24th ¡Viva! Festival at HOME, Manchester, 12 April – 5 May

This year’s ¡Viva! Festival opens at HOME on Thursday. Don’t get confused, but the brochure looks almost identical to last year’s, at least in design terms. This year’s festival has the banner title ‘La revolución’ and the mix of Spanish and Latin American theatre, film, music and exhibitions is this time skewed more towards Latin America in the film section. Having said that there is the usual range of co-productions which involve both Spanish and Latin American funds/producers and filmmaking talent.

The opening weekend focuses on Cuban cinema with premières and the classic Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Later comes Wim Wenders’ documentary The Buena Vista Social Club (1999). For cinephiles and serious politicos there is a rare opportunity to see The Hour of the Furnaces (dirs. Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanos, Argentina 1968) (16mm) on Sunday 22nd April. There are 19 films in all with some well-known directors such as Álex de la Iglesia from Spain and Fernando Pérez from Cuba with recent films. Fans of Guillermo del Toro will be intrigued to note that one of his favourite actors, Ron Perlman, turns up in a Cuban political satire, Sergio and Sergei (2017). Many films will be introduced and there are six Q&As with visiting filmmakers and events with presentations on ‘Cuban Cinema’, ‘Álex de la Iglesia’ and ‘Latin American Revolutions and Cinema’. ¡Viva! is the only place to get such a concentrated dose of Spanish and Latin American cinema in one go. Click on the image above to get the brochure.

I’m going to make some of the dates but not as many as usual, I’m afraid. Whatever I can get to, I’m looking forward to it!

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Passing Summer (Mein langsames Leben, Germany 2001)

In the opening scene of the film Valerie (Ursina Lardi, left) and Sophie (Nina Weniger) meet in a café – with an unhelpful waiter in the foreground

Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.

Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents. There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.

Marie (Anne Tismer) keeps an eye on one of the children in this Long Shot

The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.

Valerie, off-screen, talks about her father.

What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.

MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary 1982/4)

Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) is shown her new room in Budapest by Magda (Anna Polony)

This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.

The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.

Bunking off to watch Garbo in the cinema.

I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.

Juli and her mother in the USSR when the heavily pregnant woman reaches the village hospital

As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.

Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.

Juli (centre) tries to leave Budapest but the police search for her with orders from Magda

Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):

 . . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993

This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?

The Silent Child (UK 2017)

Libby (Maisie Sly) and Joanne (Rachel Shenton)

It’s great to be able to comment on this Oscar-winning short film that has received two screenings on BBC1 over Easter and is currently on iPlayer (UK only?). Overseas it also seems to be available via Amazon and iTunes. The film gained an international promotional platform with its Oscar win as Best Live Action Short a few weeks ago.

The Silent Child is a 20 minute short presenting the story of Libby (played by the deaf actor Maisie Sly), a pre-school child who is profoundly deaf and who seems withdrawn and miserable living in a busy and middle-class household in an isolated house in rural England. In a last attempt to do something for Libby before she faces the daunting experience of starting school without the ability to communicate with other children (or her teachers), her mother Sue hires Joanne as a one-to-one tutor. When both parents and their teenage son and daughter go off to work, Joanne, played by the film’s writer Rachel Shenton, sets to make contact with Libby and gradually over the next few days and weeks teaches her the basics of BSL (British Sign Language). Libby’s world and her outlook on it is changed dramatically. But as the school start date draws near, Joanne learns that Sue has decided to stop the tuition. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative but by this stage many audiences will be in tears and shouting at the screen in frustration. The film ends with some on-screen text that presents the film’s underlying argument in five short statements.

Libby is fascinated by seeing two people signing in a café

For me, this film works very well in presenting its argument in the form of a beautifully-made narrative. The performances are very good and Maisie Sly is phenomenal. I was intrigued to look at the IMDb entry. It hadn’t occurred to me that all the nominated shorts would be reviewed before the Oscars. Some clearly gave the film no chance because the other ‘issues’ struck them as more gripping for (US?) audiences. Some objected to seeing a PSA (public service announcement) film there at all and trotted out the common prejudice about being ‘preached at’. The ‘User comments’ on the other hand are often from viewers who have experienced the issue themselves as parents, teachers or as deaf people. Many give the film 9/10 or 10/10.

Long shots are well used in creating location and the sense of isolation

I’ve written before about short films and the difficulties that the format creates for writers and directors. There is little point reviewing a 20 minute film as if it was simply a shorter version of a feature film. There isn’t the ‘narrative time’ to introduce and develop characters nor the kind of budget to create the ‘narrative space’ in which to set an expansive story. Instead, filmmakers have to think carefully about what kind of narrative they can create and how to make a strong impact given the constraints. The team which made this film are not very experienced as feature filmmakers, though for young ‘creatives’ they have extensive experience of television series as actors. Rachel Shenton experienced her father’s rapid onset of deafness and she has become a signer and an activist in the deaf community. Her partner Craig Overton is a first-time director. I was impressed by the CinemaScope cinematography by Ali Farahani, who also has limited feature film experience but a strong background in a diverse range of other film productions. The Silent Child is actually quite complex in terms of the ‘narrative data’ it offers audiences and the presentation of the narrative is in one sense quite conventional but makes good use of familiar visual language and symbolism. This may be dismissed as ‘melodrama’ by some, especially in the closing scenes in which music, cinematography and mise en scène combine to ‘express’ the isolation that Libby experiences. It worked very well for me.

The film was shot in winter in rural Staffordshire and the long-shot cinematography makes excellent use of mists/fog, the bare spiky trees and wet country roads. It would be a different film made in summer. The rural location is important – there are no other children of Libby’s age to play with close by. Small rural primary schools might be less stressful in some ways but are also less likely to have the funds to support deaf children and may need to mix children of different ages to make reasonable class sizes. Children start formal school, i.e. not nursery school, early in the UK. In England most children will enter school at the start of the term before they become 5 and join a reception class.

Libby is isolated in the classroom . . .

The family in the film is middle-class and this too is important. Middle-class parents might be expected to be more concerned about educational opportunities and to have the wealth and the social status/ work experience which helps them to argue for support of their children. The script of The Silent Child suggests that Libby’s family has its own internal frictions that perhaps negates some of these advantages. One aspect I did like was that the teenage son who develops a crush on Joanne also learns some sign language. I thought this was done with some subtlety. In some ways the film is also about Joanne. Shenton hasn’t given her own character any real identifying features except that she is energetic, cheerful, personable and has both the knowledge and skills to be a successful teacher. I notice some reviewers (and the film’s official website) refer to her as a social worker or a ‘carer’, neither of which are supported by what happens in the film. Is she self-employed? Does she work for a charity or a publicly-funded service? Either way she could be helpful in negotiating with the primary school.

After her son has identified that Libby is signing, Sue passes a glass of orange juice to her. Libby’s swift signing is subtitled in yellow

As someone working with students and public audiences in cinemas I’ve experienced being asked to work with signers and to be aware of lip readers and hearing loop systems. I’ve always been glad to do so but I remember from my schooling how little we learned (it was a long time ago!) about deafness and how poorly deaf students were supported. The Silent Child has two specific devices to bring home to audiences what it might mean to have hearing loss. At one point during a busy, noisy scene the sound is turned off almost completely – just a few seemingly distant bumps of sound as Libby is cut out of the conversation. The other device is to subtitle Libby’s own signing in yellow to distinguish it from all the other dialogue in the film which is subtitled in white. Most audiences will react to the first time we see Libby try out her new skill. If you haven’t seen the film yet, give it a go. And perhaps watch it a few times? It’s a rich text. Here’s the trailer:

Canyon Passage (US 1946)

The oddly-titled Canyon Passage is currently available online via MUBI UK. I chose to watch it, intrigued by a Technicolor Western from 1946. I’d never heard of the title before but with Jacques Tourneur at the helm and a starry cast it looked like a good bet. It was indeed entertaining and also intriguing in  suggesting inspirations for later films. The title is odd because ‘canyon’ makes me think of the dry South West and this story is set in the much wetter North West, specifically inland from Portland, Oregon in the 1850s. (‘Canyon’, Wikipedia tells me. simply means a ravine or gorge and could be in the Rockies.) It’s still an odd title though since it says very little about the film’s narrative.

Andy Devine and Dana Andrews in Canyon Passage

Logan (Dana Andrews) is a store-owner and muleteer who services the mining settlements in the interior. His aim is to control the passage of people and goods in the region. However, he appears to be caught up in two love triangles. The most important of the two involves Lucy (Susan Hayward) and Logan’s close friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) who is a gold agent with an unfortunate gambling addiction. With Lucy likely to marry George, Logan is encouraged to court a young visiting English woman (Patricia Roc) – but she’s also attracted to Logan’s employee, Vane. This might be enough plot for a romance, but Canyon Passage also features a rogue character, ‘Honey’ Bragg (a very aggressive Ward Bond) who targets Logan. Though the settlement of Jacksonville appears well-established, it is still subject to attacks by the local Native Americans who are enraged by some of the actions of the settlers. The cast list also includes three other names familiar to me. The singer Hoagy Carmichael wanders through many scenes in Jacksonville, commenting on events with an appropriate song and making crucial plot interventions. Lloyd Bridges plays the unofficial leader of the local miners and Andy Devine is a settler who has established a staging post – a stopping place on Logan’s trading route. He is also hosting the English woman.

Brian Donlevy as George . . .

. . . and Susan Hayward as Lucy (from dvdbeaver.com)

Hoagy Carmichael (left) and Andy Devine (right) at a town celebration)

Tourneur manages to pack an enormous amount of plot into 91 minutes. He does this deftly and makes use of superb location footage of the Cascades and his cinematographer, the veteran Edward Cronjager often uses long shots to frame groups rather than close-ups to feature the stars. The complex plot points at different moments to distinct sub-genres of the Western. Canyon Passage is a ‘frontier Western’ located before the Civil War when the frontier is still being contested by Native Americans. It’s a ‘settlement Western’ with time spent on the building of the settlement and an extensive ‘raising’ of a new homestead sequence in which the whole community builds a house for a couple about to be married. It’s also a ‘mining Western’/’mountain Western’ focusing on the potential stories of gold prospecting, saloon bars and gambling. Most of all, this is a narrative in which friendships are tested and harsh decisions related to community and survival have to be made. Overall, it seems to me that this is impressive story-telling.

Logan (Dana Andrews) and Lucy (Susan Hayward) en route to San Francisco with a string of mules

A homestead is attacked

The settlement of Jacksonville

Canyon Passage was adapted from a novel by Ernest Haycox originally serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Haycox was an extremely prolific and popular writer who was born in Portland. He wrote both short stories and novels and two different serial novels appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s at the same time in 1943. Haycox has been credited in helping to raise the status of Western stories and two of his stories were adapted for John Ford’s Stagecoach and Cecil B De Mille’s Union Pacific (both 1939). Canyon Passage was a Walter Wanger production with a large budget of $2.6 million. Wanger was a major figure in Studio Hollywood becoming a leading producer, sometimes independent but also working under contract at various studios. Susan Hayward was the star he contracted and she would become an award-winning actor in Wanger’s later ‘social issue’ films. Canyon Passage was made at Universal, one of the two ‘mini-majors’ not well-known for larger budgets or for Technicolor at this point. The studio had a long-term relationship with the Rank Organisation in the UK (Rank was actually a bigger studio than Universal in 1946 and had owned a 25% stake in the company since 1936). This explains why Patricia Roc is ‘introduced’ in Canyon Passage as part of a deal to bring US stars to the UK. Roc would have had some US recognition because of the furore surrounding The Wicked Lady (1945) which was ‘unrated’ for US distribution. Her part in Canyon Passage is relatively small and she looks out of place (which is reasonable as the character is meant to be English) – largely ‘ornamental’ and no match for Susan Hayward’s vivacity. As a Rank loanee she joined Margaret Lockwood and later Phyllis Calvert who also made trips to Hollywood.

A publicity still of Patricia Roc for Canyon Passage (from Silver Sirens)

Dana Andrews was reaching the high point of his stardom in 1946 (the year of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – which also featured Hoagy Carmichael). His status had been established by Preminger’s Laura in 1944. I hadn’t thought of Andrews as a Western star but in fact he had several supporting roles in Westerns in the early 1940s. In Canyon Passage he is a strong, confident figure who exudes authority and strength of character and his relationship with Donlevy’s character is believable.

Canyon Passage was by all accounts a successful and popular picture, although the high production budget meant it wasn’t particularly profitable. What struck me most was how much it made me think of later films. I wonder if it influenced Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)? The use of the setting, the songs that seem to comment on the narrative and the English woman – a far more successful import in the form of Julie Christie. I was also intrigued when I realised that ‘Logan’ is also the name of the Sterling Hayden character in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that ‘McIver’ is the name of a miner who is murdered in Canyon Passage and turns up again as the name of Ward Bond’s blustering character in Johnny Guitar. Several commentators have suggested that perhaps Peter Weir was familiar with the house-raising scene when he made Witness (1982). These scenes are impressive and the log cabins and stone fireplaces made me think of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as well as his earlier Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The presence of Andy Devine and Ward Bond also invokes Ford.

I enjoyed Canyon Passage and it confirmed for me the skills and artistic vision of Jacques Tourneur. This was his first Western and first film in colour. A year later he made Out of the Past, often cited as the peak of film noir and one of my favourite films. The clip below from the film’s premiere in Portland gives a flavour of the Hollywood publicity machine in 1946.

A Blu-ray of the film was released in the UK (Region B) by the Scottish company Panamint in 2016:

Ghost Stories (UK 2017)

This is a new title directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman which they have adapted from their original stage play. Andy Nyman also stars in the film as ‘Professor’ Goodman. He is actually an investigator with his own television show. His investigations are into fake spiritualist. His guru in this activity is Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) who apparently disappeared some years earlier. But Cameron re-appears and asks Goodman to look into three claims of mystery sighting of ghosts or equivalents. The three investigations occupy much of the film so it operates a little like a portmanteau film.

The BBFC advised that it was ‘strong horror [and] language’. In fact there were only a couple of serious shocks/surprises and the only amount of schlock is right at the end of the film. In between we see Goodman investigate by interviewing the subjects of these ghostly events. The witnesses never complete their stories as we face an abrupt cut at a moment of high tension. The third event is completed verbally after a similar cut.

Such ambiguities are deliberate because the way the narrative works leads up to an unexpected ending. In fact the publicity poster or the film requests audiences not to reveal the ‘secret’ of the ending. What I can note is that the film opens with Goodman’s voice-over narrating flashbacks to his childhood. And one of the aspects of the film is the way that experiences in childhood and at school haunt adults later in life.

I saw the film at a Picturehouse preview. It is fairly well done. The ghostly sequences are effective and not especially scary. The film uses the 2.35:1 frame and there are some well photographed exteriors. The sound adds to the atmosphere with both effects, noises and music. And there is a popular song which emphasises the resolution of the film. The cast also offer an effective representation of characters and events. Jeremy Dyson is from Leeds and there are a number of Yorkshire locations in the production.

The presentation was preceded by a publicity poster on-screen. The film does not quite justify the hype here. But what was slightly odd was that it contained deliberate misspellings [that are not in the standard poster] with reverse lettering and exchanged letters in some of the text. I could not figure how this related to the film. I had also seen the trailer earlier which contained one character who claimed the events were ‘unexplainable’. I found this inexplicable.

The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, Japan 2017)

The lawyer Shigemori (Fukuyama Masaharu), left and his client Misumi (Yakusho Kôji)

There are relatively few global filmmakers who regularly release films of consistent high quality – and which make it into UK cinemas. One of the few is Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, arriving here only six months after its Venice appearance, maintains this record. It will be seen, however, as a departure in some ways from the mainly family melodramas that have brought him the widest audiences.

It’s not immediately apparent what kind of film this is and some of the promotional material I’ve seen is quite misleading. It’s not primarily a crime film or a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘philosophical protest film’. The protest is against the Japanese justice system and it is philosophical because it is very personal and not at all practical – only a handful of people have an inkling of what the protest is about. I don’t know that much about how the Japanese justice system works but one anomaly, given the other aspects of Japan’s modern democracy, is that the death penalty is still in operation. Wikipedia has a useful page detailing the very precise instructions for sentencing which could result in execution by hanging. It’s worth reading through these to understand the legal case that faces the film’s protagonist, the lawyer Shigemori. He’s played by Fukuyama Masaharu, who also played a lead role in Kore-eda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013), his biggest hit in Japan. There is another link between the two films. Like Father, Like Son is about an attempt to resolve problems for both families when it becomes known after six years that two mothers in a maternity hospital were given each other’s babies. The discovery raises a host of legal questions as well as issues for the families. Kore-eda was told by his legal consultant that: “Court is not the place to determine the truth”. This observation (quoted in the film’s Press Pack interview) then drives the approach to The Third Murder.

Are we sure we see Misumi commit murder?

The narrative of The Third Murder really begins with Shigemori’s legal firm being appointed to defend Misumi (Yakusho Kôji), accused of a murder to which he has confessed. Because he has already served time for a murder thirty years ago and because he is charged this time with murder plus burglary, the death sentence appears inevitable. Shigemori begins by following procedures designed to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence, but his meetings with his client and some of the facts he discovers about the case disturb him. It turns out that Shigemori’s father, now retired, was the judge who passed the sentence on Misumi for his crime on Hokkaido in the 1980s. Shigemori would have been a boy then and when he meets his father, the old man says he made a mistake – if he had sentenced Misumi to death, the second murder wouldn’t have happened. His intervention drives the narrative into another family drama. It transpires all three men (Shigemori, Misumi and the murdered man) have daughters and this leads Shigemori into new avenues of investigation which will eventually push him into a change of heart and a change of strategy, especially when he meets the victim’s daughter Sakie (Hirose Suzu, the titular character in Our Little Sister, 2015). However, Misumi seems to be playing his own games and begins to change his testimony. When the case finally comes to court, it isn’t at all clear what will happen. And this is the point of the narrative. The court will make a decision based on judicial procedures and it will not necessarily take note of anything Shigemori or Misumi might say.

The victim’s wife (Ichikawa Mikako) and daughter (Hirose Suzu). They need each other now, but are they telling the truth about how and why the murder took place?

Audiences may well resent the fact that we never find out who actually committed the murder, even though we think we’ve seen the act at the beginning of the film. We don’t know whether Misumi ever tells the truth. Is the ‘third murder’ really the death of Shigemori’s belief in the judicial system? At the start of the narrative he seems very efficient and conventional in approach. By the end he has changed considerably. How do we feel about the case now? (Or perhaps more importantly, how does the Japanese audience feel at the film’s conclusion.) Kore-eda succeeds in presenting Shigemori and Misumi as two men who are in many ways quite similar – but one began with certain advantages and was ‘judged’ and the other wasn’t. This ‘doubling’ of the two men is achieved visually in some astonishing scenes in the interview room culminating in a shot which manages to superimpose one head over the other. This was the first time that Kore-eda had used the ‘Scope frame of 2.35:1 and he and his cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya set out to shoot the film very differently compared to their earlier collaborations. They opted for the colder look of crime films and studied Kurosawa’s High and the Low (1963) for ideas about using the ‘Scope frame. There are many big close-ups in the interview room and the courtroom scenes are shot more to emphasise the procedures than to create drama. Kore-eda began his career as a documentary filmmaker and he carried out a great deal of research to represent the procedures faithfully.

What is Shigemori thinking about when he looks up in this crane shot? Is he wondering which course of action to pursue?

There are several things about the plot and the use of imagery that I still don’t understand and which will have to wait for a second viewing. But this didn’t ‘spoil’ the narrative for me. I do recognise one of the complaints though and that is the way the central pairing of the lawyer and client comes to dominate and we lose track of some of the secondary characters. For example, Shigemori has two colleagues working with him. One is an older and perhaps more experienced former prosecutor and the other is a keen younger man (like Kurosawa’s young apprentice figures?). Both these characters seem to fade into the background after earlier providing important sounding-boards for Shigemori’s changing ideas about the case. I’m tempted to conclude that Kore-eda perhaps might have developed his narrative further. Some have complained that the film is too slow and already feels too long at 124 minutes. I could have taken another 30 minutes – or even a two or three part long-form TV production?

I should say something about the two leads in the film. Yakusho Kôji is one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated actors with roles for major directors such as Imamura Shôhei and Kurosawa Kyoshi. His biggest film in the UK was possibly the romantic comedy Shall We Dance (1996). Fukuyama Masaharu has much less experience in films but he has the distinction of being one of the most successful pop singers ever in Japan with 25 No1 singles. For Kore-eda he seems to have played two roles that both see an uptight, ‘controlled’ man forced to change by the experience of meeting other kinds of men and learning their stories. As well as Takimoto’s cinematography, the score by Ludovico Einaudi also works well to convey the tone of Kore-eda’s film.

The Night of the Virgin (La Noche del Virgen, Spain 2016)

Nico (Javier Bódalo) is the virgin.

Spanish cinema has a high reputation for genres such as horror, fantasy and science fiction – whether the films are aimed at cinéphile audiences, mainstream Spanish audiences or more cultish followers. The Night of the Virgin, as the title perhaps indicates, is skewed towards the third option, though it perhaps has some pretensions to attract the first. This is a horror film trading in disgust, but also trying to make some political points – though whether these are accessible to audiences outside Spanish culture is debatable.

Nico is spotted by Medea (Miriam Martín)

It’s New Years Eve and the film’s first trick is to invite us to a live Spanish TV programme preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bilbao – the extract is presented as a small 4:3 image within a CinemaScope frame. (IMDb suggests the film’s ratio is 2.70:1 ‘Ultra CinemaScope’.) Eventually the TV image expands to at least fill the frame vertically and then the image switches to the full ‘Scope frame to show a bar/night club where the titular character is attempting to find a woman to take away his virginity on the last night of the year. It looks like he will have no luck but at the last an attractive older woman invites him back to her apartment.

The virgin, Nico (Javier Bódalo) has borrowed a dress shirt and jacket to go out but he seems bewildered by the club. He’s also being goaded on by his mates and we see their text messages to him. Soon his hormones take over and a familiar scenario from teen horror emerges – he will seek a sexual adventure and something will go wrong. When he and the woman, Medea (Miriam Martín) reach her dingy apartment block, she warns him not to step on a cockroach as it will bring him bad luck – but, of course, he immediately does. We assume that he doesn’t know the story of Medea the sorceress. This Medea seems to have embraced sorcery from a different culture but she is certainly not to be messed with. What follows is a horror narrative with some comic elements which involves every kind of bodily fluids. It explores the desire for and fear of sexual acts and their place in rituals. Will Nico survive the night? What else goes on in this old apartment block? The narrative has a twist and the film ends with another TV broadcast which this time reports from outside the apartment block.

Would I recommend the film? I’m afraid that I don’t feel competent. I’ve seen enough Spanish horror and read enough Spanish history to know that there are some possible satirical/political points here but I can’t work out what they mean (apart from the attack on those idiotic New Year’s Eve TV programmes). This form of ‘body horror of disgust’ is not for the squeamish and unfortunately that includes me. The film has an 18 certificate for its UK release (strong violence, gore, sexual violence, sexual activity). Writer Guillermo Guerrero and director Roberto San Sebastián have produced a film that seems to have attracted extensive interest by specialist film festivals around the world. The film’s promotion cites many prizes and many glowing reviews from horror fans – “Disgustingly Unforgettable”, “Extreme, Grotesque and Gloriously Insane” are just a couple of them. The film is arguably too long but the music is entertaining.

It’s available from Matchbox Films, release date April 2 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK.