Second week highlights from the New Zealand International Film Festival, including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s centrepiece The Assassin and Tom Moore’s new animation Song of the Sea.
I’m quite into this whole Southeast Asian director does their martial arts film buzz. Not least because a I’ve always dug a good kick-arse fight flick, having grown up on dodgy VHS copies of old Shaw brothers (etc.) films. Japanese director Takashi Miike surprised with not one but two samurai films in recent years (13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai). Closer to our subject, Hong Kong arthouse maestro Wong Kar-wai released his martial arts epic The Grandmaster only a couple of years back. And now celebrated Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien brings his minimalist aesthetic to the realm of the martial arts genre with the artfully constructed The Assassin. Long, observational takes are punctuated by efficient bursts of violent action as Hou explores broad social and political narratives from within the confines of the personal tale of eponymous assassin Nie Yinniang. The director’s metaphoric use of visual obfuscation—via lack of light, the ever shifting opacity of windblown curtains or tree branches, the positioning of buildings and other solid objects—as a means of painting relational disconnection and misunderstanding is as effective as it is beautiful to behold. There are whole layers of meaning in such films—I think also of much Russian cinema—which I’m never going to even see without some surrounding contextual reading, but you can feel the hidden depths beneath as you watch, imbuing the film with an awe-inspiring quality not simply attached to the stunning visuals. Combat and curtains, man. Combat and curtains.
A loosely intertwined triumvirate of baroque fairy-cum-horror tales focused on various nobility in some imagined land, Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is a gloriously lurid affair steeped in bold colour and equally bold melodrama. As in his previous feature Reality, Garrone blends the blemished mundane with a sense of heightened fantasy. Tale of Tales, however, switches the ratio, foregrounding the fantastical while peppering visual settings and character relationships with less grandeur and drama than such a film might seem to demand. The director’s noirish sense of humour survives his move to the English language, lending these Tales of lust and vanity, self-indulgence and naïveté, an abundance of discomforting mirth, not to mention a measure of full cringe-worthy distaste. I enjoyed the fact that Garrone allowed the ensemble cast to retain their diverse natural accents, but unfortunately the dialogue and casting didn’t survive completely intact, leading to a few wooden interactions and one fairly woeful miscasting in John C. Reilly as King to Salma Hayek’s well-fitted Queen (in the first of the three narratives). Even a standout Toby Jones wobbles his way through a couple of difficult speeches at various low points on an otherwise high bar. Only Vincent Cassel seems to sink completely naturally into his role as a lecherous skin-deep king who fully indulges his inclinations. Despite these obvious sticking points, Tale of Tales is a rich enough feast to sustain an audience through its two hour run—well, so long as you can key into the dark edged comedy underpinning Garrone’s storytelling.
A prickly affair, Pablo Larraín’s The Club starts off looking like a somewhat less funny version of Father Ted, with its ensemble cast in a Parochial House and a housekeeper who keeps things running smoothly. I remember having seen at least a couple of films involving dicey priests—Primal Fear springs to mind offhand—but this is the first film I’ve seen that looks at the rumoured practice the church has had of shifting on ‘priests with problems’ to remote locales to avoid embarrassing legal and media situations. Larraín and co. produce a kind of heightened vérité (not unlike John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary) which runs towards themes of culpability and restorative justice, but overall the film has a purgatorial sense aimed more at the church at large rather than the specific characters drawn in the film. Moments of unexpected mirth and fleeting joy are quickly subsumed by The Club’s pervasive difficult and dark tone, and leave the film feeling somewhat disjointed as it struggles to integrate these various elements. No doubt Pablo Larraín is the man for wryly incisive Chilean socio-political commentary, and The Club makes for reasonable discomfort food, but for me the film just doesn’t work quite as well as the director’s previous efforts.
