On my train down to the London Film Festival this year I read a comment piece in the i newspaper in which David Lister wondered why the LFF existed. Here is the whole paragraph:
Does London really need a film festival?
The London Film Festival opened this week . . . and I wish it hadn’t. I have argued before, and I still maintain, that London is the wrong place for a film festival. A country’s premier film festival should be held outside the capital city, just as the more illustrious film festivals are Cannes, not Paris, Venice, not Rome, and Sundance not Washington. A festival is a time to shine a light on another city, bring publicity, revenue, stars and filmgoers to it. And in a city like London, already full of films and cinemas, premieres and stars, most citizens don’t even notice that the London Film Festival is happening.
There are aspects of this I agree with. He’s right that film premieres and red carpets, especially in Leicester Square, are ten a penny in London. The commercial ‘festival on the square’ adds nothing to film culture – many of the ‘gala films’ will open in the West End within days or weeks of their LFF screenings. On the other hand the Q&A sessions with directors from outside Hollywood are culturally valuable since these directors are unlikely to be interviewed in the UK media. Avoiding the gala films I have to say that the LFF programmers usually choose very well from the films available on the festival circuit. I’ve been attending the festival on and off since the 1970s and I’m grateful for the opportunity to see a wide selection of films from around the world. Screenings of films like Solaris (USSR 1972) or Ichikawa Kon’s The Wanderers (Japan 1973) in Leicester Square on a big screen were events I’ll never forget. I think it was also the LFF that introduced me to the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors in the mid 1980s. Now the big Leicester Square events are invariably Hollywood films with red carpets and the highest seat prices. Lister’s idea is a good one – why doesn’t the BFI sponsor a festival in another UK city, one which needs a bit of film glamour – Birmingham perhaps? It would be good to see London Film Festival return to focusing primarily on this global films from the festival circuit that don’t otherwise get a UK showing. It’s worth reminding BFI management that the Institute is a national cultural agency promoting film culture and film industry in the UK. It isn’t part of the London tourist business.
Despite my qualms I enjoyed my brief visit and it was good to visit Hackney Picturehouse and Curzon Mayfair as venues new to me for festival screenings. Since I usually moan about screenings at multiplexes I should also say that my visits to the big screens at the Vues in the West End (once the Warner) and Islington were very enjoyable.
This was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.
The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.
The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.
This was the film that bowled me over at LFF – and I clearly wasn’t alone, I could feel how much the audience were behind the film. It’s not surprising that we should all feel sympathetic towards the central character Arianna, a young woman of 20 who doesn’t understand why she has difficulty feeling and behaving like her female friends and acquaintances. She does tell us why she is this way in a voiceover that accompanies the credits but I conveniently forgot about what she said and handed myself over to the narrative constructed by début director Carlo Lavagna. Lavagna and his star Ondina Quadri were present for a Q&A in which we learned that Lavagna had spent a long time in the US researching the science and sociology behind Arianna’s condition and that for some time he envisaged making a documentary. Eventually he realised that his ideas would work best as a feature and he and his producer struggled for several years to raise sufficient funds, losing their original lead actor (who became too old for the part). Ondina Quadri was cast as an inexperienced and reluctant actor and it is amazing that she and her director have produced such an affecting film.
The film narrative is set mainly during the summer vacation in which Arianna and her parents return to their villa by a lake in Tuscany. She was last there in her childhood and there are local people still there who were her friends and neighbours years ago. There is a sense that her parents have kept her away from the area up till now and that they are watching her and monitoring her interaction with others. Her father is a doctor and gradually we realise that Arianna is taking some form of hormone treatment delivered through the patches she places on her stomach. There are several scenes in which she studies her own body and frets about the slow growth of her breasts and how sore they are after the hormone treatment. Her younger neighbour is a painful source of comparison – a beautiful young woman with an attractive body.
At first the country house setting suggests a ‘coming of age’ type story familiar from numerous European art films but gradually an element of the thriller/puzzle investigation takes over as Arianna finds clues to what might have happened to her as an infant. When her parents need to return to the city Arianna persuades them to let her stay on, ostensibly to study. Free to explore and to think, Arianna invites a fellow student to stay and also her neighbour and her boyfriend. This proves to be a key moment in Arianna’s rediscovery of her sexual identity and coupled with her visit to a local therapy group discussing sexual identity and sexual health it pushes her to find out the truth that her parents have kept from her.
This film works because of the director’s sensitivity, the brave performance by Ondina Quadri and the cinematography by Hélène Louvart who I now realise has worked on several of the films I have admired and who appears to specialise in photographing young non-professionals (see The Wonders and When I Saw You amongst others). It’s a film with a non-purient interest in the sexuality of young people which is depicted openly. Perhaps some audiences might be offended by this openness but it feels to me like a genuine attempt to explore and understand important questions about identity.
I’ve seen several excellent Italian films at festivals over the years and it’s disappointing that so many of them either don’t get a UK release or when they do appear it is so fleeting that they make little impact. In a review from the Venice Film Festival for Variety, Guy Lodge gives a cool professional appraisal of the film (which I mostly wouldn’t argue with) in which he suggests that though films about ‘alternative genre identity’ are popular at the moment, Arianna is likely to “find a particularly welcoming niche in gender-themed and LGBTQ fest programmes”. It seems a shame to relegate a film to a niche when wider audiences might well enjoy it. Its relatively short running time (83 minutes) might make it a more difficult sell for some distributors but I hope it gets a chance and if it turns up on TV it might well find those appreciative audiences.
This was the one film I chose because of the auteur name attached. Eric Khoo is a respected director from Singapore who through his company Zhao Wei Films has also helped commercial co-productions with Malaysia to develop, especially horror productions. I managed to interview him in Oslo a few years ago. I booked this film ‘blind’ and was a little surprised by what it turned out to be – and even more surprised when I read some background after the screening.
Co-produced with Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi (ex-partner of Tsui Hark), In the Room seems to have been inspired by memories of erotic films of the 1970s and 1980s such as Emmanuelle and 9½ Weeks which were presumably hits in Hong Kong and Singapore, although with some cuts for cinema viewing I expect. In the Room is a set of encounters/liaisons in the same hotel room at different times over many years. The fictional Singupura Hotel is first seen in 1942 as a British planter is about to leave the island before the Japanese take over. He tries to persuade his lover, a married Chinese man who runs a rubber wholesaling company to leave with him. In the same Room 27 we then see a succession of guests from across South and East Asia involved in various liaisons. Eric Khoo has suggested that this format had the great advantage of fostering his co-production plans with actors from Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. It was also a production that allowed him to shoot on a sound stage for the first time (all his previous work being location-based).
It seems odd to recall the erotic films from the past in the era of internet porn and the rather desperate attempts of Lars von Trier to present ‘explicit’ sexual content in his Nymphomaniac films. In the Room‘s sexual activity isn’t particularly arousing and I actually found much of it to be quite tender and moving. The professional critics at various festivals have been rather dismissive, claiming the script (most of the stories are written by Jonathon Lim) as the weakest element. I find this a bit strange since the scenes are mostly dialogue-driven and each scene, bar the first, is subtitled because the language is different. Perhaps the subtitles are not very good? They seemed fine to me. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of praise for the set design which I thought was OK but that the first set, filmed in Black and White, didn’t work for me.
There were indications in the film that it is in some ways ‘personal’ for Khoo. The Japanese woman is I think reading a manga by Tatsumi Yoshihiro (Eric Khoo made his animated feature Tatsumi (2011) about the manga artist/writer). The film is dedicated to Damien Sin who wrote Khoo’s first feature and in the film ‘Damien’ is a character in a 1970s (soft) rock band who dies of an overdose and then haunts Room 27 over the rest of the film. This supernatural narrative strand also includes a young woman who works as a maid in the hotel and who meets Damien on the fateful night.
The question of censorship is interesting because reading through the reviews of North American screenings, it’s apparent that the print for the LFF has been shorn of what sounds like a more explicit/outrageous segment in which a bar-room ‘madam’ performs the old trick of ‘firing’ table tennis balls from her vagina – a nod to the brothels inhabited by British soldiers in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s perhaps? The LFF print is presumably the one that is intended to be released in South East and East Asia. I can’t say this film is up to Eric Khoo’s earlier standards but it’s better I think than the reviews so far suggest. I even quite liked the music and the song that Damien composes.
The trailer for Toronto: