accounting in order to make it to Helsinki in time. But yesterday, with a less than 24 hour warning, our class got the updated information; the order of the lessons has been switched. The test begins at 1 pm, my train leaves at 1:30.

I decide to give it desperate try; I appear in school with a huge backpack, and make a world record by finishing the test in 14 minutes, answering to most questions. Some of the question are too long and I don’t even have time to read them, let alone answer to them. My good luck is that the test is a brief one, actually a quiz, that you are supposed to complete in 60 minutes. The first of the many to come, in fact. Now, it’s time to run to the train station.

Due to mismatches in schedules between me and a friend of mine, who allows me to stay at his place during the festival, I have to carry my luggage with me the whole evening. It’s not a big deal – I much prefer doing it this way than causing extra inconvenience to my friend who’s already kind enough to provide me free accomomdation in the expensive city of Helsinki – but other festival visitors may wonder how on earth did a mountain climber end up in movie theater.

5:30. I arrive Helsinki. First I need to go redeem the tickets from two different theaters (representing different cinema chains). Bio Rex is hell, at least 40 people in queue. I decide to go to Kinopalatsi first. Hardly any people there. With the first 5 tickets in my hand I head back to Rex with hopes of making it to one of the 6:30 screenings. After 25 minutes of standing in queue I realize that isn’t going to happen.

The positive aspect of this unfortunate event is that now, while sadly missing gay zombies (Otto; or, Up with Dead People), I actually have time to eat. Later, while killing time in Kinopalatsi and wondering whether the Japanese photographer that passed me was a sign of a directors visit to come, I get the idea to write a festival diary. But enough about forewords, lets move in to the cinema.

As I suspected, Shinji Imaoka, a man of few words, is attending the screening of his half-recent pink fare Uncle’s Paradise (2006). While it could be a considered a dubious start for the festival on my behalf, the pic makes it to the positive side. Imaoka obviously possesses decent audio-visual skills, and some single scenes of pure insanity make comparisons to the works of Takashi Miike and Teruo Ishii seem at least half-justified.

There is – to quote a reviewer whose name I’ve forgotten – enough sex to put the main character into grave, but the film is humoristic and blessed with a sympathetic cast. The storyline follows and elderly man who’s too afraid of his horrible nightmares to sleep, and only finds consolation in overuse of vitamins, and occasional erotic adventures, mostly provided by his fisherman nephew’s cute girlfriend.

The evening continues in less perverse fashion with Shusuke Kaneko’s live action manga adaptation Death Note (2006). The transition from erotica to big scale blockbuster is actually more fitting than it may first seem; Kaneko himself is a former pink director. In Death Note the director stumbles a bit in the beginning – especially with one cgi generated character that caused some amusement in the audience – but the quality improves before long. The fantasy tale of a man who is granted an opportunity to take the justice into his own hands is surprisingly dark and captivating. Teen idols Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama both convince in the lead roles. Not being familiar with the source material the true success of the adaptation process remains a mystery, but as an enjoyable and occasionally silly mainstream effort Death Note more than does its job.

Saturday

Ahh, shower. God knows I needed it after carrying around my backpack all day yesterday. I slept well, performing a successful blackout around 3 am after watching the first 40 minutes of Werner Herzog’s stylish new documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007) at my friend’s place. We would finish the quality doc a few days later, yesterday I was too tired. My friend, the tough fighter he is, continued with an episode of Dexter after I had started taking the count. The first film will begin at noon, leaving me with just enough time to grab a cheese burger on my way to the movies.

My statistical competence as a reviewer takes left hooks as I enter Bio Rex to see yet another adaptation of a source material unknown to me; Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (2008 ). Hideaki Anno’s life achievement in anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, has been given a reworked cinema treating; 1.0 is the first of the four films to come, and covers the events of the first 6 episodes of the TV series. The opening is fast and confusing, but the pic soon finds its track and gets better scene by scene. The scifi action becomes secondary next to themes of war and loneliness. Carefully crafted characters provide a good grounding for the epic final battle.

After lunch break it’s more anime, this time Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) making its Finnish cinema premiere (later coming to wider distribution). While I consider My Neighbor Totoro (1988 ) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) delightful pieces of cinema, this Miyazaki doesn’t convince, apart from the opening scene. The dialogue is miserable, mostly repeating things that have already been already seen on screen and understood by the audience, and the preachy storyline doesn’t reach its end in acceptable time. Not even Joe Hisaishi score manage to stand out.

Director pair and brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have gained some recognizition among art house audiences, which made me eager to see their latest offering. Lorna’s Silence (2008 ) follows and a foreign woman who marries Belgian drug addict only to achieve the country’s nationality. As expected, the film is a very European character drama with some slight crime film connections, but fails to achieve a great level of detail. It keeps your interest up till the end, and comes with adequate performances from the leads, but ultimately doesn’t leave you with much worth remembering.

Next comes what, according to the organizers, is the film this year’s festival will be remembered for. Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008 ) was the hot potato in this years’s Cannes, and reportedly considered a too risky pick for some international film festivals that decided to drop it from their selection. Laugier himself was meant to attend the screening with us in Helsinki, but unfortunately all we got was a polite letter explaining the man is stuck in L.A with Hollywood producers looking for a chance to work with him. What a shame.

The French have worked hard in the recent years to put out some of the most hard hitting horror movies on the market. But Martyrs needs a big warning stamp attached to its film reels; it is makes films such as Haute Tension and À l’intérieur seem harmless joyrides in comparison. The ultra strong thriller opens with montage showing its main characters, two young women, being tortured by an unknown organized group when they were children. The actual storyline picks up frome here and is better left unrevealed. Undeniably Laugier makes some bad misjudgements along the way, but the entirety, even described as existential by some, is fascinating. The experience is likely to be stronger than the last 100 movies you saw put together.

The last film of the night is Big Bang Love – Juvenile A (2006) by one of Japan’s most prolific madmen; Takashi Miike. This murder mystery set in prison, also going by a more lyrical title 4.6 Billion Years of Love, is loaded with gay themes and skilfully light images. It suffers from intentionally artistic outcome, but still manages to entertain even on repeated viewings. Masanobu Ando and Ryuhei Matsuda play the lead roles. Worth mentioning is also the ending, which is one of the best in recent memory. Perhaps it would soon be time to ask Miike to visit the festival; Hiff has a long tradition of screening his movies, often more than one per year.