27.3.17

Train to Busan

Working title for which was probably 'Zombies on a Train'. Which may be enough to hang a film on, but this horror flick from Korea is worth a closer look for two reasons. Firstly, the tension is remarkably sustained throughout the running time. After about 20 minutes of set-up, the film is essentially a series of escalating scenarios that winnow down a train's worth of passengers to a handful of survivors. And while the in-world logic comes under some strain towards the end (an unexplained flaming locomotive appears randomly at one point to supercharge the mayhem), there's enough inventive use of the obstacles and opportunities of the setting to keep a thrill-seeker satisfied.


The second reason is that the film is actually about something more than zombies on a train. The protagonist is a fund manager who may share some responsibility for the outbreak. His marriage has failed, and he doesn't spend enough time with his daughter. When the zombies appear, he instructs her to look after number one, and not try to help others. He is contrasted on the one hand with a burly expectant dad who understands that fatherhood is about sacrifice, and on the other with a cowardly small businessman who gets increasingly comfortable with throwing others to the zombies in order to save his own skin. The film keeps coming back to this battle between self-interest and selflessness. At one point, it suggests that there may be a generational aspect to this divide – an older, more community-minded cohort who might still remember the Korean War, and a newer, more individualistic breed of Korean out to work hard, make money and leave others in the dust. It is heavily implied that the zombies are only the next step in that (d)evolution.

But if parenting is about sacrifice, the film places an awful lot of the burden on preserving a happy family on the men. All the female characters in the film are there to be put in peril and subsequently saved by the male characters – even the teenage girl, who doesn't have the excuse of being too young, too old, or pregnant, to fight. The women also don't really have arcs – they either already accept that survival requires selflessness, or are otherwise mindless paranoiacs whipped up into a frenzy by the villain. The only female character who makes a choice in the film chooses suicide in disgust at the moral compromises of her fellow passengers. She kills herself in order to kill others. Only the men kill themselves to preserve their families. Which makes me wonder how far the critique of absent fathers working long hours to support their kids goes.

At one point the burly expectant father boasts that he 'made' the baby growing inside his partner, erasing her role in the process. It's a cute moment, but the joke becomes less funny the more the film valorises his conduct.

18.3.17

Keyhole

My first foray into the works of Guy Maddin – this is a gangsters in a haunted house story loosely based on the Odyssey and preoccupied by the ways your parents mess you up. The Odysseus figure is an authoritarian crime lord who cannot recognise his son, and who is on a mission to gain forgiveness from his estranged wife. The surrealism is justified by the insinuation that all of the action is taking place in the dreams of the son, who is processing his feelings of estrangement from his family. In what is probably the most touching scene, the son demonstrates a machine he has invented which can pass messages to different rooms in the house. He is still a boy trying his hardest keep lines of communication open, and put his family back together. But of course, they're all ghosts in his head. The house is empty.



The film is shot through with streaks of absurdist humour – my favourite being the father's mistress who replies only in (unsubtitled) french. Otherwise, I found the jokes a little bit amateurish, but perhaps you need to be in a certain forgiving mood to enjoy them. More arresting are the slightly coy instances of sexual awakening in the film – not just the son's desire for a beautiful medium he falls in love with, but his fear of the sexuality of other members of his family (the mistress who steals his father away, his mother's father who is always naked and probably gay, and his sister). The film probably adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there are moments and images that make it worth trying out.

15.3.17

The Love Witch

A film seven years in the making, with the director Anna Biller also taking charge of the writing, editing, set design, wardrobe and props. The care taken over the mise en scène is extraordinary – every bit as impressive as the creations of other detail-driven film-makers like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. Biller's world-building makes very few concessions to reality, up to and including the eye-popping Technicolour and stilted acting – a nod to films of the 50s and earlier. But is this visual feast meant to please, or unsettle?

I was getting mixed messages. On the one hand, Biller seems to want to provide female viewers with the enjoyment of watching their fantasies on screen – cute clothes, dashing men, driving red convertibles across California. On the other hand, the OTT girlishness is difficult to take seriously, or at face value. You're not supposed to buy into it in the way you do with Baz Luhrmann or Sex and the City. It's all a bit too fake, too clumsy.

That audience distancing is to the film's purpose, which is to comment on and undercut the world-view of the main character, who is basically a Lana Del Ray figure with a propensity to murder. Elaine is a witch who uses spells to make men fall obsessively in love with her – although the rituals are only the half of it. Most of her allure is down to her willingness to transform herself into a compliant and available male fantasy.



Biller has done her research on assorted pagan and wicca subcultures, but her portrayal of this religion is not flattering. The coven in the film is led by a man, who is basically a creep. He delivers a long lecture on the power of female sexuality to two young girls, who end up dancing provocatively for the enjoyment of old men in a burlesque club. He also gropes Elaine, and there are hints that he used his status as the head of a cult to sexually harass or even rape her in the past. It's therefore difficult to take his advocacy of female empowerment seriously. Biller elsewhere has made the argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was incomplete – women may be freer to express their sexuality, but the form and purpose of that expression is still shaped by men. 

Elaine's preoccupation with having men adore her is insatiable. There is an emptiness at her core which requires the constant approval and love of other people. As well as the possible rape by the creepy warlock, Biller reveals that Elaine was (at least verbally) abused by her father. Throughout her life, she has faced demands to be desirable, and seems to have been punished when she is not. Her 'sex magic' is a way to reassert herself using the only thing she has been told she has of value. There is no glory or satisfaction in it. Biller's femme fatale is just an object that stabs back.

5.3.17

Funeral Parade of Roses

Although Toshio Matsumoto acknowledges that an interest in the Oedipus story is what gives this film its shape, he also says the primary motivation for making it was to document Tokyo's emerging gay subculture. And so the plot is constantly interspersed with documentary – including interviews with the actors about the motivation of their characters. Those interviews are sometimes rather uncomfortable to watch – calling to mind Foucault's idea that the demand to disclose your feelings is in its own way oppressive. The questions are often accusatory (what about getting married? don't you like women as well?) and the subjects answer or evade them with as much dignity as they can muster.

It's often quite a fun film – Matsumoto is keen to exploit every cinematic trick he can think of, so there's slapstick routines (mostly absurd catfights), wild psychedelic parties, free love, drugs and (rather violent) student politics. The film employs a cut-up technique, short scenes scrambled together, and sometimes revisited. The effect is to present a kaleidoscope of gay life, building up a sense of a particular place and culture, rather than sticking to a certain character or narrative.



That said, the director's use of the Oedipus story provides a (rather artificial) backbone to the film. By having to follow in Oedipus's footsteps, the protagonist is given a dark past and a doomed future – which casts a pall over the fun and games. The film seems to suggest that these characters are running away from broken families, and are all destined for early deaths. Matsumoto is too fascinated by the counterculture he is filming to condemn it, but the logic of the story he is telling means the film cannot be celebratory either.

Why Oedipus is so interesting to Matsumoto is unclear. Perhaps the transgressive nature of the tragedy serves to underscore the transgressiveness of queer sexuality, particularly in the 1960s, and particularly in Japan. To transgress means to offend propriety, and live with the shame of not being able to conform. The film ends with the protagonist being stared at by a circle of random people on the street, the outrage of the incest melding with the outrage of a nonconformist lifestyle. There's no way around that sort of Greek tragedy, even if one hopes that the subculture the film explores continues to grow and thrive.

4.3.17

Ice

A post-apocalyptic anime film with a premise similar to Children of Men, but with a curious gender twist – only male babies stop being born. In the all-female society that emerges in the ruins of Tokyo, masculinity is associated with militarism and the hubris of science – the two forces that led to the unspecified natural disaster or war that has transformed the planet. Soldiers demure from using handguns, which are perceived as dangerously 'male' weapons.

On the one hand, charges of essentialism are avoided by having a villain tempted by the same 'masculine' forces her society abhors – Julia wants to use abandoned technology to remake the world again. On the other hand, both Juila and the hero Hitomi are presented as very masculine women – in terms of wardrobe, hairstyles and voice. Hitomi is much like other brooding, self-sufficient, celibate male protagonists in anime, and Julia is much like other decadent and depraved male antagonists. The 'female' female characters in the film are invariably of lower rank, less skilled, and have fewer opportunities to display any kind of agency.



The film's environmental message is rather heavy-handed. A memorable instance of body horror is used to disparage the idea of genetic engineering. There is also the rather strange conceit of Hitomi being haunted by the spirit of a girl from 'our' pre-apocalyptic world, who wakes up at the end convinced to change her polluting ways.

It is a rather weird concoction – as with a lot of anime, the plot zips along and compresses a huge amount of information at the start. The overload means you spend much of the film befuddled and unsure of why things are happening. But as a vehicle for extravagant, surreal images of the future, it's rather effective. There are some quite beautiful visual sequences in the film, not least the strange scene of birds transforming into plants and trees. At points you get that sense of future shock from seeing a completely alien civilisation comparable to something like Frank Herbert's Dune. That makes it worth seeing, despite the questionable gender politics.