Four from London

FILM, Film Festivals
img_mountainsmaydepartAt the BFI London Film Festival 2015: Jia Zhangke’s multi-generational Chinese epic, Mountains May Depart; the façade of progressivism in Flocking; AKIZ’s techno teen horror, Der Nachtmahr; and Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, the untold story of South-East Asian rock ‘n’ roll.

On the cusp of a new millennium, New Years’ Eve in 1999 is naturally a joyous occasion. Spectacular fireworks litter China’s skies, and in a dance hall in Fenyang, protagonist Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) leads a group of synchronised dancers to a mawkish cover of ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys: its soppy message of togetherness and progress an apt choice for heralding in the new century. But as the first phase of her life springs forth, its rousing message is replaced by a sad irony that colours the lives of Shen and her loved ones for the next 25 years.

Spanning two continents and three decades through past, present, and future, Jia Zhangke’s three part drama Mountains May Depart chronicles not just the personal development of Shen’s life, but her surroundings in a rapidly industrialising 21st century China. Part one of the story is a familiar tale: the young and cheerful Shen is at the centre of a love triangle between the humble, working-class Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong) and the flashy adventure capitalist Zhang (Zhang Yi). As most of these things go, the good guy loses out: Shen marries Zhang and a crestfallen Liangzi leaves the city indefinitely.

14 years elapse and the year is already 2014. Fenyang’s rag tag industrial landscape and pristine wintry mountains have largely disappeared. The city we see now is one populated by airports and bullet trains: a city accustomed to the flow of new wealth. Upward mobility is evident throughout, and even Shen’s simple attire is replaced by a fashionable and exquisite refinement. She runs her own booming petrol station business whilst Zhang lives in Shanghai. The two are now divorced, and it was Zhang who won custody of their wishfully named son, Dollar.

As we watch Shen come to terms with losing her husband, her father, and eventually her son whom Zhang moves with to Australia, we recognise the negative consequences which this miracle of modernisation has imposed upon the nation’s private sphere. But following the quaint nostalgia of the recent past and the all-too familiar drama of the present, Jia’s stilted portrayal of the future manages to disrupt what was—up until then—a rich and engaging flow. Set on the scenic coasts of Western Australia, the English-speaking Dollar can barely communicate with his father which no doubt contributes to the awkward pacing. And as the director’s first foray into the English-language on film, it’s little surprise the setting feels uncomfortable. Its sad and open-ended conclusion, however, still satiates as the return of Shen’s commanding presence restores an understated vitality to the story. Much like Still Life, his much hailed festival favourite which won at Venice in 2006, Mountains May Depart still succeeds thanks to Jia’s masterful intertwining of personal and socio-economic circumstances unique to modern day China.

img_flockingAmongst the literary and filmic subjects most salient in modern day Sweden, rape seems to have particular prominence. Stieg Larsson took the international audience by storm with his much-acclaimed Millenium trilogy: his high-paced crime thrillers featuring a brooding but savvy female protagonist intent on exacting revenge. In Beata Gardeler’s Flocking, the circumstances are far more mundane. But in its stifling normality, Gardeler makes the same powerful points that Larsson and others have done in digging beneath what they perceive as the façade of progressivism within Swedish society.

In Flocking, 14-year old Jennifer (Fatime Azemi) is quiet and reserved, hiding behind her sweeping dark fringe and aloof exterior. But when she accuses her classmate Alexander (John Risto) of rape, her somewhat forlorn but defiant attitude is misconstrued as emotionless, calculating, and hardly indicative of how a rape victim is expected to behave. Alexander’s mother, Susanne (Eva Melander), uses her superior social clout within the small town community to garner support for her son’s case—yet at the same time, secretly launches a vicious online campaign of cyber-bullying that calls Jennifer just about every vitriolic slur in the book.

Blaming the system for the mistreatment of rape victims is an obvious choice. But the intriguing part about Flocking is that rather than hide away or have her story turned down by the police, the young Jennifer makes all the right calls and in turn, is met with all the right responses. The system functions: she goes to the police, tells her story, gets examined, and is given her day in court. Gardeler’s focus is much more sociological. It condemns the extent to which a community will go to in order to blindly support one of its own and blithely ignore those that refuse to fit its mould. It exposes the dangers of group thinking, as well as the disquieting truths lurking within this idyllic community.

With its reflective pace and straightforward plot, Flocking is far from the Scandinavian crime thrillers we’ve accustomed ourselves to. There is no mystery. Instead, both Jennifer and Alexander struggle to make sense of their place within the community, and are left to dwell on their unresolved sins and regrets alone. Institutional progressivism can act as a veneer, superficially obfuscating the most primal desires which all humans possess: the compulsion to lie, the need to blame, and the desperate need to be loved and belong.

img_dernachtmahrHailed by the likes of David Lynch and Banksy, German visual artist Achim Bornhak—better known by his pseudonym AKIZ—has developed his 2014 Slamdance short into feature film material. Visually and aurally raucous, there’s little subtlety to the sensory primacy of Der Nachtmahr. In a warning to viewers sensitive to epileptic attacks, the film’s opening title cards implore that: “Anyway, this film should be played loudly.”

And amidst the heady pulsation of strobe lights and techno, loud is precisely what AKIZ aims for. Berlin’s hedonistic summer nights are at its height, and Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) and her teenage friends revel in the usual set of youthful indiscretions. But after a strange, drug-fuelled night at a secret pool party, the carefree Tina is plagued by a beastly menace. Quite naturally, her family believe she’s hallucinating and send her on a course of meds and therapy. But when her therapist recommends she tries confronting it rather than fearing it, Tina’s attitude towards her small, Gollum-like nightmare begins to change.

However, once both Tina and the audience come face-to-face with the menacing creature, the horror aspect of Der Nachtmahr largely dissipates. The focus instead shifts to psychological terror—a confusion presumably induced by fear and anxiety over social alienation. If the foetus-like form of the creature and the discussion over William Blake’s poems are anything to go by (led by a strangely jarring cameo by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon playing an English teacher), birth and death might boast relevance as well. The two, after all, are one and the same. When the creature cuts its tongue on a razor, Tina jolts awake from her sleep with blood pouring from her mouth. And when Tina catches the creature devouring eggs during a midnight feast, her allergies break out and she develops a rash. When Tina finally confronts her detractors, she cradles the creature like Madonna and child.

By the end of the film, viewers have become so accustomed to Der Nachtmahr’s beast that its surreal and ambiguous final scene appears neither terrifying nor profound. Buoyed by the frenetic backdrop of Berlin’s exclusive techno meccas, its manic punk vibes lend the film an energetic thrill, albeit in fits and starts. Once the mysterious horror and booming soundtrack (also courtesy of the ex-Sonic Youth bassist) leave the frame, it has an increasing tendency to lose traction. But with potential cult movie status, AKIZ’s Der Nachtmahr is an intriguing modern addition to the body horror genre.

img_dontthinkiveforgottenBlue jeans, long hair, and rock ‘n’ roll were cultural signifiers of the west during the Cold War. In Europe, young East Germans covertly undermined its communist regime, running clandestine operations smuggling western music underground. Half-way across the world in still neutral territory, Cambodia’s flourishing music scene saw it become “the pearl of South East Asia.” But neutrality rarely lasts, and soon enough, the country finds itself falling into the messy grips of the Khmer Rouge and Cold War politics.

Aptly titled Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, director John Pirozzi documents a forgotten generation of Cambodia’s cultural anthology. Following the peaceful departure of French colonial rule, the country experienced a rich period of musical talent that borrowed heavily from the West. With a proxy war raging in neighbouring Vietnam, the sheer fact that Cambodia was able to maintain peace to such an extent was a miracle in itself. As one interview subject remarks: “When two elephants fight, who suffers? It’s the grass that takes the hit.”

But in music, there are no borders. U.S. soldiers in Vietnam may have brought over bombs and fighter jets, but they also brought over William Pickett and Santana as well. In one scene, U.S. President Richard Nixon stands in-front of a map discussing South-East Asian borders. He warns of North Vietnam’s increased aggression in Cambodia, but intercut with the surfer rock and carefree moves of the 1960s, the parochial nature of Nixon’s geopolitical strategies truly come to light.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten progresses through a series of interviews with those who lived through this thriving era. Many of the most high profile musicians—Sinn Sisamouth, Yol Aularong, Ros Seray Sothea—disappeared during Pol Pot’s reign. Differing stories follow their fate and uncertainty lingers for those who survived them. But there is also strength in absence. After over an hour of dwelling on hard rock and witty pop, the emotional immensity of Cambodia’s dark past arrives in full force when one after another, each person remarks on the loved ones they lost. The lucky ones lost four or five family members; others lost up to 14 and even 24.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is hardly revolutionary in terms of documentary filmmaking. It often makes overt use of the tired trope of swivelling album covers, and harbours a tendency in parts to feel somewhat repetitive. But considering that it took Pirozzi ten years to make with no existing primary research to go by, the extent of information Pirozzi extracted from survivors is evidently and deservedly laudable in itself.

The BFI London Film Festival 2015 runs from October 7-18.