Beloved, socially responsible vampire-Yakuza boss of unnamed town battles mysterious monsters-r-us group to the general destruction of all and sundry? Not so much the stylised (literally) tongue-in-cheek hyper-violence of Ichi the Killer or Audition as some seemed to suggest prior to festival, Yakuza Apocalypse—or Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld to give the title its full due—instead dives off the deep end of quirky silliness à la compatriot Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero (God forbid I use the term “zany” about any film I actually enjoyed!) Not that it does a bad job of this brand of over-the-top oddness, but I know anything of the sort will drive some people nuts: you know who you are, so considered yourselves forewarned. Any film (probably) in which an apocalyptic frog monster, who is quite clearly a dude in an only half-decent cosplay onesie, sheds its ‘skin’ to reveal an actual dude with a slightly better made version of almost exactly the same frog head, is a film I simply will not dismiss. You have to hand it to Miike: he certainly throws himself wholeheartedly into whatever cinebomination he’s creating, a strategy which often lands but just as often doesn’t. Pure prolificness means the New Zealand film circuit receives only the better half of his output, and Yakuza Apocalypse is at the bottom end of this, meaning that while it’s worth at least a grotesque laugh or two, it’s not worth much else. Young, dumb, and full of… ummm?
The underdog trying to make it big, with some kind of unusual twist, is an Incredibly Strange documentary staple. This year’s programme serves up the stirring and unexpectedly relatable tale of ever-aspiring concept (heavy) metal god Thor. I Am Thor is a mostly feel-good affair in the vein of 2008’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil but on top of a fascinating, magnetic subject—erstwhile body builder, naked waiter, and present day heavy metal singer Jon Mikl Thor—director Ryan Wise investigates themes of self-sabotage and genius-versus-madness (albeit at a lesser level of each). Control issues and mistrust seem to be at the heart of Thor (the man and the band’s) not-so-meteoric rise, but it is truly inspiring to see the now 60-plus year old and bandmates rock out at European metal-fests to capacity crowds putting on the kind of show you’d expect from an act half their age. Aside from the kitsch and the musical, Thor’s history is dotted with enough celebrity and oddity to keep the film from devolving into a saccharine one-note adore-fest. P.S. Metal bars and hot water bottles were harmed in the making of this motion picture.
After the surreally cerebral trip that was Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski dives into the decidedly more approachable realm of the rom-com, and damn if he doesn’t nail it hard. Sporting fantastic performances from central trio Guy Pearce, a prickly Cobie Smulders, and a beautifully double-edged Kevin Corrigan, Results mines universally human relationship issues from within the tight confines of the fitness based self-improvement world. Writer/director Bujalski scripts intelligent comedy with well-rounded characters instead of relying on cheap stereotypes and the usual character tropes. Even the support characters are worth their weight in ink. A third act scene stars Anthony Michael Hall (Brian from The Breakfast Club!) as Russian fitness-philosopher Grigory, but Trevor’s hero does not quite fit his conception of him, anchoring one of Results’ funniest sequences, which also serves as a dramatic fulcrum point and offers at least one comedic call-back towards the end of the film. The narrative ultimately ends up where you expect it will, but the journey to get there is enjoyably original with Bujalski’s wry fingerprints showing. Most importantly, the key characters have believable chemistry and the movie is actually very funny, as any rom-com should be if it possibly can. Result.
Tom Moore’s second animated feature Song of the Sea tells a gorgeously bittersweet tale of a family finding a way forward out of devastating loss and grief. Moore’s smartly written story has dual natural and supernatural layers which mirror each other, allowing the mundane to take on an otherworldly aspect. It is no coincidence that Mac Lir, the grief stricken mythical giant, is voiced by Brendan Gleeson, who voices Ben and Saoirse’s father Conor, still mourning the loss of his wife six years on. Or that the children’s granny and Mac Lir’s mother—the Owl Witch Macha—are both voiced by Fionnula Flanagan. The narratives are bridged by Saoirse, at once a child mute from trauma and a Selkie of legend who is the key to saving both worlds. Like Moore’s The Secret of Kells, the animation is a lush kinetic movement of Celtic swirl patterns which stands distinct from dominant anime and Pixar styles, all in rich setting appropriate blues and greens. Bruno Coulais’s soundtrack lends a haunting beauty to the film including several songs composed and sung by a favourite Irish pop-folk singer of mine, Lisa Hannigan, who also voices Conor’s wife Bronagh. If our family, and screening, are anything to go by, Song of the Sea truly goes down a treat with both kids and parents alike.