The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘Leeds International Film Festival’

The Human Condition / Ningen no jôken, (Japan 1959 – 1961).

Posted by keith1942 on 18 December 2013

Kaji with Michiko

Kaji with Michiko

This was the centrepiece of the retrospective of Kobayashi Masaki at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a trilogy of films running for nine and half-hours in total. The films follow the physical and emotional journey of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II. The films offer the most potent expression of Kobayashi’s loss of faith in devotion to the traditional codes of honour and obedience. The Festival Catalogue quotes Philip Kemp’s question: “The dilemma of the principled dissident – how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted and even ultimately corrupted by it?” A dilemma expressed in a line of dialogue by Kaji in the film, “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese … yet it’s my worse crime that I am!” [English subtitle].

Like all of Kobayashi’s films from 1959 onwards the drama is presented with carefully designed mise en scène and with excellent widescreen compositions. The black and white Shochiku Grandscope cinematography is by Miyajima Yoshio and this is one of the finest aspects of the films. All three features were screened in good quality 35mm prints.


Ningen no jôken: (Daichibu: Jun’ai hen; Daishibu: Gekido hen) – The Human Condition: Part 1; No Greater Love, 1959, 208 minutes.

The film opens in 1943 in Manchuria where Kaji works for the South Manchuria Steel Company. The firm depends on Chinese and Manchurian labour. As a junior manger Kaji produces a report arguing that more humane treatment of the indigenous labour would actually increase production. Kaji is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mine to test out his theories. Though he receives support from a colleague he faces opposition from the military government (Kempeitai), the mine executives, the mine pit bosses and the Manchurian contractors who skim money off the workers. The focus of these problems are 600 Chinese prisoners who are forced to labour in the mine

The Chinese labourers are supplied with the services of local prostitutes and some individual relationships develop. One of these in particular comes back to haunt Kaji at the close of the film. There are also attempts at escape by some of the more active prisoners. This leads to a public execution with a military firing squad. Forced to go along with this Kaji is caught between his humanitarian concern for the labourers and his duties to the code. This is also the occasions when a mass protest by the Chinese labourers confronts the army personnel.

The film opens with a night-time shot. It is snowing and centre screen is a large tunnel through which a military patrol can be seen. Two people emerge from the darkness, Kaji and Michiko (Awashima Chikage). This is a stunning shot with which to open the film. But it also sets up the thematic concerns. The falling snow and darkness sum up Kaji’s predicament, caught in no-man lands but not out of range of the army, enforcer of the code. The massive blocks suggest the weight of entrenched values that weigh down on him. Both Kaji and Michiko are living in communal hostels. Michiko wants them to marry and set up their own home: Kaji prevaricates, troubled by what would be both a gamble and be frowned on by his peers. This indecision sets the tone for the whole series of films as Kaji tries but never fully succeed in resolving his contradictory position.

The film’s story and characters are presented all the way through with fine imagery. The exteriors benefit from the widescreen compositions. But the interiors are also powerfully composed. The architecture of rooms and of the prison camp reinforced the feeling of entrapment. Right at the end of the film as Kaji returns to be greeted by Michiko the setting, among hillocks of black soil excavated from the mine, comments on their situation: and this is reinforced by the figure of one of the prostitutes on the skyline.

However, the powerful drama is undermined at times by excessive melodrama and this is accentuated by the music. Some of this is excellent, adding a sense of oppression. But at other times the use of melodramatic themes and martial airs seems to distract from the drama. Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors (1978) comments: “The story is an excruciating one, sentimentalised in moments by the participation of Kobayashi’s long-time allies, scriptwriter-director Zenso Matsuyama and composer Chuji Kinoshita.”  But he also notes how Kaji is ‘played to perfection’ by Nakadai Tatsuya. The film won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival


Nineteen no jôken (Daisanbu: Becky hen: Daishibu Sen’un hen / The Human Condition Part 2: Road to Eternity, 1959, 181 minutes.

Having lost his deferred status Kaji is called up for military service. The army life is just as brutal for ordinary recruits as was the labour camp at the mine. Kaji is relatively proficient at military duties, which offer some some protection. A fellow recruit Obara (Tanaka Kunie) is seen as weak and inadequate and become the butt of bullying. As with the mine labourers Kaji tries to protect him but fails. His closest friend is Shinjo (Sata Kei) who has communist leanings: both men are antagonistic to the authoritarian regime. The war is now running against Japan and Soviet forces are pressing into Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to hold their advance. Once again Kaji becomes complicit in criminal violence. By the late stages of the war he is reduced to a desperate desire to survive and make it home to Michiko.

The film once more uses fine widescreen compositions, especially in the exteriors. Composition is also important in the interiors, and the barracks become a setting of shadow and containment. At one point Michiko is able to visit Kaji and the meeting in a small store hut also displays the oppressive setting. It is worth noting that Michiko appears to be the stereotypical submissive Japanese wife. Certainly she does not display the forthright resistance found in the heroines in the films of Naruse Mikio. But she is a strong character, indicated by the relationship in Part I and here also in the way that she supports Kaji.

Road to Eternity seems a more cohesive film that No Greater Love. In part this is due to the film’s focus on the military and Kaji’s experience in one unit, and over a more concentrated period. But like Part I this is a bleak story and the overall tone is pessimistic. Visually it is as impressive as the first film, though like that there are occasional discordant notes of melodrama and military music at odds with the critical tone.


Ningen no jôken: Kanketsu hen (Daigobu: Shi no dassatsu; Dairokubu: Aarano no hôkô The Human Condition Part 3: A Soldier’s Prayer, 1961, 190 minutes.

This was where the problems of a Festival surface and I missed the concluding film of the trilogy. My friend Stephen did see it and thought it was the most impressive of the three films and described some really fine widescreen compositions, including Kaji travelling through the Manchurian woodlands. The film shows the last stages of the war and eventually Kaji is imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. He escapes and continues his desperate attempt to return home to Michiko.

The whole trilogy is an extremely impressive work of art. And even in the post-war Japanese cinema it stands out for the uncompromising critique of traditional codes. Kobayashi had some early connections with the Japanese New Film Wave of the 1960s, and whilst the story and style are more traditional than avant-garde, it achieves something of the same rupture with the conventional culture. Stephen thought the film was typical of the post-war humanism in Japanese films: something earnestly worked at during the US occupation after the Japanese surrender. The film certainly shares some of the values found in, for example, Kurosawa’s post-war films. However, Kobayashi’s trilogy has a central pessimism that is some way removed from other humanist films. This particular sense is something that sets him apart from other Japanese filmmaker of the period.

What also makes his best films, like The Human Condition, memorable is the command of composition. His films are nearly all in the scope format, a number of them with black and white cinematography. One is constantly taken with the beauty of the images on screen but also with the way that the composition draws out the tragic situation of many of his protagonists. The Leeds Film Festival is to be commended for screening the whole epic work in 35mm, thanks in part to the support of the Japan Film Centre. And also a word of praise for the Hyde Park Cinema staff who projected the films. A real treat – and equal to the fine Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective of 2012.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Samurai Rebellion / Jôi-uchi Hairyô tsuma shimatsu ( Japan 1967).

Posted by keith1942 on 7 December 2013

Isaburo and Tatewaki

Isaburo and Tatewaki

This samurai film was produced at Toho Studio but also co-produced by the Mifune Production, the company of its star Mifune Toshirô, This effected the film’s story and Rebellion lacked the balance of Kobayashi’s other films. The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue describes the film as ‘another masterpiece’ and ‘his last major film’ which I thinks underestimates his later work. The film was a popular success in Japan, partly I suspect because of its star Mifune and of the samurai set pieces in the latter part of the film. However, Kobayashi still imbues the film with his critiques of authority, the official code of honour and the Japanese concern with face. There are also signs of the influence of the samurai films by Kurosawa Akira, which is possibly partly explained by the presence of Mifune. But here again the heroic stance typical of Kurosawa is undercut to a degree by Kobayashi and his scriptwriters Hashimoto Shinobu and Takiguchi Yasuhiko. Donald Ritchie, the veteran critic of Japanese cinema, is quoted in the Catalogue: “When Samurai Rebellion first opened, nearly forty years ago, I wrote in my Japan Times review: “It is the feudal concept that is at fault, and not the men who seemingly control it but are actually controlled by it … Such human qualities as love, dignity, self-realisation are – as a mater of course – crushed beneath the weight of this terrifying, if man-made, machine.”

The film opens with a test of a new samurai sword by Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune) and Asano Tatewaki (Nakadai Tatsuya). These are the two most skilled of the samurai in the household of Lord Matsudaira Masakata. You can guess that they will figure in the beautifully choreographed and generic finale. But for most of the film the plot follows Isaburo. At the Lord’s behest Isaburo’s son Sasahara Yogoro (Katô Gô) marries one of the Lord’s concubines, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko). Their marriage produces a child, which gratifies Isaburo. However, the interests of the clan household intervene in family life once more. And Isaburo comes into conflict both with his lord and with the samurai code.

The first half of the film is concerned with the developing contradictions and the machinations in the feudal lord’s household. The latter part of the film is much more generic and leads up to a classic samurai confrontation. This later part is less typical of Kobayashi’s work and seems much closer to a typical Mifune samurai portrait. I felt that this unbalanced the film and also produces some lacunae in the story. After the marriage of his son Isaburo renounces his status as head of the family household. And when the tensions with the lord first arise he defers to his son over the matter. However, as we reach the climatic confrontation Mifune takes over the head role and the central focus in the plot. Even so, the film’s ending has the quiet defeatism that typifies Kobayashi’s work.

As always the film is beautifully constructed and composed. There are a number of impressive widescreen landscapes, especially towards the film’s end. However, the interiors, like the earlier Hara-kiri, are also carefully composed and suggest volumes about the characters through positioning and settings. The cinematography is by Yamada Kazuo in black and white Tohoscope, which looked great in a new 35mm print


Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Festen at LIFF

Posted by keith1942 on 25 November 2013

Patriarchal angst

Patriarchal angst

Dogme #1, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and released in Denmark in 1998 was one of the European Catalyst films screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. These films have “game changing features running through the history of world cinema that were the first in influential movements.”  There can be few examples where the opening salvo of a movement has arrived with so much aplomb and panache as Festen (The Celebration).

Three siblings, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Hélene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrive at an affluent hotel for the celebrations of their wealthy father’s sixtieth birthday. The dinner and party are also attended by a large number of members of the extended family, friends and colleagues. And there is also a ghost at the banquet: Christian’s dead twin sister Linda, who committed suicide. Revelations from the past during the weekend reveal this as a completely dysfunctional family, with not only vicious verbal infighting but outright violence.

The film was made following the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Dogme Manifesto. So we have all the trademarks of this film group: hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound, no special effects and the then rare Academy film ratio. The film was shot of video, [though Vinterberg would have preferred 35mm] and this gives it a raw and tawdry look. What is most noticeable about the film is another Dogme trademark, the intensity of characterisation and action. Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, was quoted from a press conference in Sight & Sound (February 1999) “The main departure was that the camera followed him rather than him having to follow the camera. He didn’t have to worry about hitting marks and was therefore able to give a performance much closer to what he would have attempted had he been playing the corrupt old patriarch on stage.”

The film inverts one of the recent stereotypes of popular cinema and television, the dysfunctional proletarian family. Here it is the bourgeois family that is dysfunctional. Vinterberg is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “You know fascism is very much about the anxiety of the ‘foreign’. And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the rituals, something disturbing the rituals.” He makes the point that Hélene brings with her an African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Just about all of the guests at this party join in the singing of a racist song. And Michael, who is dominated by oedipal feelings, attacks several people including his own wife and workers at the hotel. At times the appalling older members of the family reminded me of those in Visconti’s great film The Damned (Götterdämmerung 1969).

Roy, in his review of the film, suggested that it is melodrama – which is true. He also suggests that it is a genre film – which I think not. This would breach the Dogme Vow ‘Genre movies are not acceptable.’ I think that melodrama is a mode of drama, rather like tragedy. A genre would be the family melodrama. Of course, you could place this film in that genre: the Sight & Sound article also suggested the country house drama. And we do have conventional plot mechanisms such as the revelation from the past, and the letter from the past. But the film completely subverts these as indeed it subverts the conventions of most of the contemporary cinema.

Vinterberg, along with Dogme comrade Lars von Trier, threw a bombshell into the world of film in 1998, rather along the lines of the bombshell that Christian lobs into the expensive gourmet meal at the weekend. I was as impressed at this screening as I was when the film first appeared. This is great cinema – funny, sardonic, even tragic and certainly moving. And we watched it on a good 35mm print, the format in which it was originally released.

Posted in Danish Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Silents at Leeds Town Hall

Posted by keith1942 on 23 November 2013

The great pipe organ

The great pipe organ

The Leeds International Film Festival has tradition of screening films from the Silent Era with live musical accompaniment. This year there were two such events, both in the Victoria Hall. This concert hall is blessed with a large pipe organ, an accompaniment I have not heard for some time. The instrument offers a great variety of sounds, timbres and volumes. So the resident organist Simon Lindley bought a distinctive musical dimension to the films.

The first screening was the Soviet Classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin1925). This was in a digital version of the Deutsche Kinemathek restoration. The quality of the image was impressive, especially for a film produced eighty years ago. The digital frame rate was slightly fast in some of the rapid montage sequence is justly famous. However, the film also has passages of a more restrained tempo and even lyrical moments. The organ accompaniment was able to give great and varied play to these changes.

The second film was a German classic, Faust (1926) directed by the legendary F. W. Murnau. The projection used the recent Eureka version with the original German titles. The film has impressive sequences that utilise the German expertise in chiaroscuro lighting and in the use of models and special effects. And the famed actor Emil Jannings dominates the film with his characterisation of Mephisto. The organ proved to be extremely appropriate for the religious themes in this work but also for the melodramatic sequences at the climax. This was a lunchtime screening and the Hall was packed.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Silent Era | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Leviathan (France/UK 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 20 November 2013


This film was screened in the Cinema Versa section of the Leeds International Film Festival. The section is ‘dedicated to documentary’ and ‘underground voices’. But Leviathan is less of a documentary and more of a prose poem.

The directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vėrėna Paravel explain in the Catalogue:

“We were going to do a portrait of New Bedford, a sort of contrast or tension between its status as a kind of mythical city of Melville and Moby Dick and its one time status as the whaling capital of the world . . . But we realised what was going on in the sea was infinitely more interesting . . .”

And they went to see and record the modern Atlantic fishing world.

What they present from the sea is difficult to describe in print. It is as kaleidoscope of images and sound. Using multiple cameras and sound sources the film races across fishing ship, the  fishermen, their equipment, the sky and sea around, the birds above and the fish beneath or finally on board. Apparently they used miniature HD cameras strapped to their own heads and those of the crew. It looked like they also trailed them in the water. Much of it was shot at night and the discernible image often occupies only a fraction of the screen. The editing is frantic much of the time, the cutting emphasising how little we see or recognise. We see as ‘if through a glass darkly’ and often with only a partial sense of what the camera records. It is not clear how many boats are involved – the filmmakers were aboard a fishing boat Athena. It seems it trawls for varied catches including a variety of fish and shellfish.

But whilst the vision and sound are poetic they are also powerful. There are recurring shots of the sumps of fish, some panting as they expire, some floating probably dead in the mess. One particular sequence shows a gull, chasing food, but now scrabbling at the wet deck and tanks as it desperately tries to flee – finally dropping into the sea, fate unknown. And for most of the time the fishermen themselves are only seen in close-up or partially visible.

For the first hour of the film there are no real establishing shots: it is a melange of close-ups and mid-shots. Then there are two long shots in long takes – the first of the vessel amidships with cranes and pulleys. The second of one crew member drinking tea as he sits and half-watches the television in the mess. Then it is back to the mixture of sea, ship and sky.

Despite being challenging this film works extremely well. I think at 85 minutes it is over-long. I found watching the constant flicker and often almost impenetrably dark screen visually tiring. But at the same time it is always engaging.

As the quotation above suggests this is centrally the discourse that emanates from Herman Melville’s great novel. In fact the film seems to be a visualisation in one sense of the chapters in the book where Melville offers a lengthy litany – of whales and their environs. A point emphasised in the long list of fish species in the credits.

Posted in Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 November 2013

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, People, Russian cinema, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cold Eyes (Garn-si-ya-deul South Korea 2013)

Posted by keith1942 on 16 November 2013

James planning for a commission

James planning for a commission

This was a cracking action film in the Fanomenon section of the Leeds International Film Festival. From the opening sequence the film offers pace and excitement. There are fast cutting, lap dissolves, fast tracks, whip pans, 360% steadicams and dramatic overhead shots. All this is done with extreme pace and verve. The film looks and feels like on the Hong Kong action features and is indeed adapted from the 2007 Eye in the Sky. I also felt there was a strong influence from the earlier classic Infernal Affairs (Wujian Dao, 2002).

The ‘cold eye’ of the title refers to a crack police surveillance team in Seoul who spy out for crime and key criminal gangs. I suspect ‘cold eye’ has a particular sense in Korean, but the team rely on highly developed skills in watching and remembering. They also use a plethora of modern hi-tech gadgets – providing ample scope for play with computer screens and mobile phones.

The opening introduces us to three key characters. Ha Yoon-Ju (Hyo-joo Han) is a young recruit to the team. They all have cover names of animals and she is christened piglet by the Chief Hwang (Kyung- gu Sol) Falcon. Meanwhile their attention is caught by a perfectly timed bank robbery, filmed with great élan. This has been masterminded by the shadowy criminal figure of ‘James’ (Woo-sung Jung). He undertakes criminal commissions for larger and supposedly legal institutions. The game between watched and watchers drives forward the film until its climax.

Inevitably piglet learns the code of the police team through trial and error. A friend pointed out that the film is in part a rite de passage for piglet. And by the film’s resolution she has won the right to choose her own cover name, Reindeer. Rather different relations operate within the criminal gang, where dissension and double cross are part of the game. Equally the relations between the pursuer and the pursued change, symbolised in the film by the use of placements within the high rise city and the use of high angle and overhead shots. The co-director of the film Ui-seak Cho is quoted in the catalogue: “For James, bird’s eye view was dominantly used, while for the people on the ground like Chief Hwang and Ha Yoon-ju, eye level shooting was consistency maintained.”

The plot, for those familiar with Hong Kong cinema, is conventional but the theme of surveillance gives a distinctive feel. The focus on a young female tyro is also distinctive. However, at the climax this is let slip for a conventional male closure. And the resolution certainly harks back to Infernal Affairs and its sequels, as we view a variation on the film’s opening.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Korean Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Retrieval (USA 2013)

Posted by keith1942 on 14 November 2013

Nate and Will cross the Bayou

Nate and Will cross the Bayou

The screening of the US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival was its UK première and was attended by the director Chris Eska.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another.

A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.” Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is done sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann and he had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

There is no indication of a UK distributor yet. It is to be hoped that one appears. Despite its weaknesses this is a good film, and given the reissue of Gone With the Wind (1939) there should be some interest.

Posted in American Independents, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 502 other followers

%d bloggers like this: