Film review – 殯の森 / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

 

Naomi Kawase’s fourth full-length feature film came ten years after her debut ‘Suzaku’ won the Camera d’Or, the prize awarded to the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Mourning Forest’ was also the recipient of a prize at Cannes, winning the 2007 Grand Prix.

The contemplative film was inspired by director and writer Kawase’s childhood growing up with her grandmother, who suffered from senility. It follows the nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono), who starts a job at a home for elderly people suffering from dementia. The home is deep in a forest and allows a certain amount of freedom and tranquility away from distractions. The youthful Machiko forms a strong bond with and elderly man named Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who has a tendency to run away as soon as he’s given the opportunity. Shigeki is a widower whose wife has been dead for 33 years, a significant milestone in the Buddha mourning period as the end of the liminal period, traditionally celebrated with a ceremony. The job is perfect for Machiko, also in mourning for the death of her child.

On Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko takes him on a car ride into the countryside. But when their car breaks down Machiko goes in search of help, only to find when she returns to the car Shigeki has disappeared into the nearby forest. She ventures in to find him and eventually the pair go on a cathartic journey of mourning and bonding as they journey deeper into the depths of the forest.

“I wanted to show as well that you could have a relationship across generations, that was very important. I didn’t want there to be any taboos between generations,” said Kawase in her statement at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “It was important to me to show that despite their differences that you can have this relationship and you can have some sort of support in life.”

That is exactly what this film shows. It is an exploration of the relationship between two people at very different stages of their lives, sharing the same experience but at different stages of mourning, providing support for one another. Of course, Machiko is much more aware of what she is providing than Shigeki, but the results are very much the same.

Shigeki Uda was 60-years-old when the film was made, but he played a man of 70 years. To prepare for the role as someone who has dementia, he went to extreme measures to ensure he had an accurate portrayal. “I spent three months in a home for the elderly, a home that was used as a model for the film,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “I spent three months with people who were senile. I ate with them, I bathed with them, I lived with them, and I felt with them.” The achievement is astounding, giving a real sense of the condition. There are moments where he has a blank look on his face, when asked a direct question, that will feel familiar to anyone who knows someone with dementia. He can still feel that he must provide an answer but he is unsure exactly what is being asked of him, so he pretends he understands and offers a response anyway. That can’t just be guessed at and Uda is showing a real understanding of his character when he does this.

The film is a contemplative, spacious film. The scant use of dialogue allows the viewer to take in the beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Hideyo Nakano. This is heightened by a subtle score from Masamichi Shigeno, which never feels overbearing, mixing well with the organic sounds of the forest. The mix creatures something that feels extremely naturalistic.

Kawase created a sincerely wonderful film with ‘The Mourning Forest‘, which shines a light on dementia. It underlines the importance for those interacting with anyone with the condition to know that they are still human, with emotions, feelings and a personality. It exhibits the sort of understanding that can only be achieved by someone who has lived with someone with the condition. With two first-class performances from the lead actors, the results are magnificent.

 

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Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

Of the many great films released in 2016, few left their mark on my conscience quite as much as Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”. I held off from reviewing it at the time, but decided to revisit it recently for a second time to make an honest attempt at reviewing it.

The film follows Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner on the living in Newcastle. He finds himself out of work after an suffering a heart attack has forced him to take a break, with his doctor telling him he cannot return for fear of another attack. He is navigating Britain’s complex benefits system in search of Employment and Support Allowance, for which he needs a Work Capability Assessment (undertaken by government workers and is completely separate from his own doctor’s assessment). Whilst at the job centre, he notices single-mother-of-two Daisy (Hayley Squires) having an argument in the job centre. They soon strike up an unlikely friendship as they continue to come up against brick walls that force them to make increasingly tough decisions.

I, Daniel Blake is social commentary at its absolute best

Typical of Loach’s output, many of the actors involved in the film are amateurs. This might give the film a rough-around-the-edges quality but equally provides a realism as the story develops. Knowing this prior to watching the film allowed me to give it some leeway on the performances.

The plot developments as the two characters get embroiled in complication after complication are akin to a horror film. Our lead character is behind on his bills and struggles to use computers, meaning he can’t navigate the government websites to retrieve the correct forms to fill in to access the benefits he’s entitled to. It’s overwhelmingly frustrating and will be familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar situation.

Squires’s performance is absolutely striking. The most harrowing memory of the film for most viewers will inevitably be a highly memorable scene at the local food bank. Rightly so – it’s a performance something taken to an entirely different level by her delivery. It’s unsettling, which is obviously its intention. She’s a great find in her debut role and will undoubtedly go on to even greater roles.

But the film isn’t about the actors, or about delivery of certain lines. It is solely a commentary on the broken support systems provided for the many 1000s of people in Britain who they should be helping. There are a small few people who endeavour to exploit a system, but in doing so they provide an excuse for those in charge to make the processes overly complicated for everyone.

Far more disturbing than this, the small few that do successfully exploit the system are handing media outlets the ammunition to criticise the rest, tarring them all with the same brush. Shamefully, most of Britain believe what is written in the media and assume the worst of people who are in dire need of assistance.

For all its shortcomings, this film shines a light on some of the most pressing issues facing a country that is supposed to be in a fantastic state. Whether you like it or not, the message is one that simply can’t be ignored.

Film review – Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016)

The latest film from Pedro Almodóvar, Julieta, is a stunning interwoven story of mystery and intrigue that the director takes great care in unraveling for our viewing pleasure.

Centred around the titular character, we are introduced to Julieta as she plans to move from central Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo. However, a chance encounter with a friend of her daughter causes her to completely rethink her decision. Her daughter, Antía, has been missing for several years and moving will mean any chance of reconnecting with her will be lost. She opts to stay behind and rent an apartment in the last known address that her daughter could contact her. She fills her time hand writing her thoughts on the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance, which play out in the form of a long flashback that makes up the bulk of the film.

It is an adaptation of three stories by Alice Munro taken from her 2004 award winning book Runaway, which Almodóvar first hinted at in his brilliant 2011 horror thriller The Skin I Live In via a Spanish-language version of the book being prominently read by one of the central characters.

The music in Julieta plays a critical part in setting the tone, switching it from serious drama to something slightly more sinister. It borders on sounding like a horror film at times, with the implied effect of hinting that whatever story has been revealed thus far still has more secrets within.


The success of the film ultimately lies on the two actresses who portray Julieta at various times through it her life. Fortunately, both Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte provide brilliant turns as the older and younger incarnations of Julieta, respectively. They are very different takes, resting either side of a devastating incident in her life. It works perfectly well and the change is handled with a certain elegance that ensures buy in from the audience.

Some ardent Almodóvar fans have been disappointed with his recent output, with some pointing to airplane-disaster-comedy  I’m So Excited as an indication that he’d lost his edge. Any doubts about how seriously he takes his work can be put to bed with Julieta – a beautiful work of art and a must see for anyone with a penchant for high quality cinema.

Julieta is available now on DVD.

Film review – The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been carving out his own route to the forefront of spectacularly stylised cinema, oozing with what can only be described as Refnisms. His films all inhabit the same universe in a way that all great genre film makers do. So it is with his latest, The Neon Demon, which has all the hallmarks of a hedonistic night in a stae-of-the-art nightclub whilst not giving up on the brutal bloodbaths we’ve come to expect of Refn’s work.

The opening shot is breathtaking – a slow dolly-out on a female model who sits motionless with a sliced throat. That girl is Jesse (an initially unrecognisable Elle Fanning). We learn quite quickly that she is in the middle of her first photo shoot, but this shot lingers long enough to have us right in the palm of the hands of the storytellers. It is simple yet brilliant film making.

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Elle Fanning as Jesse

The film takes us on a journey with Jesse, an orphan who has moved to Los Angeles soon after her 16th birthday to pursue a modelling career. Bright eyed and innocent in every way, she has no time to learn who she can and can’t trust. As the focal point of a powerful story she is brilliant in the way she carries the film on her shoulders.

The supporting cast are excellent. Abbey Lee and Gigi Bella Heathcote put in a great turn as the jealous models Sarah and Gigi. Keanu Reeves’s Hank is reminiscent of his abusive husband Donnie in The Gift, full of brutality and intimidation. It is Jena Malone’s portrayal of doting makeup artist Ruby that really comes close to stealing the show, her face betraying everything she says throughout to brilliant effect.

The Cliff Martinez soundtrack feeds into the visuals perfectly. A frequent NWR collaborator, Martinez’s sparse electronic score blends the contemporary setting with the horrific events that are unfolding on screen. This is a work of art for which he won best soundtrack at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why.

This is a sensational film with a powerful leading performance from a girl just seventeen at the time of filming. Pairing this with such bold film making and the result was never going to be anything but an overwhelming success.

Cannes Film Festival 2016 – Winners in Full

Ken Loach has become the eigth filmmaker in history to win the Palme d’Or on more than one occasion, for his film ‘I, Daniel Blake’.

Here’s a list of winners in full.

Palme d’Or
Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’

Grand Prix
Xavier Dolan’s ‘It’s Only the End of the World’

Jury Prize
Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey’

Camera d’Or
Houda Benyamina’s ‘Divines’

Best director (tied)
Olivier Assayas for ‘Personal Shopper’
Cristian Mungiu for ‘Graduation’

Best screenplay
Asghar Farhadi for ‘The Salesman’

Best actress
Jaclyn Jose for ‘Ma ‘Rosa’

Best actor
Shahab Hosseini for ‘The Salesman’

Short film
‘Timecode’, Juanjo Jimenez

Honorary Palme d’Or
Jean-Pierre Léaud

Film review – 刺客聶隱娘 / The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2016)

Set in 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty, the film revolves around assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) who has been ordered to murder a variety of government officials by her master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu). After taking mercy on those she has been ordered to kill, she is given a much greater task to take down Ti’an Jian (Chang Chen), her cousin to whom she was once betrothed and now a military governor in the Weibo district.

The story is, apparently, an essential tale in wuxia folklore, unique in that it featured a female heroine. It is clear why this is such an enduring tale in Chinese history, especially given its importance as an early example of women’s literature. In this sense it is perfect for a motion picture adaptation.

 

It would be a great success but for the director losing touch with the flow of the movie. In a recent Variety interview, director Hou Hsiao-hsien said “It’s not easy for people to grasp the film fully the first time around, but you can’t wait for the audience. I can’t help but make films the way I do.” I can’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. In my opinion, it is not outside a director’s job to challenge his or her audience, but this shouldn’t be at the deliberate expense of telling a succinct story.

At times, the film feels like an extended advertisement for the tourist board of the Hubei Province in which it was filmed. There are some truly beautiful shots in there that instantly transported me to thoughts of traditional Chinese paintings. It is a triumph of cinematography at its absolute best, courtesy of Mark Lee Ping Bin.

The way the camera lingers on some of the actors and actresses long after they’ve finished what they are saying is also striking and feels deliberately daring. For this reason it should be seen as a success, at least in terms of artistic beauty. 

However, the overarching feeling that the film itself didn’t really have much substance can’t be excused. It’s tricky. The source material is well-loved and recognisable and could hardly have been altered drastically, but it really needed it to achieve greatness. Most notably, the lead character Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin, doesn’t actually kill anyone. True, this is the whole point of the film and is central to the plot, but there’s something wholly unsatisfying about having a continuous string of disappointing battles where people get their clothes sliced a little or a couple of hairs trimmed, especially when each shot looks so stunning.

It’s almost a wonderful experience, but falls just short.