If it’s time for this blog to wake from its summer hibernation it can only mean that festival season will soon be upon us. Ahead of the London Korean Film Festival kicking off in November they held a teaser screening of Zhang Lü’s Ode to the Goose earlier this week and I dutifully tagged along for a dose of Korean cinema and in the hope of a glimpse of LKFF stalwart Tony Rayns.
The viewer arrives late to Ode to the Goose as the film starts where traditionally the second act would be found. So begins two hours of subtle humour, careful character-driven plotting, and a frisky approach to structure that always left me one step behind. With a pace closer to Hong Sang-soo than Park Chan-wook, and a film that shows its title card after more than an hour has passed, Lü demands your patience and attention.
In the coastal town of Gunsan Yoon-young (Park Hae-il) has taken Song-hyun (Moon So-ri) away for a trip of ambiguous intent. Looking for a place to spend the night they are directed towards a guesthouse that requires “luck” to gain admittance. Luck must be on their side as they are allowed to stay; the guesthouse’s only residents beside the nameless innkeeper (Jung Jin-young) and his recluse autistic daughter (Park So-dam).
With little to do to fill their time Yoon-young and Song-hyun struggle to define their relationship, either for themselves or the audience, all the while tentatively taking romantic steps towards to the pair of introverts who are their hosts. As events unfold plenty of soju and makgeolli, lines are crossed, and timelines become confused.
With Ode to the Goose Zhang Lü has created a puzzle box of a film; one that requires dexterity and concentration to solve. This doesn’t make the film a chore to watch however, far from it. Lü is playful enough to make the film both ambitious in structure and good fun to watch. While he plays with themes of memory, identity, and relationships he utilises the charms of his leading duo keep everything grounded, relatable, and enjoyable.
Consider my interest in this year’s London Korean Film Festival successfully piqued.
The programme for this year’s festival will be launched on September 16th at Regent Street Cinema alongside a screening of Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels. Tickets are available for just £7 so we have no excuse not to go.
Isabella Eklöf’s directorial debut is not an easy watch. The film centers on Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), the painfully young employee/girlfriend of Michael (Lai Yde), a Danish drug lord. When Sascha goes on holiday to Turkey with Micheal and his motley crew she expects days full with lazing in the sun wearing complicated swimsuits and nights filled with drinking, dancing, and drugs. She is right for 90% of the time. It is the other 10% that made me wince.
When Michael is happy then Sascha’s vacation meets her expectations. When Michael is upset, by some miscellaneous drug trade gone wrong or his girlfriend flirting with another man, then things get unpleasant quickly. Michael turns against his trophy in violent and sexual ways that we are forced to watch in single, unflinching takes. Even when the violence has abated a sense of tension pervades the quieter moments of the film and even people or places that seem like safe spaces fall foul of the film’s simmering aggression.
A beautiful and grotesque portrait of toxic masculinity in the sun.
Peter Strickland does nothing by halves. In Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy he created unique worlds in which reality was just outside our grasp. With In Fabric he is here to challenge the upcoming Suspiria remake with a very British horror with obvious Argento influences.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a newly single mother who wants to get her groove back. Part of the process involves buying a new red dress from her local demented department store, Dentley & Soper’s Trusted Department Store, which may as well be run by the Three Mothers. The red dress in question has a deadly past and through the film we see it has a deadly present and future too. You really do need to see the film for yourself and let the plot unfold. You’ll learn the joys of washing machine repair and never look at a mannequin the same way again.
The film is a delightful mix of the sexual, the surreal, and the satirical as Strickland makes his own new genre of giallo comedy. The vibrant colours, synthetic sounds, and miscellaneous European accents delivering cryptic dialogue scream giallo while appearances from some of Britain’s finest, including Julian Barrett and Steve Oram, add a comedic air to proceedings. The result is an undefinable, irresistible cinematic stew.
Both hysterical and hysterical this is one of the films of the year so far.
Madeline’s Madeline is indefinable, indescribable, and a bitch to write about. The focus is on Madeline (Helena Howard), obviously, a teenager who struggles with her home life but thrives when rehearsing with her improvised theatre troupe. At home her mother (Miranda July) struggles to relate to or control a daughter whose mind works in a different way to her own. At the theatre she looks up to the leader, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who starts to use Madeline as her creative crutch.
Writer-director Josephine Decker infuses parts of the film with a dreamlike quality as we see Madeline’s world through her eyes. The result is a film that may not be telling us the truth all the time and that contains scenes that some might find pretentious. You have been warned. This is a film involving an improv theatre troupe after all.
Theatre nonsense and dreamlike qualities aside this film has three complex female characters at the forefront; each brilliant played to imperfection. The real revelation is Howard who, in her first professional acting role, becomes the film’s anchor and has to both act and act at acting. Howard is a phenomenal talent and allowed me to put aside my initial trepidation at being told, “You are not the cat, you are inside the cat”, and instead let the emotions of the film pull me in.
A masterpiece or low-key pretentious? Maybe both.
In a film narrated with a wry gravel by Willem Dafoe we see the career of a pop diva flicker into life after a near death experience. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy & Natalie Portman) is Lady Gaga, Sia, and Taylor Swift rolled into one glittering star. We first meet Celeste at school where a tragedy thrusts her into the spotlight, in which she performs a song with her sister (Stacey Martin) and enters the nation’s hearts. From this small level of fame she is plucked by a manager (Jude Law) and when we next meet her in 2017 she is a household name preparing for her comeback tour.
Vox Lux presents us with the musical artist as deity narrative with its tongue firmly in cheek. This is the darkest of comedies and opens with, what I imagine will be, controversial scenes and from there holds celebrity to the light so we can see right through it. In the film’s first half Cassidy gives us the fledgling version of Celeste. She is nervous and unsure of herself but is gradually finding her inner confidence. By the time Celeste has morphed into Portman we have a strutting, quaffed, and sequined nightmare to deal with.
A film that walks with a swagger and doesn’t care if you like it or not. Can you tell I loved it?
A film of this length rarely rattles along at quite the pace that Believer achieves, a film which starts off jogging for a few minutes before sprinting away for the next two hours. Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) is a narcotics cop on the hunt for the mysterious Mr Lee who nobody has seen but who runs a major drugs operation in South Korea. After Mr Lee’s senior staff are blown up in a meth lab, Won-ho gains the confidence of the explosion’s sole survivor Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), a drug runner on the lowest level of the drug empire.
With Rak’s help Won-ho and his team quickly infiltrate a world of million dollar (billion won) drug deals to slowly work their way towards Mr Lee. This journey begins with a spectacular set piece where Won-ho impersonates both sides of a high level drug trade on different floors of a hotel, in the first meeting picking up the mannerisms he would then have to replicate in the second. From here the film kept moving so fast it was up to me to scramble to keep up and I think I just about managed it.
Believer is a big, bombastic Korean thriller that never pauses long enough for you to worry about whether it makes sense or not. This is a silly film that takes itself very seriously and I had a lot of fun.
Jessie Buckley caught everyone’s attention in this year’s Beast as a shy young woman who is awoken by a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. In Wild Rose she is no shrinking violet and the tracks are on the other foot(?) this time. She plays Rose-Lynn, a single mother fresh from 12 months behind bars who dreams of becoming a country star in Nashville. Unfortunately the realities of life, living in a dingy flat with her kids and an ankle tag in Glasgow, make those dreams seem impossible.
Rose-Lynn is supported, and brought back to reality, by her mother, Julie Walters, who has held the fort while Rose-Lynn was in prison and the children’s father was noticeably absent. Starting a new job as a cleaner Rose-Lynn finds her dreams indulged by her boss, Sophie Okonedo, and starts leading a double life. At work she is a single young woman with a unique talent that could take her anywhere, whilst at home she is struggling to relate to her children and can’t leave her flat past 7pm.
The film excellently shows Rose-Lynn’s internal struggle as she bounces between her two realities and the conflicting advice of her mother and her boss. Her mother’s advice coming from years of working class struggle and experience, and her boss’s from a few years of struggle and then middle class utopia. What is achievable in the sending of an email for one is a fantasy for the other.
Wild Rose is a beautifully messy story about figuring out life’s priorities. I kept expecting the film to put a foot wrong and offer up a trite ending but it stayed the course beautifully.
Dragged Across Concrete is a complicated offering. On the one hand it is written and directed by the singular mind that brought us the exemplary Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler. On the other hand it stars the notoriously right-wing, and otherwise problematic, Vince Vaughan and Mel Gibson. Vaughan and Gibson co-star as police detectives who are put on a six-week unpaid suspension for an overly aggressive, and racially insensitive, arrest that someone caught on camera. What the camera missed was that they were being misogynistic too. As they are told of their suspension the two cops lament the overly PC world they live in, a moment where I hope Zahler is gently mocking his conservative cast rather than endorsing their views.
Meanwhile, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has just been released from prison and returns home to find his mother selling herself to pay for a drug habit while his disabled younger brother locks himself in his room when the “guests” are round. It’s that kind of film. As the cops look to supplement their six weeks missing income and Henry tries to find his feet again all three find themselves involved in a bank heist heist as they separately try to steal a large amount of cash and gold from notorious and violent occasional bank robber, Vogelmann.
Sorry that took so long to cover but this plot is dragged across a concrete two hours and forty minutes so I’m in no rush. Funnily enough though the one thing I can definitely say about this film is that I did not feel the running time; I sat patiently engaged throughout. Zahler knows how to keep his audience’s attention and somehow earns his bum-numbing running time.
From Zahler’s previous efforts I was primed for lots of extreme graphic violence but in that respect this might be his most restrained work yet. There is even some genital mutilation that happens off-screen rather than in detailed close-up. Can you imagine? Instead he is focused on character interactions, be that the grumblings between Vaughan and Gibson, or the nervous reassurances between Henry and his fellow out-of-his-depth-criminal Biscuit (Michael Jai White). That said we do see a few fingers and faces blown away and an entrail or two but Zahler makes sure we care about the characters before he mutilates them.
Not as surprising as Bone Tomahawk or as otherworldly as Riot, this is its own beast. There are problematic elements but after some reflection I have decided that we don’t need to sympathise with the corrupt cops or their counterparts. There are no good guys to root for but sometimes that is the way life goes.
Could have done without those “I’m not a racist but…” scenes though.
Jessica Hynes has always been a major writing talent but often gets forgotten, especially when people are talking about how much they love Simon Pegg’s Spaced. At last Hynes has fully struck out on her own with a film she has written, directed, and stars in.
With the title of The Fight and promotional images like the one above it can be easy to mistake this for a film about a boxing champ, or at the very least focus on someone learning to fight. Whether this is a deliberate misdirect or not it’s far from the truth. The Fight is actually about the everyday fight to raise your children, deal with your parents, reconcile with your mistakes, and occasionally to learn to box.
Hynes plays Tina, mother of three, daughter of two, and wife of one. Her parents (Anita Dobson & Christopher Fairbank) are perpetually on the verge of breaking up and her eldest daughter is struggling with a bully at school. Stuck in the middle of various conflicts it is up to Tina to keep everyone, and her sanity, together.
The Fight has an easy charm and a healthy dose of sentimentality that thankfully never tips over into tweeness. Far from the mum-turns-boxer story I had been expecting I instead got a humble tale of family, humanity, and a tiny bit of boxing too.
Almost criminally engineered to get tears out of you by the end.
“Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen here before!”, is precisely what this film wants us to say about it. But do you know what? Destroyer does show us Nicole Kidman as we’ve never seen her before so… well done them. Kidman stars as Erin Bell, a deeply troubled detective who is forced to confront a past trauma when an old adversary reappears on the scene. Bell is a broken woman; a non-functioning alcoholic, failed mother, and a shell of a human being. As she hunts down her nemesis she revisits members of a gang she once infiltrated and we see glimpses of the past that created the ghoul we see before us.
Kidman is at her best playing both the nervous novice cop and the hard-boiled, and well pickled, detective she becomes. Director Karyn Kusama, fresh from impressing with The Invitation, has created a crime classic with a worn-in authenticity and gripping scenes of both explosive violence and quiet reflection.
There are a few silly moments and clunky lines of dialogue but I would happily put Destroyer alongside Hell or High Water as crime dramas I will happily watch a decade from now.