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 – 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 – 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.

Film review – Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

‘Journey to the Shore’ won director Kiyoshi Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the Masters of Cinema label’s latest foray into the new release market; the label is more frequently associated with the restoration of forgotten classic cinematic releases but has enjoyed success with the likes of ‘Listen Up Philip‘ and ‘Life of Riley‘ in recent years.
The film tells the story of Mizuki, a young female piano teacher mourning the death of her husband Yusuke, who we learn has drowned at see three years prior to the start of the film. However, when his ghost appears mysteriously at home one day, she is less surprised at his presence and more annoyed as he has forgotten to take his shoes off.

The reunited couple set off on a journey together as he takes her to visit the people who have helped him journey home from his point of death, with Mizuki’s resulting spiritually cathartic journey being the focal point of the story.


It’s a story that is rooted in Japanese culture, with the human grieving process following the death of a loved one a typical starting point for its fair share of Japanese films in recent years. Where this sets itself apart is in the very blatant separation from reality afforded by the seamless interaction between the living and the dead. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about who can talk to whom, nor does there seem to be any surprise or shock experienced by the living seeing a close departed friend or family member. Indeed, Yusuke is portrayed as a living, breathing being with he ability to fully interact with his surroundings. It’s a unique spin on the matter (pun intended).

There are some really effective cinematographic techniques employed to reflect the mood of the scenes, most notably in the dimming of the lights when a darker story is being retold. The credit here lies with director Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. It was subtle enough to have an impact before I realised what had happened, as key characters revealed their darkest of memories, and it added considerably to the picture.


Whether it really works as a whole is something I’m still not totally sure about. Certainly it is delivered with conviction, though the overall effect is something entirely morose. There seemed to be a relentlessness to the depression involved that, whilst perhaps reflective of the mood of the characters involved, seemed to offer nothing in the way of a positive escape for anyone watching looking to be guided by the grieving process.

The film achieves its aims and carries everything off to perfection. It’s just not a very pleasant experience to sit through.

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.

Cannes Film Festival – Full List of Winners

Palme d’Or
Jacques Audiard for Dheepan

Grand Prix
László Nemes for Son of Saul

Jury Prize
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster

Camera d’Or
Cesar Acevedo for La tierra y la sombra / Land and Shade

Best Director
Hou Hsiao-hsien for The Assassin

Best Screenplay
Michel Franco for Chronic

Best Actress
Rooney Mara for Carol and Emmanuelle Bercot for Mon Roi

Best Actor
Vincent Lindon for La Loi du Marche

Short Film
Ely Dagher for Waves ‘98

Honorary Palme d’Or
Agnès Varda