Reflections on five films at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s farewell film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, re-tells a traditional Japanese folktale. The film begins ‘once upon a time’ in rural Japan. An old bamboo cutter discovers a miniature princess inside a bamboo shoot. He brings her home to his wife, and they watch as she promptly morphs into a regular-sized human baby. The old couple decide the raise the child as their own. However, upon discovering gold and fine kimono within another bamboo shoot, they take this as a sign that they must provide a regal lifestyle for the little princess. Leaving their tranquil provincial lifestyle behind, they move to the city to raise her as royalty. The princess struggles with the expectations of both her parents and high society, leading to the film’s climax where her origins are revealed.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s calligraphic renderings mark a distinct departure from Ghibli’s usual animation style in favour of a sketchy, gestural approach that evokes traditional scroll paintings. This gives a beautiful, textural quality to the film that is one of its most captivating aspects. Figures may become nothing more than blurs of sweeping charcoal; landscapes are suggested by expressionistic swirls of colour and line. There is a richness of expression and movement that feels almost tangible.
Despite its status as a fairytale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is predominantly grounded in the small-scale happenings of the heroine’s home-life. Set mostly within the confines of domestic spaces, the slow pace of the film reflects the rhythms of the characters’ lives, recalling Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Obviously fantastical aspects within the film are kept to a minimum, or posited in relation to the real, as a dream-sequence or suggestive speculation. The result is not at all musty or tired. Instead, Takahata imbues an old tale with a heightened sense of emotion balanced with a delicate clarity of form and vision: a befitting ‘final bow’ of whimsical sentimentality.
By contrast, Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Patema Inverted holds the promise of poignant storytelling set in a wonderfully imaginative science fictional world, but fails to realise its own vision.
The film begins in a labyrinth of tunnels where Patema, the protagonist, resides. Haunted by the disappearance of her childhood friend, Patema explores a forbidden chasm that may hold clues to his whereabouts. She falls in, and finds herself above ground, in a world where gravity is inverted. A surface dwelling boy, Age, finds Patema desperately clutching to a fence, and saves her from plummeting into the sky. The surface world, it turns out, is also an oppressive dictatorship that demonises ‘inverts’ like Patema, positing them as evil, subhuman sinners. Constantly negotiating their opposing relationships to gravitational force, Age and Patema embark on a mission to escape the surface world.
The bones of a truly exceptional sci-fi are there, but Yoshiura’s heavy-handed approach to his characters makes for a trope-laden genre film that lays all the originality of his world building to waste. We have, in no particular order: a maniacal villain, a headstrong but childishly emotive female lead; her enigmatic and sensitive male counterpart; a male character who vies for her affections in a competition so futile that it is the butt of jokes; a wizened male elder; and some prolonged shots of quivering anime eyes thrown in for good measure. Characters’ relationships and personalities are not developed through meaning and feeling built up in the film. Instead, they act as cookie-cutter symbols that operate to fulfil pre-prescribed stereotypes and anime genre conventions.
As a bizarrely incongruous aside, Patema Inverted also contains strange moments that display a tentative self-awareness. When Age leaves Patema alone for the first time, Patema’s shrill cries literally halt the sentimental orchestral score repeatedly. In another scene, an invisible hand draws a giant arrow in red to point out a location on-screen. Computer generated imagery sits clumsily against hand-painted backdrops. These elements feel underdeveloped and inconsistent with the trajectory of the film itself, neither seamless enough to be assimilated, nor artful enough to produce a clever meta-narrative.
It is as though Yoshiura couldn’t quite decide what sort of film to make, and the Patema Inverted really suffers for it: the film’s fantastically inventive premise, stunning illustration, and clever ending are all overshadowed by the resounding mediocrity of its narrative and character development.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sophie Hyde’s debut feature, 52 Tuesdays, is a bildungsroman for the 21st century. Insightful, hilarious, and poignant, the film centres on Billie, an Australian teenager in her penultimate year of high school. Billie’s Mum is transitioning. That is, she is undergoing the hormonal and physical changes necessary to become a male both inside and out. She requests that Billie move to her Dad’s place for a year, while she settles into her new body and new name: James.
Billie and James agree to spend time together every Tuesday, a decision that is reflected in Hyde’s construction of the film itself. Filmed over 52 consecutive Tuesdays, Billie and James’s year apart is tracked through the time they spend together. Cut-and-paste style footage is interspersed with the main narrative: Billie speaks directly to the camera in several YouTube diary-style monologues, while patchy clips of current events give a peripheral sense of the world changing around the characters as each Tuesday passes. The film is deeply focused on human relationships and is held together by the strength of focus that underscores its exploration of what it is to grow up.
This is not a film about the difficulties Billie faces from having a transgendered parent, although that is part of the struggle portrayed. Billie is undergoing her own transformations and revelations as a young adult, and it is that particular transition that is at the heart of the film, along with the internal dynamics of her family unit. The film slowly uncovers Billie’s realisation that her parents are far from all knowing and perfect. 52 Tuesdays addresses this topic with nuance, casting its characters as individuals with flaws and inconsistencies, rather than in easily definable roles.
Perhaps to remedy my disappointment with Patema Inverted, I delved once again into the realm of science fiction, in the hope that Aleksei German’s epic Hard to Be a God might form a suitable counterpoint. It was as gratingly grotesque as it was long: 177 minutes, to be precise. I feel compelled to add here, that this comment is intended not as a jibe to the film, but more as an accurate description of its contents. The film is very, very, loosely based on the 1964 Strugatsky Brothers’ novel of the same name. Set on another planet, Hard to Be a God depicts the escapades of Don Rumata, an earth-born explorer whom the local inhabitants believe to be the son of a pagan god.
The film imagines our own world as it might have been had the Dark Ages never ended. German spares nothing, depicting every stomach-churning detail of his horrific counter-renaissance environment with vile clarity. Hard to Be a God is filmed entirely in black and white, but this does not detract one inch from its visceral repugnance. There is kind of foul, morbid beauty within: the cinematography is genuinely incredible. Rotting animal carcasses dangle into German’s crowded, disorienting compositions; unsettling characters constantly intrude into the frame, blocking the audience’s view or staring directly into the camera from jarring angles. The viewing experience is one designed to repulse and confuse, and it is wincingly effective: about fifty per cent of the audience walked out in the first hour. Yet, this is the point, and the genius, of German’s masterpiece. It is so immersive, so painstakingly constructed, that the audience feels affectively, disturbingly involved in the slew of insanity unfurling on-screen.
Yet, for all the precision with which German realises every small layer of the world he builds, there is little to go on in terms of its agenda. Hard to Be a God is nihilistic and uncompromising, a study in meaningless displays of humiliation, brutality, and squalor. A sense of allegory pervades, but whether one’s attempts to extract meaning from the muck say more about the human inclination to existential dread than anything else remains unclear.
The last instalment of my film festival experience, Rachel Boynton’s Big Men, was a reality check of the most heartbreaking kind. The documentary begins with the small Texan oil company Kosmos, and its negotiations with the Ghanaian government to obtain permission for offshore mining in a newly discovered oil field.
Through Boynton’s investigations, a picture slowly builds of our current world economic climate and the labyrinthine web of professionals who control the oil sector. The catastrophic human and environmental cost of oil discoveries in Nigeria, relayed by Boynton’s interviews and on-the-ground footage, form a backdrop to decisions being made in Ghana. Doing justice to the complex interweaving of political and economic interests at the centre of Kosmos’ discovery, the film effectively casts its eye over a multitude of fingers in just as many pies, somehow threading it all together into a comprehensive reportage.
Thus, the landscape of global capitalism creeps forth in its backhanded entirety. Kosmos’ oil discovery signifies both the generation of wealth for the benefit of Ghanaian society, and an invitation to greed and corruption that will wreak suffering and environmental degradation upon the nation. Big Men provides unprecedented independent access into the oil industry’s inner circle, showing us million dollar deals in the making, allegiances ruthlessly cut, and political goals undermined by corporate agendas. We watch as government officials, businessmen, and rebel militants all privilege individual gain over building a society where wealth might be shared. We see that a lack of money is only one part of the poverty inflicted on the people of the Niger Delta. In a scenario where the most prosperous choice is to send one’s environment up in toxic flames, cynicism and hopelessness become ubiquitous.
Watching Big Men, the world feels like a truly cruel place. What does it mean to be a ‘big man’? The title is a riff on what, according to the militants of the Niger Delta, we all apparently want: power, influence, and money. Sharp and comprehensive, Big Men is both incisive and unnerving in its portrayal of the destructive politics of the global oil industry. Boynton remains pointedly silent as the scenario in Ghana unfolds, refusing to point fingers or place blame. In her silence, it is impossible to shake the feeling that we are all complicit. Where does corporate interest end and individual responsibility begin? This, perhaps, is the most harrowing question that the film provokes.