Category: Festivals and Conferences

Hello World (Japan 2019)

Hello World poster

This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.

This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)

The school library is where Naomi and Ruri meet most often

Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.

I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.

Naomi’s future self as an avatar appears in his room

I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.

Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting:

One Night (Hitoyo, Japan 2019)

The family re-united at mealtimes

Following Miyamoto, I was surprised to discover that my second Japan Foundation film was also concerned with violent abuse. The two films have some other elements in common as well but in other ways they are quite different. This is a CinemaScope family melodrama from one of Japan’s oldest studios Nikkatsu. The Inamura family at its centre runs a taxi business on the outskirts of the Tokyo region. The narrative opens in 2014 and three teenage children are all terrified of their abusive father. When their mother appears she feeds them rice balls and then tells them she has just driven into their father and killed him, hoping to save her children from more abuse. Almost before they have fully grasped the situation she announces that she is going to turn herself in to the police and that she will go to prison. She promises to return in 15 years, adding that their uncle will take over the business. Fifteen years later she does indeed return and her old employees are pleased to see her back. The three children have mixed responses.

The taxi business

In some ways this film felt familiar. I remembered the melodramas of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1960s and 1970s which showed at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2014 and I think there are some links in terms of ‘tone’ and feel. Reading the helpful review of the film by Hayley Scanlon, I understand that this type of melodrama might be termed hahamono or ‘mother film’/ ‘film about maternal love’ and that there is an interesting broader discussion of how this categorisation developed in Japanese cinema, seemingly from the 1950s onwards. In this film, mother ‘left’ after telling her children that they were now ‘free’ to live their lives as they wished but not surprisingly perhaps they have each so far ‘failed’ in one way or another. Consequently mother’s return prompts a range of responses. I don’t want to spoil the narrative surprises so I’ll just make more general observations. The melodrama extends beyond the nuclear family group in a number of ways. In particular the office manager imagines herself into a similar situation as the mother and a second subplot involves a new driver the company takes on, a man who eventually reveals that he has a son from his failed marriage and who becomes disturbed after meeting the young man. I’m not sure whether these extra two story strands strengthen the central story or whether they are superfluous. One of the strands adds to the dramatic finale, but I wonder if a tighter script could cut them out and actually produce a stronger and shorter film? On reflection, I think that they are recognisable as melodrama elements that point towards social issues – women as carers and the possible consequences of divorce and separation.

A more expressionist shot of mother, isolated on her return

The new driver meets his son – there is a lot of eating in this film!

I’ve called the film a melodrama because of the high emotional content and because of the family inter-relationships. In terms of style, however, I don’t remember the music particularly and the camerawork has been described by other commentators as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Again it didn’t seem noticeably so to me apart from occasional shots such as that of the mother above. But it often seems to be raining heavily and two of the characters have familiar afflictions, Daiki the older son has a stammer and his sister Sonoko has fallen back on excessive drinking. The younger brother Yuji has problems that are more internalised. There are flashbacks to the father’s abuse and these are not conventionally signalled but often occur in what are otherwise routine sequences. This is a way of disrupting the narrative which seemingly represents what is going through a character’s mind. The family house is a jumble of rooms that more or less merge into the taxi company’s offices and another aspect of the film is an almost procedural study of the running of the taxi business. I wasn’t surprised to discover that director Shiraishi Kazuya has made films in various genres, including one labelled a ‘docudrama’. One Night appears to be adapted by Takahashi Izumi from a 2011 play by Kuwabara Yuko and it is noticeable that many of the scenes focus on the taxi company offices and living quarters. That isn’t to say that the narrative does not move outside and I was pleased to see some different kinds of location, including the ferry port at Oarai which offers passage to Hokkaido.

The three children as grown-ups are (from left) Yuji (Satō Takeru), Sonoko (Matsuoka Mayu) and Daiki (Suzuki Ryôhei )

I enjoyed the film on several levels. The performances are very good and I like the ensemble feel of the taxi company. I think UK audiences might recognise Matsuoka Mayu who starred in Shoplifters (2018) as well as Satō Takeru from the Rurôni Kenshin films. The mother is played by Tanaka Yûko. She’s very good and a calm centre in the midst of chaos. There are many plot details that I haven’t covered here and overall I found this to be quite a ‘meaty’ narrative: there is plenty to get your teeth into and a lot of eating. Look out for more Japan Foundation films next week.

Miyamoto (Miyamoto kara Kimi e, Japan 2019)

Miyamoto the salaryman invited to eat with Yasuko

Miyamoto is the first film I managed to book for this year’s Japan Foundation Film tour. The festival is online with free screenings, most of which sold out within an hour or two of becoming available, but I think there are still some films available as repeat screenings. Miyamoto is listed on IMDb as ‘From Miyamoto to You’ and I can see why they have simplified the title. Miyamoto Hiroshi (Ikematsu Sôsuke) is the central character of the film, which has been adapted from a section of a 1990s manga that became a TV series in 2018. Seinen manga like this are aimed at older teenage boys and adult men. I think various cast members in the film are carried over from the TV series. Miyamoto is a stationery salesman, a slender young man and a familiar ‘salaryman’ figure. The film narrative is nonlinear and begins with a meeting between an injured Miyamoto facing his angry boss and explaining how he got into a fight. The narrative will soon move into a long flashback and eventually resolve itself in the present. The beginning of the story is a meeting between Miyamoto and a slightly older woman, Yasuko (Aoi Yu), whom he presumably knows from a sales visit to her office. Yasuko invites him to eat with her in her apartment but the meal is interrupted by Yasuko’s drunken ex-boyfriend. At this point we are wondering if the interruption will lead to the fight which caused Miyamoto’s injuries. I won’t describe all the ins and outs of the plotting, which I did find intriguing. Instead I want to explore different aspects of the film.

The injured Miyamoto takes Yasuko home to meet his parents

Plied with beer by Yasuko’s mother, Miyamoto passes out

I’m not sure how much updating of the original story has taken place since the 1990s. Japan has a history of patriarchal attitudes to work culture and after work drinking. Men would work late and then drink  to excess and abuse women unlucky enough to meet them. Have things changed much in the last twenty to thirty years? Miyamoto is constantly feeling he has to assert his masculinity and the result is usually that he collapses into a stupor after drinking too much or he says and does rash things in a spirit of bravado. The irony is that he is physically not well equipped to do either. This film includes several violent fights and some violent and abusive moves against women. When Miyamoto and Yasuko eventually get together they visit both sets of parents. The film didn’t seem to me to identify the location of the two sets of parents, but I read a review which suggests that in the manga, her parents are in Hokkaido and his in Yokohama. During both visits Miyamoto and Yasuko make an odd couple who manage to be both polite and disruptive in the calm lives of the parents. The trips outside Tokyo also provide an opportunity for indications that there is a form of romance developing and that they might survive as a couple.

The rugby team ‘Sweet Chocolets’

Director Mariko Tetsuya has developed an international reputation as a creator of violent films, often developing out of domestic situations. His 2016 film Desperate Babies is still being debated and a Harvard Film Archive event a year ago was titled ‘Self-Destruction Cinema: The Films of Mariko Tetsuya‘. Anyone who has seen his earlier films would know what to expect from Miyamoto but I was taken aback by some of the violence, including that against Yasuko. Miyamoto himself becomes involved with an amateur rugby team made up of some of his customers. There are some very big guys in the team and Miyamoto is no match for them, but he doesn’t give up. So is this just drunkenness and thuggery? I don’t think so. There is some humour and humanity and though I don’t condone any male violence towards women, Yasuko is not defenceless or passive. I should also note that there are two sexual encounters, one of which is violent but the other is carefully shot to be explicit but also within those boundaries in Japan about not showing genitalia. The music in the film is also important, seemingly ‘punkish’ at some points.

A love scene both ‘tasteful’ and explicit

Ikematsu Sôsuke as Miyamoto won a major Japanese prize, the Kinema Junpo Best Actor Award in 2020. It is certainly a startling performance which I think may be seen ‘extreme’ by audiences in the West in several scenes. I did find some scenes made me uncomfortable but I recognise that they fitted with the character. This film is likely to remain as a niche or cult film in the West but I think it is recognisable as a familiar Japanese melodrama with the traditional characters of a salaryman and his prospective wife, the visits to the parents and the excessive drinking in small bars and as part of family gatherings. Yasuko’s mother seems to regard Miyamoto’s attempts to drink beer fast as ‘heroic’. Take out the violence and the narrative could work in an Ozu melodrama (with bigger parts for the parents). Mariko is an intriguing director and I would watch another of his films. The trailer below (no subtitles) gives away SPOILER plot points but it illustrates the film’s uncompromising style.

You Deserve a Lover (Tu mérites un amour, France 2019)

Lila (right) and her girlfriends

This film surprised me as I didn’t at first recognise the writer-director Hafsia Herzi who also plays the lead role in this her first fiction feature. The film played at the Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the ‘First Film’ prize. I watched it via My French Film Festival but it also appears to be available on various streamers and rental/DVD sites in the UK.

I realised quite quickly that I’d seen Ms Herzi in her first role as the young daughter of the lead character in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film Couscous (La graine et le mulet, France 2007). Since then she has built up a strong profile as an actor and now in her early thirties she has become a features director (she made a short film in 2014). Her film is quite difficult to categorise. It’s a film about emotional and sexual relationships in the 21st century. It’s not a romance, though it features several of the elements of a romance. Its ending is non-committal and that seems right. Herzi plays Lila, a Parisian woman whose relationship with Rémi (Jérémie Laheurte) has just ended, or at least has come to a point of separation. But when the film opens Lila is outside Rémi’s apartment block aiming to confront him for sleeping with another woman. Lila is finding it difficult to let go. A little later Rémi will announce that he is going on holiday in Bolivia for three weeks to ‘sort himself out’. Lila has friends who will support her and she is soon back in the swing of things, enjoying a number of one night stands, some of which are enjoyable, others not so much.

The young photographer (Anthony Bajon)

At one point Lila meets a younger man who wants to photograph her rather than make love to her and this appears to be a relationship she can really enjoy. But soon Rémi will be back from Bolivia. What will he do? Will Lila be completely over him? It doesn’t sound much of a narrative outline and I was quite surprised that I found the film easy to watch and I remained engaged throughout. I think there are several reasons why the film works. One is Hafsia Herzi herself as an actor and how she is presented on screen. The cinematographer Jérémie Attard is relatively inexperienced and this was his first feature. He has worked on a film for Abdellatif Kechiche and that shared experience with Hafsia Herzi seems to have influenced the overall approach to his handheld camerawork which features long shots and big close-ups of Lila. There are several sexual encounters but in most cases we see only the before and after. We do see quite a few meals which I like and it made me warm to Lila.

Advice about her love life is given to Lila by Ali as he eats his chocolate cereal

There are few references to Lila’s ethnicity but her decision to consult a ‘celebrity marabout‘ provides a surprising comic interlude. Lila’s friends are mostly other young women and Ali, a young gay man played by Djanis Bouzyani who provides the energy for several scenes. I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film including one that suggests the film’s ‘naturalness’ is liberating and I certainly felt that I had been offered an entertaining glimpse into the world of 30 something young women in France. I’d go with the young Polish photographer Lila, he seems more grown up than most of the other guys.

Camille (France 2019)

Camille Lepage in the midst of the action

This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.

Background

Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)

The view from a French military vehicle as a group of Anti-balaka approach

CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.

Camille approaches the Anti-balaka alone. The Union Jack hat is an incongruous image – the football jerseys are Spanish or German

The filmmakers

Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.

Camille makes contact with local young people (Grégoire Colin and Bruno Todeschini are walking behind portraying journalists)

Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.

How to respond?

I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.

The stills photographer presents Camille in sharp focus, but Leila , an important character in the story is blurred in the shallow focus

The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms  of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.

A Witness Out of the Blue (Fan zui xian chang, Hong Kong 2019)

Hong Kong cinema has not been very visible for me during lockdown so I was delighted to discover ‘Focus Hong Kong’ – part of the Chinese Visual Festival in the UK offering five features with some extras and a series of short films at the bargain price of £8.99 or £2.99 for a single feature. The festival started last night and films are available to stream until 15th February.

Wong (Louis Koo) and Joy (Jessica Hester Hsuan)

I started with this title which promised genre pleasures in the form of an absurdist crime fiction film, a mash-up of gangster film, police investigation, melodrama and romance all laced with violence and humour. My immediate point of reference seemed to be Johnnie To, the legendary director of crime films with a twist, something prompted by the presence of Louis Koo as one of the two leads, Sean Wong, a cool and ruthless gang leader. He’s up against Louis Cheung as ‘Larry Lam’, a police detective down on his luck. The film begins with the introduction of these two central characters. Wong is fleeing from a killing where the only witness appears to be a parrot and Lam is trying to avoid a loan shark from whom he has borrowed money to set up a cat sanctuary. But just in case this might suggest a whimsical tale, writer director Fung Chi-Keung soon flashes back to a jewellery robbery in which, because of police informants, the cops arrive en masse and the robbery turns violent as Wong and his gang escape with the loot. The murder suggests that the loot has gone missing and Wong is looking for it.

Lam (Louis Cheung) and his detective partner Charmaine (Cherry Ngan)

The police investigation is led by hard-faced Inspector Yip and Lam is joined by Charmaine a young female officer who we learn only joined the force because she was inspired by Lam’s bravery on a case a few years ago. Wong has gone into hiding and become the tenant of a landlady named Joy whose other guests are a trio of elderly folk. Lam decides that the parrot knows who the killer is, but it seems to discount Wong. It’s a clever script which I don’t intend to spoil any further. I’ll only point out that with crooks, loot, crime victims, police and informers – and a brief appearance of ‘internal affairs’ – there is every possibility of double-crossing and misrecognitions.

Inspector Yip (Philip Keung) and Lam

The parrot doesn’t appear that often but its role is important. In the Q&A the director explains that he was inspired by his own experience of living with a parrot when he was a schoolboy and the parrot inadvertently (or not!) got him into trouble. The cats don’t contribute anything that I remember and that’s a shame. Overall, however, the excitement of the shootouts and the humour of the situations work very well. There is a hint of romance and some beautiful aerial shots of the city (it’s a Scope picture). I thought the characters were well drawn within the confines of the genre and the performances were all good. If you are a Louis Koo fan you’ll certainly enjoy his performance. I’m not sure it adds up to anything more than a genre exercise but I found it very enjoyable and just the thing for a lockdown pick-me-up. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Fung Chi-Keung.