Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

The Wife: a solid film notable for its lead performances but little else

Bjorn Runge, “The Wife” (2017)

As films go, “The Wife” is enjoyable mainly for Glenn Close’s understated performance as the title character: for the most part, the plot is predictable and Runge’s direction is solid if lacking in flair. It’s best seen as a character study of a woman who had aspirations to be a writer and who ends up repressing her ambitions to support her husband’s writing career. Literary giant Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature so he and his wife Joan (Close) prepare to journey to Stockholm to receive the award. Taking their son David (Max Irons), himself an aspiring writer, with them, the Castlemans are accosted on the plane by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a creepy freelance writer who plans to pen a tell-all biography about Joseph. Finally in Stockholm, the couple and their son settle down in their hotel rooms, and from here on the Castleman marriage starts to shake as the significance of the prize, her husband’s reaction and his cantankerous behaviour towards Bone and Max, and the general fawning over Joseph (with herself being relegated to the background as the dutiful and supportive wife) gradually begin weigh heavily on Joan.

Two chance utterances between Joseph and Joan in front of David alert viewers to the possibility that perhaps Joseph’s writing over the decades hasn’t entirely been his own. While the Castlemans perform the round of parties and meet-and-greet rituals leading up to the prize-giving ceremonies, Bone gathers enough information (including talking to Joan and Max separately) to come to the same conclusion. Flashbacks to when a young Joan (Annie Starke) first met Joseph (Harry Lloyd) as a student enrolled in his creative writing classes at college in the 1950s, leading to their becoming secret lovers while Joseph is still married to his first wife, and then to early life together struggling to make ends meet (Joseph having divorced his wife and left college to pursue writing full-time), fill in the details of that particular plot strand.

Close gives a master class in minimalist acting with her eyes and expressions that hint at the emotional turmoil and suffering within. Pryce is an excellent foil with his cantankerous and crude behaviour that includes chasing a woman photographer young enough to be his daughter. Slater plays Bone a little too smoothly; he seems comfortable as an oily, sleazy opportunist, and in the role offers little else. The rest of the cast is as wallpaper.

Apart from Close and Pryce’s acting, the film doesn’t offer much beyond demonstrating how a young female writer, shy and unsure of her talent, is deterred from following her dreams by an embittered female author (Elizabeth McGovern), her teacher / lover / husband’s own self-centred immaturity, lack of insight and arrogance, and the prevailing misogynist attitudes of the literary publishing industry in the 1950s. As time passes by, and her husband’s literary star begins its rise, Joan finds herself locked into supporting his career and becomes resigned to her role. The film only really perks up at the very end when Joan tells Bone what he can and can’t do, and one realises that, for all Joan supposedly suffered over the years as The Wife, her relationship with Joseph really was symbiotic and a purely stereotypical feminist explanation of their marriage as one where one party benefited at the expense of a long-suffering other and reaps all the rewards will not do.

The film could have offered some criticism, even light criticism, of the Nobel Prize and how this institution and the awarding of literary prizes can distort writers’ ambitions and affect their reputations. Too much weight can be attached to a writer’s reputation based on what prizes s/he has won without consideration for whether literary writing itself has become nothing more than a mere genre with its own load of stereotypes living in a bubble that is divorced from reality and with nothing valuable to say to most people struggling under political, economic and social systems that have become increasingly repressive, unequal, corrupt and inhuman.

A depressing view of Israeli society in “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians”

Abby Martin, “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians” (October 2017)”

Abby Martin is an American journalist who hosts an ongoing current affairs show The Empire Files on TeleSUR, a satellite TV network based in Venezuela. In this episode she goes to Jerusalem (Zion Square, to be renamed Tolerance Square) to discover what ordinary people on the city streets think of the Israeli government’s policies regarding Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Martin’s interviews took place in September 2017, at a time when a right-wing party (with members in the Knesset) had held its conference and among other things approved a plan for Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and to force Palestinians to move out of these territories.

Given that the public square where Martin meets her interviewees is to be renamed Tolerance Square, the responses she received were not at all tolerant. Most respondents were of the view that the land they call Israel had been given to the Jewish people by God for their exclusive use. Several people were of the opinion that Palestinians or Arabs generally should be bombed or killed. The possibility that bombing or killing Palestinians might encourage more tit-for-tat violence was never considered. A middle-aged man was of the view that Islam is a “disease” dangerous to the whole world and that Israelis should “kick away” Muslims. Some interviewees reveal the extent of the brainwashing and propaganda they received regarding the history of Palestine before 1948 when the area had been under Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman Turk and British rule. One teenager who belonged to a far-right organisation called Lehava (which advocates strict separation of Jews from non-Jews) stated that Jews have a special relationship with God and that Jews should not marry Arabs.

The surprising aspect of the answers Martin received is that she asked very general questions about how the interviewees felt about living in Israel and what they thought of the security situation. The racist responses they gave were completely unprompted and shocking in their extreme violence. Respondents confidently asserted that Palestinian land “rightfully” belonged to Jews – because at some remote time in the past it had been Jewish – and therefore Jews were justified in forcibly taking it away from Arabs without compensating them.

Perhaps as much for her own sanity as for that of her viewers, Martin consults activist Ronnie Barken who grew up in Israel and was exposed to the racist brainwashing that Martin’s interviewees were subjected to. At some point in his life however, Barken realised that all through his childhood and youth he’d been surrounded by a deliberate propaganda fog that demonised Palestinians and encouraged Israelis and Jews outside Israel to fear and hate them and Arab and Muslim people generally. He tells Martin of the Israeli agenda behind the portrayal of Palestinians as inferior, how it is really about stealing the land’s resources which enable a small power elite to exercise oppressive power over a weak people. He explains that Israeli identity depends on segregation from non-Jewish people and on denying Palestinians their identity, their culture and their right to exist at all. Barken’s explanation provides the context in which Martin’s respondents assert that Palestine and everything in Palestine that was actually created or produced by Palestinians over the last 2,000 years – in other words, Palestine’s very history and culture – belong to Israel.

This episode can be very depressing to watch, not least because most people Martin spoke to in her film were otherwise likable, generous with their time and frank in their attitudes. Far better it is though, to know the true nature of a society still traumatised by its past and how it responds to that trauma – but in a way that continues to produce fear, hate and loathing, and transmits those emotions and feelings to others – than to ignore reality and live under delusions fed by propaganda and lies. In this way, the cycle of hate, violence and genocide continues. Meanwhile, others (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) who profit from Israeli racism and prejudice against Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims generally will foment and fan the hatred and violence.

The film could have been better if Martin had tried to investigate some of the sources of propaganda that feed Israeli hate and prejudice: the country’s increasingly poor education system from primary level up to and including tertiary level should be one target; the militarisation of Israeli society that Barken alludes to is another; and the way in which Palestinians as a group are exploited by politicians to gain power and influence for themselves and to  ignore problems in Israel such as increasing socioeconomic inequalities, the concentration of wealth among a small number of families and individuals, and huge defence and security expenditures at the expense of education and social welfare. Viewers would gain a better understanding of the political, economic and moral corruption in Israeli society that underpins the suffering that in turn supports fear and hardened attitudes towards others.

A dense and really hard-hitting documentary in “Nationalized Finance: Russian Direct Investment Fund Focuses on Helping Country Expand and Grow”

“Nationalized Finance: Russian Direct Investment Fund Focuses on Helping Country Expand and Grow” (Vesti News, 6 August 2018)

An interesting and informative news documentary from Vesti News on Youtube has been attracting attention on how Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), invests its monies in major infrastructure projects and other projects in Russia deemed to be of national importance together with private and foreign investors. Through partnerships with large private investors and foreign government enterprises and investment funds, the RDIF selects what it considers the highest quality ventures – perhaps only a dozen or so out of thousands of such projects at any one time – and puts in money together with its partners at a ratio of 1 ruble for every 9 rubles the private or foreign investor invests. What criteria are used to determine which projects are selected for investment are not mentioned in the documentary but one yardstick is that for every ruble the RDIF invests in the project, there is a return of 3 rubles annually over the following 5 – 7 years of the project’s life.

After a brief explanation of what the RDIF does, where it invests and how it invests, including how it filters out projects deemed unsuitable for investment – unfortunately the English-language subtitles don’t do a great job of translating the Russian language narration, and miss out on two key areas of RDIF investment – the documentary dives straight into various case studies: a cancer research centre in Balashikha (Moscow oblast); Vladivostok International Airport; a co-investment with an Italian state road infrastructure investor into a road network linking Moscow with Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar in the southern part of European Russia; a petrochemical construction site in Tobolsk; various co-investment fund platforms with Middle Eastern private and government investors; a fertiliser plant in Cherepovets; and a pharmaceutical company making insulin in Saint Petersburg. Case studies may feature attractively animated statistics that ingeniously stick themselves to the sides of buildings or onto roads; more prosaically, the narrator rattles off facts and other statistics in rapid-fire fashion and interviews various company spokespeople.

Dense on information and going bang-bang-bang with facts, the documentary needs a couple of viewings to be fully digested. It could be organised a bit better: more information about how the RFID was developed and the reasons why it came into being would have given a historical context for foreign viewers; the case studies could have been dealt with at a slower pace and in more detail; and maps showing where cities like Balashikha or projects like the M-4 “Don” highway are located would have been welcome. The case studies on the cancer centre and the Saint Petersburg pharmaceutical firm could have been grouped together. Surprisingly there were no case studies on agricultural projects (given that Russian agriculture has received an unexpected boost from US and European sanctions placed on the country in 2014 after Crimea joined the Russian Federation), especially those agricultural projects benefiting from technological innovations. The attractive female interviewer may be a distraction for some male viewers. 🙂 For the time being, this documentary is a good introduction to Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and the ways in which its monies are used.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: character study of a fallible human being trying to live authentically in an inauthentic world

Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)

Once in a while an intelligent and worthy film comes out of Hollywood that demonstrates someone there still knows how to make meaty movies that provide much food for thought. Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of an idealistic, reform-minded lawyer who for a long time finds living up to his principles fairly easy but through an unfortunate change in circumstances is forced to confront the clash between them and the expedient pragmatism of the society he lives in. The decisions he makes as a result have devastating consequences for him and the people around him.

For many years, Roman J Israel (Denzel Washington) has toiled away in a small law firm, preparing briefs for his fellow partner who takes on cases involving small injustices done to the underprivileged. The partner dies of a heart attack and the law firm is sold to George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of the partner and now a successful if slick criminal defence lawyer in his own right. Initially Israel balks at working for Pierce and tries to find employment with a non-profit organisation run by an activist called Maya (Carmen Ejogo); but after a run-in with stridently ideological feminist friends of hers, Israel is forced to slink back to Pierce and accept employment with his firm. Unable to conform to the new firm’s culture and unwilling to compromise his beliefs and values, Israel ends up antagonising everyone including Pierce in the firm. An encounter with a black man in prison on robbery charges, being assaulted by a beggar and duped by another poor man leave Israel questioning his beliefs. From there he decides he’ll be just like regular folks, working and doing things opportunistically; but because his character is socially inept, he commits one mistake after another and ends up turning in a dangerous criminal to the law to collect reward money which violates his employer firm’s agreement to defend the criminal. Israel repents of this deed but the damage it causes cannot be undone.

Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the reason is easy to see: he is completely absorbed in the character of Israel with all his quirks and eccentricities. Farrell plays Pierce quite straight and minimally: the character potentially could have been one-dimensional but Farrell’s portrayal of a man who rediscovers his inner voice and conscience from Israel’s example, and who comes to care for Israel and his legacy seems quite convincing. Farrell as corporate legal shark becomes an excellent foil for Washington’s workaholic idealist activist savant: as the latter starts to lose his moral compass and something of his individuality, the former starts to regain his. The rest of the cast provides good if not very outstanding support.

The style of the film illustrates the discomfort that Israel has in adapting to the cut-throat corporate legal world: he is clearly a creature of the 1970s, an age of civil rights activism. He dresses in the clothes of the period, much to others’ amusement, and frequently wears headphones to listen to the soul music of that decade. The music soundtrack, updated in its instrumentation and vocals, gives a distinct smoky flavour to the film and lifts it above other contemporary realist legal dramas.

Concentrating as it does on Israel and his inability to conform to a more superficial and uncaring society in which greed is good and encourages selling out and back-stabbing, the film is overly long and the plot is vague and sketchy. The events that occur as a result of Israel’s mistakes and failure to live up to his high ideals seem to have been inserted into the film as an after-thought though they are clearly driving the film in its second half. Perhaps the film spends too much time on Israel’s inner conflict and his quirks, and not enough on what Pierce and other characters think of him or try to do with him. For all its flaws, this film is worthwhile watching as an example of what Hollywood can do and could be doing more of, if the movie industry in the US were less obsessed with maximising profits and pursuing shallow values, and paid more attention to portraying the lives and misfortunes of the downtrodden, how they are exploited by the government, corporations, greedy individuals and criminal elements alike. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would certainly approve.

 

 

Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City: a snapshot of a city in shock and uncertainty

Graham Phillips, “Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City” (July 2018)

In late July, British journalist / film-maker Graham Phillips spent time in Salisbury in southern England to speak to local people on their opinions of the ongoing police investigation into the purported poisoning of the Russian-born British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal by Novichok nerve agent at a park in the middle of the city. As of this time of writing (early August 2018), the whereabouts of the Skripals remain unknown after their release from Salisbury District Hospital in May. Since then a couple, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, have also been poisoned, apparently by Novichok which Rowley found in a well-packaged perfume bottle left at a park in Amesbury, a small city not far from both Salisbury and the Porton Down military defence laboratory, a place notorious for various experiments involving the use of VX nerve gas during the 1950s. Sturgess died in hospital and her body was cremated just recently. Despite constant assertions by the British government and news media that Novichok was the toxin involved in both poisoning events and that Russia has to be responsible for sending or allowing this toxin to be used in Salisbury and Amesbury, the British authorities have not offered any evidence or established a clear chain of custody linking the poisonings to either the Russian government or Russian crime gangs.

In this video and also in this one on his Salisbury trip, Phillips travels by train from London to the city (noting the sizable train fare of 35 pounds) and walks through the streets to the local branch of Zizzi’s Restaurant, a restaurant franchise network with outlets throughout the UK and in some cities overseas. Zizzi’s in Salisbury is one of a number of places Sergei and Julia Skripal visited in the city in the crucial hours of Sunday 4 March 2018 before they were found unconscious and convulsing on a park bench in the shopping mall. The two are known to have ordered seafood risotto meals at Zizzi’s and to have fussed noisily when the dishes were late in coming out to their table.

Phillips sees that Zizzi’s is still closed with hoardings placed in front and guarded by two security guards. He hovers close by and starts talking to pedestrians. Most people refuse to talk about what they know (or don’t know) about the Skripals and only two gentlemen aged 50+ years offer what they know of the couple and the poisoning. Interestingly both doubt the official British government and news media versions of what happened, perhaps because in the weeks following the incident, the story of how the Skripals were poisoned and how the Novichok reached Britain kept changing from one day to the next. Fanciful tales about the Novichok being inserted through the air-conditioning system of the Skripal family car to a friend of Julia’s bringing a packet of buckwheat cereal contaminated with the stuff from Moscow on a late plane, to Julia herself carrying a perfume bottle of Novichok given her by her prospective mother-in-law flew, and finally to the toxin being applied in a gel-like form to the doorknob of the Skripal family home by a secret hit squad from Russia flew about. In the meantime, a police detective also fell victim to Novichok, was hospitalised, treated and released (to an unknown location); the Skripal house was sealed off (later to be bought by the UK government); and the Skripal family pets either starved to death or were so malnourished from starvation that when eventually found were put to sleep. The animals were later incinerated (along with the Zizzi’s Restaurant table that the Skripals dined upon and the famous park bench) at Porton Down without any autopsying done. Indeed, with the recent cremation of Sturgess, the British government seems anxious to get rid of what should be considered forensic evidence for a possible inquest or trial on what happened to the Skripals, Sturgess and her partner.

Looking for more obliging interviewees, Phillips wanders around Salisbury and comes across the park where the Skripals collapsed. Originally cordoned off by police after the Skripals had been taken to hospital, the park is now surrounded by huge advertising hoardings urging Salisbury residents and tourists to keep calm and keep visiting and shopping. A woman feeding pigeons informs him that the park bench has been removed but Phillips does not follow up asking her or anyone else what happened to it. Phillips walks back to the shopping centre and passes The Mill pub where the Skripals had drinks after lunch on the fateful day.

In all, with the amount of time Phillips has spent pounding the pavement trying to find people willing to offer their views on the poisoning incident or on the UK news media coverage of the same, he gets very few responses, and those mostly from people of an age who might figure they’ve now got nothing to lose by talking. The level of knowledge the respondents have about the incident is vague, given that they live in the city or its surrounds, and the general attitude seems to be one of indifference and apathy.

With the camera bouncing up and down constantly and whizzing about, viewers can feel a bit queasy; this video has not been edited for length. As we follow Phillips about, gaining a close view of his surroundings, we see a city trying desperately to regain a sense of normalcy and not coping very well with its newfound notoriety: several shops have shut down, awaiting new owners and businesses with an air of desolation; there are not many tourists in the city for the time of year (July 2018); people keep their heads down, their faces shuttered; and in some parts of the city, a certain melancholy is present. While the urban landscape is neat and clean, and the park is well kept, a sense of unease seems to be present.

He might not have found the answers he was looking for but in this video Phillips has captured a snapshot of a city teetering on the verge of psychological depression. Unless the British authorities offer definitive evidence and answers as to what poisoned the Skripals, who poisoned them and the motive behind the poisoning, and above all admit to where the Skripals have been removed, Salisbury will continue to suffer in silence.

The Faces of North Korea: a soulful visual poem showcasing the humanity and achievements of North Korea

Andre Vltchek, “The Faces of North Korea” (2018)

Visually poetic, even soulful to watch, this documentary is a travelogue of the sights and experiences, along with recent history to establish the context for much of what he saw and heard, of Russian-American journalist and film-maker Andre Vltchek while travelling in North Korea.  “The Faces …” is not just a beautiful travelogue – it’s also a reminder of the humanity of the people of the country and a homage to what they have been able to achieve since the end of the Korean War in 1953, during which conflict all major cities in the country including Pyongyang the capital were completely destroyed and some 20% of the total population were killed by American-led forces.

Vltchek travels around mostly in Pyongyang and to the demilitarised zone so this film isn’t really representative of North Koreans generally and how they live and perhaps flourish. Pyongyang is a clean and modern city with wide boulevards lined with nature strips and trees, and a moderate amount of traffic. There is plenty of astonishing large-scale architecture, much of it either very imaginative or eccentric. Scenes shot from the viewpoint of a front-seat passenger in a car show urban landscapes of quiet pride and matter-of-fact orderliness.

The journalist visits a museum near the demilitarised zone to see photographs and paintings, and to hear talks by the museum lecturer (translated into English by his guide) about the Korean War and its effects on ordinary North Korean people. On hearing of the horrors inflicted on North Koreans – in addition to the carpet-bombing that incinerated entire towns, US-allied soldiers also tortured people – Vltchek better understands the paranoia and fear of another US invasion that North Koreans still carry. To underline his point, Vltchek includes film footage of a US military base in Okinawa from which the Americans launched their invasion of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, and of part of an earlier trip he made to South Korea where the militarism and anti-DPRK propaganda propagated and promoted by the government there disgusted him.

What sets Vltchek’s film apart from other documentaries and short films on North Korea that I have seen is his delight in photographing or filming ordinary people going about their lives, in particular children skating about the streets on roller-blades and small girls performing songs and dance routines. A continuous music soundtrack of solo piano melodies enhances the intimacy of these scenes. Of course, as with the other films I have mentioned, Vltchek’s film shows up much of the current Western news propaganda about North Korea for what it is: not only does it deal in worn-out stereotypes about the country and its leadership but the constant repetition is mind-numbing, suggesting that imagination and open-mindedness are in direly short supply among the Western MSM.

The film finishes on an ambiguous note of foreboding and hope that North Korea will continue to progress and follow its own path despite the pressures of economic sanctions and the constant sabre-rattling from its neighbours and beyond, exemplified in the biannual military exercises undertaken during the northern spring and late summer near North Korea’s borders by South Korea and the US. As long as countries like North Korea not only survive but even thrive, there is hope for the rest of the world yet that one day all nations can pursue their own directions towards prosperity and shared wealth among their peoples without the fear that a giant bully will invade them with the aim of taking their land and its resources.

 

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.

 

Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.