The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The_Ghoul_UK_quad

I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Beguiled

So in a recent episode of one of my favourite film discussion shows, Welcome to the Basement“, they briefly discussed the film Marie Antoinette (2006, Dir. Sofia Coppola), a Mr Craig Johnson declares the great theme of Sofia Coppola’s work to be “poor little rich kids”. I haven’t seen enough of her work to agree with this statement, but I can say this does run through The Beguiled (2017, Dir. Sofia Coppola).

Taking place in an etiquette school for “Southern Belles” (upper class Southern American girls), a deserting and wounded Yankee soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by hardened headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Staying in the house is the softer teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and a variety of students, key to them is the precocious and trouble starting Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the young student who first finds McBurney, Amy (Oona Lawrence). A handsome man, in a house full of women, things begin to get heated as the subtle competitions for affections kick off.

But this isn’t just an erotically charged drama. As the cauldrons boil over, and McBurney becomes grievously injured, his  arousing demeanour collapses and the sense of tantalising danger he presented is turned inwards, onto the girls. The big focus in this remake of the novel and 1971 adaptation (Dir. Don Siegel) is the presentation of the film from the female perspective, and so we witness McBurney from the outside as the women plot to deal with him, their fears and their conversations. The fluidity of this adaptation very well done, as I only found this information out after watching the film, and did not realise the roles had been somewhat reversed.

Honestly while I saw the film I was intensely caught up in the slow bubbling drama. The first half in particular for me, draws you in with a rope around your neck as you seek every single subtle hint, every glance of the eyes or subtle smile, the film becomes something of a Chinese plate spinning act and the tension builds and builds in this luxurious Southern chamber of a house. Combined with the impending sword of Damocles hanging over McBurney as his wound heals and the threat of being forced back into war, and you have a sleepy fire which is really absorbing.

The technical choices on display also work to convey a very tight if subdued style. The colour palette is one of sepia and pink tones, of dry suns and candle-lit oak rooms. So too is the watchful, voyeuristic camera which peers from corners and darkened spots to observe the comings and goings, the tiny verbal confrontations and competitions everyone is having. The editing too, builds at a steady rhythm, the cuts slow and precise and giving just enough time to be unsettled, to reflect on the possible motivations and outcomes of each power play.

Honestly reading this back there’s a lot to like about this film, and I can say for sure that while watching it I was pretty entranced, caught up in its action. And then in its last moments, I suddenly snapped out of trance and realised; I didn’t like it. Now liking or not liking a film is not a new phenomenon, but I think what was different about this was how rapidly the house of cards began to collapse in my mind. There’s serious pacing issues in the second half (and to a lesser extent the first half), characters make choices without really having enough of a relationship to justify their actions, the film’s droning score is ambient without setting a lot of atmosphere. Just it fell apart in my head from being a unified whole work to being parts of a puzzle which didn’t quite fit together.

I think one of the things I often forget about cinema being an adult is that it’s mainly a lot of technical choices, a lot of creative choices, and a little bit of magic. Cinema is magic because it casts a spell on you, makes you believe in worlds which don’t exist, makes you understand people who never existed, makes you believe that hundreds, thousands of different images made at different times in different locations are all part of one single linear world. And I think with The Beguiled I experienced both the spell, and the accidental reveal of the trick. Like a magician who accidentally reveals the rope behind the curtain, the whole thing drops to a level of mechanical functionality which you can never get back.

If you can see the strings, it can still be excellent, it can still work, but it’s never magical again. I had to write an essay for my university course last year deconstructing the cinematography in another of Sofia Coppola’s works, Lost in Translation (2002), and even through an extensive deconstruction process, I never once lost sight of it being anything but a film I believed in.I know that seems a messy distinction, but its hard to define this kind of feeling since its so mysterious and nebulous, so I’m doing my best. Furthermore I’d still recommend a watch, because a film like this, of a director with a distinctive style whose films are neither shining masterpieces nor grubby trash, work which can be both enjoyed and/or criticised, is what makes up the interesting middle ground of cinema.

I was beguiled by The Beguiled I will confess, in that I was charmed and enchanted by it. I was totally caught up and drawn into it’s world. But it’s almost a victim of its own success in that respect, because, like the characters in the film itself, you can’t be beguiled forever. Eventually you see through the masks we wear, you see the natures and real faces underneath, and once you’ve done that it never quite looks the same. The mysterious aspects disappear, and so does some of its’ magic.

-Alex

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The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

fantastic_mr_fox

Making a film charming is a tough task, and like comedy, can turn off just as many people as it attracts. Charming involves a level of care and obsession to appear nonchalant and easy-going, but to the point that others genuinely believe you don’t care. It also involves having your own idiosyncratic style, one which there is the potential to warm to. Finally you’ve got to have authenticity, that behind the carefully crafted layers you can see the genuine want of connection, of admiration and friendship.  It’s always about love, and charming people (or films) want to give love, but more importantly to receive it.

Wes Anderson will piss off just as many people as he endears. But there’s no doubt that his films come from a place of warm affection (and love), including this one, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Dir. Wes Anderson).


Honestly I love heist films, caper films.  What makes this genre so special to me is two things: the thrill of the chase, and the awareness of almost every cog in the machine. The thrill of the chase involves the risks and constant danger the main people put themselves in as they paint targets on their backs to gain rewards (usually money but not always) under the threat of exposure, capture, even death. The awareness of the cogs is how in heist films, each stage of “the job” is crucial and has to be witnessed to be understood (mostly, Reservoir Dogs 1992 Dir. Quentin Taratino obviously comes to mind as an exception). You have to see the assembly of characters, understand their relevant skillsets, watch the planning as well as the execution, and finally, whether they can get away and not get executed.

This isn’t just a feature of heist films though. It’s in classic war capers such as The Great Escape (1963, Dir. John Sturges) or The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich), it’s in Westerns such as The Magnificient Seven (1960, Dir. John Sturges), you could even argue you find it in sci-fi in Ghostbusters (1984, Dir. Ivan Reitman). And yes these primarily male orientated fantasies are just that, fantasies. But then, what could be a better model for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book “Fantstic Mr. Fox”?

Far be it from an auteur to not put his own spin on all that cinematic history though. Not only does the film stray far beyond Roald Dahl’s story, but the film brims with the style and substance of Wes Anderson. There’s so much additional material here, so many flourishes and quirks.  Wild animals discussing the tree housing market. The word “cuss” replacing all expletives. Ash (Jason Schwartzman) desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to emulate him, the curious question of why everyone cuts out their ransom notes in newspaper cut outs when they know who they’re speaking to, the invention of a ridiculously complex high school sport which becomes oddly central to the film. There’s so much going on here that I’ll confess when I first saw this film in about 2010, as a 13-year-old boy, I missed so much of what is going on.  That’s never a bad thing though, it’s important to have films you can return to and discover new things.

Talking of things to return to, the stop motion animation (shot at 12 frames rather than 24) in this film is nothing short of a delight. The painstaking detail involved in any process of animation is one I continually admire and respect, because it would take a far more patient person than me to ever commit to the agonising production of animation. The price you pay for complete control over your image, to be able to design every single aspect of it, is that it takes up your life. And the image here is in a tradition of animation which is rough, handcrafted and has its own aesthetic. Against the vein of super smooth, completely digitally modeled animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox instead handcrafts a stop motion masterpiece, wiry hair and glass eyes and painted backgrounds and real fabric costumes. I’m always impressed by stop motion animation, but when its done this well it’s something I just fall in love with.

And I can definitely continue raving about the other technical areas that I love in this film, its eclectic soundtrack, it’s wry characters, its tight script and its impressive colour design. All of its disparate elements which are united into one cohesive design. But honestly I just want to talk about my favourite scene. After Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has escaped from the farm after rescuing his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), he spots a wolf in the distance, something he’s actually afraid of. He tries to communicate with it, calling it by its Latin name, speaking French. He finally raises his fist in a moment of solidarity, and the wolf after a brief pause raises his fist in return.

It’s a moment which seems to pause the entire flow of the film, occupying an almost otherworldly space in the film. The serene score underpins it, but it’s a moment of clarity in the eye of its ramshackle tweed tornado. It’s a reconciliation of all the themes in the film, of wilderness and wild animals sometimes suffocated by the pressures of civilisation. It’s honestly just one of those rare marks of quality in a piece of art which contains a moment of reflection and emotional clarity. I’ll put it up here devoid of its context, but inside the film it’s in my opinion, the point which elevates the entire film into something far greater than just a children’s animation. Or maybe it just properly unveils and reveals the power that sometimes lies inside the stories we think are only for children.

I live in the city, and I’m surrounded by foxes here. And every time I spot them, they stop and stare at me. And there’s a kinship there, alongside the distance. We understand each other. It’s not full, and it’s not complete understanding. But it is there.

-Alex

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


No Greater Love (Ningen No Joken I in Japan) is the first experience and introduction into the world which Kaji inhabits. And Kaji is onscreen for almost 90% of the film’s running time, anchoring us in place around the constant swirling cast of characters which move alongside him. Given a chance to be exempt from military service, Kaji and his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) move to a mining camp in Manchuria to govern the labour management, who Kaji believes are being ill-treated and thus causing low productivity.

Not just that, but it becomes Kaji’s battleground as he fights an ideological war on how human beings should be treated. For the first in a war epic, there’s little to no experience of anything you might see as traditional warfare. Instead Kaji takes on the welfare of Chinese POW’s against tyranny, corruption, fervent nationalism, hostility from the POW’s and the snakes in the grass which threaten to take him down. Make no mistake, in entering any part of The Human Condition, you are entering a world of moral and ethical conflict.

Kobayashi’s technical work on display here is very simple, very clear. Strong, multilayered deep focus compositions abound throughout the entire film. The film stages its action very classically, but by doing so keeps everything in focus, making sure not to drive the film into Kaji alone. The film follows Kaji, but Kaji spends little time on anything else beyond the welfare and the warfare of his friends (who could be enemies) and his enemies (who are enemies). Because so much of the action takes place through different depth planes, shots seem to breathe and the editing of the film is set to a slow pulsing rhythm which only rarely feels at times it drags. Of course, to the hyper sensitive, hyper frenetic editing paces of today’s visual media, the film will naturally feel slow.

But its slowness allows time to ponder and reflect on the events unfolding. So too does its sparse, austere sound. Technological limitations of its time mean audio tracks were mixed in mono sound, with the third and last film being the first in Japan to release with a stereo sound mix. Technological details aside however, the film is constantly quiet. Dialogue fills the space and the sound of brutal thuds and slaps on flesh recur, and the musical score reveals its melancholy tone, or allows for a few fleeting seconds of joy to burst through the screen. Mostly though its sound is devoid of distraction, which keeps the film more “pure” if you would like. The clatter and din of reality may be absent, but then this isn’t a documentary.

Kaji’s clash with the forces of reality is incredibly prevalent however, as the film chains us to him as we watch his ideas meet the muddy and soiled nature of real men and women against his unbreakable spirit. His unwillingness to compromise continually places him in danger, aggravates his situation, allows him to be played and fooled by those willing to exploit his desire to protect others from harm. You could imagine how this might get repetitive after 2 out of its 3 hours, but Kobayashi mines the source material (how much, if any was written purely for the film I cannot say) and brings to life not only engaging subplots, which explore ideas that can’t be expressed through Kaji, such as the story of the prostitute (comfort-girl) who falls in love with a hardliner idealist POW whose story becomes a symbol of both manipulation by shrewd higher-ups and love blossoming in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Not only that, but the subplots also produce enough variance while being able to continually hammer away at the same bitter theme; the suffering encountered in being human. Like the encroaching tide, each wave which approaches Kaji is both the same and completely different, and all of it washes over him. It’s a profoundly existential film, or maybe that’s just my reading of it, but I found it awash and brimming with that continual torment of being alive, the incessant negotiations of a landscape of people who are often indifferent or hostile to your concerns. Watching a particularly naive and fresh-faced Kaji endure biting pain is a testament to the resilience of any of those who have suffered under similar chains. The rule of those who are unkind, brutal, sadistic or perhaps just plain incompetent and inefficient. The conflict that rips Kaji apart (driving him to near death) is those that care more about the word of law and how to apply it/circumvent it and the spirit of the law.

Resilience seems to be the key theme, at least in No Greater Love. Each character is profoundly resilient, both the good and the wicked. They care greatly about survival, but like Kaji, not all of them care about themselves. Kaji’s survival is a spiritual one, of trying to retain his humanity in the face of increasingly difficult and inhumane conditions. Michiko tries to retain her husband’s survival along with her survival of her self, as forces Kaji to stop being blind to her. Kao (Shinji Nanbara) and Wang Hen Li (Seiji Miyaguchi) (names are akin to the ones presented in the Arrow version) represent the strain for survival under the net of imprisonment. The Kenpeitai (Japanese military police) enforce the survival of strict miltary discipline and imperial honour, at the expense of anything else. While other characters may be driven by more base motives, they are no caricature villains in this. Just the ugly, dark natures involved in existence.

Despite all this, the reason for its power lies in its ability to stay true to the world. The world is not unrelenting in its pain. Even if it’s only fragments, moments snatched away from the jaws of darkness, there are powerful moments of joy and of triumph. A river ebbs and flows, and even the darkest world needs a little bit of light to illuminate it. Kaji exists like a candle in the black and white frame, almost glowing at times with determination and resistance in the face of physically and spiritually overwhelming odds. Of course it is bleak, but the bleakness of the world motivates Kaji into being, drives him to near obliteration to stand up and do what is right. Perhaps its bleakness lies in the fact that we know it to be so true, but that should never be the end of the story.

For people like Kaji, it’s only the beginning. And even though he may be a fiction, an idea and an ideal, having a star to look up to is a refreshing change of pace from wallowing in the mud.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

Hard Boiled

I do my best to be open to as much cinema as I can. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m naturally more drawn to cinema which confronts parts of the human condition, however well it pulls off the result. Every film has some part of that, since films are constructed almost always by humans for humans. However the range of depth found in cinema has often lead me to a particular fragment, one which often confronts the viewer with challenges and complexity and often painful experiences. You don’t have to look further than my post on László Nemes Son of Saul to get some sense of what gets written about on here.

But what about cinema of spectacle? What about cinema which doesn’t ask you to grapple with its themes and its content, which asks you to jump on board and just ride, its twist and turns in its plot rather than in its existential themes or morally grey characters. What about films which don’t ask to reinvent the wheel, merely to make one which rolls incredibly well? Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) is that film. Cinema is not just art, its entertainment. Trying to hack off either one of its branches does a disservice to what cinema can do. But enough waxing lyrical about cinema, what about the film?


It’s difficult to apply words to Hard Boiled, since what makes it so special is precisely what can’t be described through words. Describing the unbelievably choreographed shoot-outs and stunt sequences, (most of which are still stunning to this day) many rewind worthy moments occur, particularly a scene where cop Tequila bursts out from the wall of a morgue in motion on a steel tray, before landing on a steel bed which rolls forward (all this while spraying bullets and gunning down triads) simply don’t do justice to the visual impact of actually watching these sequences unfold. The complete mastery of smooth graceful motion and construction of extravagant action sequences is Woo’s signature trademark throughout his films, and its dazzling at points.

So much of this film’s style is alien to Western sensibilities, and yet so much better for it. The cinematography is bold and distinctive, and events are replayed from multiple different angles so you can see the carnage from all angles. It’s jazzy score, considerably more dated 25 years on (at the time of writing) still showcases such an unconventional choice in the MTV music video generation. It’s locations are vast complex spaces filled with different traps and scenes which play out simultaneously, and the film relishes showing you every little point of interest. And when the colour of orange explosions is not filling your entire vision, there’s still so much going on onscreen that it’s difficult to think of a time when the compositions were ever dull or flat. It may be relentless gun violence and fetishism for nearly two hours (which is not for everyone, including myself), but you’d be hard-pressed to not admire Woo’s commitment to providing a film which sucker punches you into noticing it’s there.

It seems almost a mistake to focus on the story, since a cynical viewer could easily see the plot of the film as nothing more than a simple vehicle to drive us from fantastical action sequence to action sequence.  But to ignore that side of the world is also to make a mistake, since the characters of Hard Boiled and their borderline massacres are committed with the weight of the moral world on their shoulders. Both Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)  are cops, enforcers of law and order, vengeful angels of society who stop the demons from taking over.

More than that, they are humans with desires, dreams, problems large and small. For all its unrelenting shoot-outs, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to Tequila and Alan’s friendship, to Tequila and Madam’s (his girlfriend) relationship issues. Even its infamously climactic hospital sequence devotes a lot of time to the issue of getting the babies out of harm’s way. These aren’t just mindless robots with no drives beyond constant one upping each other on how spectacularly they can kill each other. They may be the equivalent of mythological heroes, pulling off feats that no earthly human could achieve (Alan after getting shot in the back with a shotgun blast, still manages to pull off his part in an elaborate yacht shoot-out), but even they must have things we can relate to.

There are already a million essays sitting out there about what a masterpiece of the action genre this is, online or in books. Scott Tobias’s excellent article manages to reinforce the differences which I view this film in, in a CGI drenched world. What makes Hard Boiled pack its shotgun punch is the fact that it’s a continuous stream of elaborate real special effects. When the film released, CGI was still in its infancy and this film 20 years later still makes the case for doing things without digital painters. It’s a celluloid spectacle which is impossible to re-create with digital technology, because even if you could create that film now in an animation suite, without ever filming a single image, you would never be able to fix it in the audience’s mind that what they were watching was real. The reason why so much of the film works, is because the stunts have to be seen to be believed, but make no mistake that the stunts really were done by real people. Bikes exploded on fire in mid-air with a real rider on top of them.

I mean you just can’t make that in a computer. These little machines are incredible, but they can’t do everything. The weightlessness of destruction found in Marvel and DC’s big budget superhero movies, where cities, even entire worlds are continually razed and then replaced or reconstructed manages to lose that feeling of meaningful action this film captures. The violence and extravagance in the film may reach delirious qualities, as bullet after bullet skims across the screen, but every figure shot and every piece of scenery which explodes actually does so directly, mainly because its being shot at. As much as there is going on, Woo’s expertise is in the fact that it’s all so easy to follow.

Hard Boiled is a film where every element reacts to the persona of a director who wants the film to be enjoyed on all levels. Taken at surface level, it’s a hell of an action film. If you want to take the interpretations deeper, exploring the content and sub-conscious of the film’s themes, you can. But it wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s bloody, violent heart on its sleeve covered with gunpowder. Call me soft, but there’s something very human about that.

-Alex

P.S. Don’t watch the English dub. Eeesh.

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence