22 Aug 2016

2 x Mini-Review (The Handmaiden / The Childhood of a Leader)

Ah-ga-ssi / The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park, 2016)

Based upon the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, the latest opus from Oldboy's helmer is an epitome of style and elegance. Replacing the original work's Victorian era setting, it's also an authentic throwback to Korea under Japanese rule in the '30s of the last century.

The Handmaiden starts off as an innocent lesbian love story, but as it progresses, it shows a disturbingly erotic side, eventually succumbing to some damp cellar violence. Perversely gorgeous and containing more slaps than a standard Nouvelle Vague flick, this romantic psychological drama + thriller explores the themes of lust, seduction, deception and female liberation under the male gaze. Told from the perspectives of two heroines, pickpocket-turned-handmaiden Sook-Hee (a bold feature debut by Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Hideko (brilliant performance by Min-hee Kim), it (almost) never drags through its lengthy running time.

Evoking Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color during the lascivious but tastefully rendered sex scenes, Park's return to home grounds is posh and lavish all the way, from Chung-hoon Chung's alluring cinematography to Seong-hie Ryu's impeccable set design. An absolute must-see.


The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet, 2015)

The cooperation with auteurs such as Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia) must have had a profound impact on 28 yo thesp Brady Corbet, whose ambitious directorial debut shows a lot of promise. Co-written with his partner, Norwegian-born actress Mona Fastvold, and loosely inspired by Sartre's short story of the same name, The Childhood of a Leader is an impressively crafted period drama about the roots of a ficticious fascist figure.

Starring outstanding British newcomer Tom Sweet as the brattish anti-hero, and Bérénice Bejo and Liam Cunningham as icy-cold, austere and distant parents, the film is set during the Great War closing, while most of the events occur in the ramshackle villa in rural France. Bleak atmosphere, portending the upcoming dread of WWII, is felt in every single frame of gloomy browns and grays and hightened by unnerving silence or Scott Walker's sinister, boisterous and cacophonous score. Enwrapped in the veil of mystery and moving at a languorous pace, the narrative is pushed behind the darkly beautiful imagery and foreboding soundscapes. Corbet refuses to reveal the true reasons for the boy's obnoxious behaviour and his frightening rise to power, even suggesting that supernatural forces might be at work. Casting Robert Pattinson in small, but important dual role, as jurnalist Charles and grown-up Leader, he ironically addresses the celebrity cult hysteria and its potential to grow into something dangerous.

Spliting The Childhood... into three acts, wittily titled "tantrums" as an offset to feature's overwhelming seriousness, he claims that it is "not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good."

19 Aug 2016

3 x Translated Review (Taking Tiger Mountain / Alpha / Welcome to Nowhere)

What follows are English translated reviews of three highly experimental works of cinema, Taking Tiger Mountain, Alpha, and Welcome to Nowhere, written in yesteryear, at the request of their respective directors, Tom Huckabee, Stathis Athanasiou and William Cusick.

Taking Tiger Mountain (Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith, 1983)

Speaking of the obscure and provocative dystopian drama (?) Taking Tiger Mountain, the history of its conception should be looked upon, since it is as perplexed (and interesting) as the unconventional narrative. In the intervew for Screen Slate, Tom Huckabee reveals how he came to cooperate with Kent Smith, the original creator, Bill Paxton, the starring actor and producer, and William Burroughs, one of the most eccentric writers of beat generaton. According to his words, it all began in the mid-70's, when a young adventurist (Smith) decided to shoot his first fiction feature out of the money he saved while he had been working on Encyclopædia Britannica's educational shorts.

Inspired by the Italian and French cinema, especially by Fellini's and Godard's opuses, the Middle East culture and the books by Paul Bowles and Allen Ginsberg, Smith wrote a poem about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty, which should have served as a frame for improvisation. With almost no plan, he left for Tangier (in Morocco), in the company of then-anonymous (and barely of age) Bill Paxton, whom he considered a potential star. However, both of them ended up in prison, while all of their footage and equipment was confiscated. After their release, they arrived in Spain, embittered because of the failure, and then they traveled to Wales. Continuing their experimentation there, they were helped by Paxton's and Huckabee's mutual acquaintance, Barry Wooller... and the townsfolk from the country's south. There was less and less of the film tape, so they moved back to Los Angeles, trying to provide funds for their crazy project, which they introduced to Huckabee. A few years later, Tom was finishing his studies at the University of Texas in Austin and preparing for the adaptation of awarded post-apocalyptic story by an unnamed local writer, but ultimately lost the rights to do so. Smith sold him the ten-hour footage for a dollar and Huckabee spent months editing it (with no expenses, thanks to UT) and extracted sixty minutes of suitable imagery. Afterwards, through the punk-rock connection and a complementary-offensive poem, he got in touch with Burroughs, who allowed him to draw on the material from his SF novella Blade Runner (a movie).

The title, which was (instinctively) borrowed from Chinese opera for the sake of wonder, remained untouched, but the new screenplay took place in a near future and it followed Billy Hampton, a Texan who fled from occupied America to British island in order to avoid compulsory military service. Once there, he was abducted by a group of sophisticated feminist terrorists, who have been opposing the oldest profession legalization, creating assassins by brainwashing and then setting them on the prostitution camps leaders. (And they also specialized in redirecting sexual orientation and sex change operation.)

During the introductory part, the quartet of middle-aged women analyzes Billy and persuades him to believe that an aging major is actually a tiger sent by God to kill him. That prologue is a combination of sequences with Huckabee's signature and those from a short film that Smith and Paxton had been working on prior to their arrival to Wales. What follows could be described as a sporadically wet psychotropic nightmare, with hypnotic soundtrack composed of gloomy drones, overdubbed dialogues, confusing monologues and omnipresent radio announcements about the war aftermath and the use of thermonuclear weapons on the United States territory. Along the reports of explosions, plagues and hound-sized rats, and high contrast (overexposed) photography, even the most trite scenes, such as walking down the street or visiting the pubs, look like a paranoid hallucination.

The film itself acts as if it were directed by Cronenberg in his Stereo / Crimes of the Future element, under the influence of Maya Deren and Paul Morrissey, and then given to stoned Portabella for a finishing touch. Despite the oddities and absurdities it has no shortage of, its impenetrability and suffocating, disorienting and simultaneously spellbinding atmosphere, Taking Tiger Mountain is worthy of the "unique sensory experience" epithet. In addition, it drastically changes most people's notion of Bill Paxton, in the same way The Egyptian Princess by Rocky Schenck does.


Alpha (Stathis Athanasiou, 2015)

Greece, in a future not so far away. The cradle of democracy has been turned into a totalitarian state's deathbed. Alpha leads a conformist life, but in a constant fear of what the next morning will bring. When the Fugitive knocks at her door, she refuses to provide him the refuge. For the people in power, their short encounter is a reason enough to punish her. A uniformed group takes her away to the desolate forest, where she is forced to sit under the hanged Fugitive's corpse – the corpse of her own brother...

The part of the Parnitha National Park, damaged by wildfire of 2007, is put to use as "the prison", in which Alpha's physical and mental decline occurs. By burnt trunks, dried grass and car wrecks, that space is given the looks of post-apocalyptic landscape and made into a junkyard of socially ostracized. Applying the "beat-to-obedience" principle, the dictatorship's subjects thwart each and every heroine's attempt to keep on struggling for survival. Nightmarish hallucinations, that transform and eventually break her, are caused by her taking over the responsibility for the family breakdown, as well as the forcible relocation from the safety zone. Childhood memories, often interlaced with the child's cry (or laughter), dissolve her present / deranged reality, introducing the additional discomfort into an abstract and labyrinthian story.

Deconstructing (postmodernizing) the myth of Antigone, Athanasiou creates the uncompromising experimental film, contemplating about the righteousness of the human laws. Simultaneously, his latest feature presents a psychological character study of "anti-Antigone" in the state of isolation – initially, self-imposed (and self-preserving), and subsequently, in captivity. Reducing the dialogue to a minumum, he communicates with his audience via the audio-visual symbols and allusions, and through the symbiosis of excellent black & white cinematography and layered soundtrack, the "conversation" flows smoothly. Exceptionally striking is the tracking shot, lasting around ten minutes, which follows the title and destroys the illusion of unimpeded privacy by playing with (horror) genre conventions. From the unidentified and for Alpha invisible voyeur's POV, we observe her apartment, when the sudden cut takes us back to the past, eerily red and, in a Lynchian way, enigmatic.

The main role is entrusted to Serafita Grigoriadou, who succeeds in playing timid, introverted, hate-filled and ostensibly safe woman as good as bold and defiant individual, who strives for preserving what little's left of her dignity and love for her brother. With disfigured face, which she paints as a warioress using the lipstick, she gives the strong emotional punch in the touching scene towards the end.

Alpha is the first Greek film financed through the means of crowdfunding, and it is available at the official director's vimeo channel.


Welcome to Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road) (William Cusick, 2012)

"The key to my salvation is in the removal of all boundaries."

Based upon the performance of the same name by Temporary Distortion troupe, Welcome to Nowhere represents a surrealist deconstruction of the American dream myth. Stretched between video art, road movie, abstract animation and Lynchean thriller, this film provides us with several pieces of a puzzle, whose solution is the illusion of the five lost souls' story.

Thoughts, memories and hallucinations of a poet (and a murderer?), a hitchhiker (and a thief?), a prostitute, a waitress and a junkie, are all intertwined in modern "Wild West" – in the desert, motel rooms and nightclubs, at the gas station and, of course, on the road. Unable to oppose the demons who feed their fears, as in the karaoke-intermezzo, they're reduced to the level of ghosts, trapped inside the (no-exit?) labyrinth of feverish dreams. Their long and cold looks tear the existential void, and time seems still, while they slowly sink into nothingness, becoming the victims of "paradoxical fantasies of improbable escapism, perverse sexuality and futile violence" (to paraphrase a part of the official synopsis).

Cusick's oneiric-nihilistic phantasmagoria is shown from the different perspectives, but each is subjective and therefore unreliable. Will you simply let it take over you or try to make sense of it or resist the anti-narrative? Well, it depends on your willingness to dive into the sea of subconsciousness. If you're in the mood for floating above the "bluesy" sonic scapes, in the presence of sporadic dialogues and often trippy imagery with saturated colors, Welcome to Nowhere will be the refreshment you’re yearning for. And you can watch it at NoBudge.

17 Aug 2016

Collective: Unconscious (2016)

In 2015. five indie directors were tasked with envisioning and adopting each other's dreams for the screen. The result of their experimentation is wildly varied, but consistent omnibus exploring the hypnotic nature of cinema, while addressing the issues of modern (American) society.

A segment titled All Hypnosis is Self-Hypnosis, in which hypnotist Daniel Ryan puts you and his subjects (i.e. the filmmakers) in trance, serves as an introductory frame for the quintet's idiosyncratic shorts. What follows is Maya Edelman's hyper-stylized animated sequence that hints at what awaits us around the corner.


First comes a bleak, allerogical drama Black Soil, Green Grass by Daniel Patrick Carbone, who takes us to the countryside of unnamed Orwellian state, dreamt by Lauren Wolkstein. Pointing at the present-day media's omnipresence and oppressiveness, this miniature stars Frank Mosley (Upstream Color) and a songstress Sanda Weigl as the lone survivors of a lethal 'big brother'-esque watchtower broadcasts. Using retro-tech equipment, the protagonist records the old lady's euphonious singing, eventually replacing the neverending sheep counting with melancholic Romanian Gypsy songs. Shot in beautiful black and white and packed with exquisite sound design, Carbone's piece stresses the importance of cultural heritage preservation.


Josephine Decker's gaga First Day Out visualizes Lily Baldwin's dream and it feels as if Marina Abramović, possessed by the restless spirit of Pina Bausch, directed a dada-hip-hop video. Underscored by real-life convicts' testimonies, it features twisted performative dance acts at various locations and a cardboard car being set on fire, while dealing with the troubles of ex-prisoners' resocialization. Its atmosphere brims with bitter irony.


Challenging gender stereotypes and mocking in the face of tyranny is a pre-apocalyptic farce Beemus, It’ll End in Tears from the unconscious mind of Frances Bodomo and helmed by Lauren Wolkstein. This primary colored gym class nightmare positions an autocratic teacher Beemus, brilliantly overacted by Will Blomker, and a transgender student, played by singer-songwriter and LGBT activist Ryan Cassata, as opponents in the battle of wit and strength. Once the decicive moment arrives (and the volcano erupts), loud words are transformed into tears, as the title suggests, revealing the ruling powers hypocricy.


Next in line is a black comedy Everybody Dies! by Frances Bodomo, from the REM state of Josephine Decker, concerning the high mortality rate amongst African-American youth. The focal point of this vignette is a glossy & gruesome low budget public access TV show for black kids, hosted by Ripa the Reaper (Tonya Pinkins, disturbingly funny). (The white children, who accidentally stumble upon the set, are supposed to look for "the third door down on the left - there's cookies in there.") VHS aesthetic of Bodomo's sardonic sequence adds up to a distressing message, making the cover of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star sound even more cheerfully dismal.


And the (second) best for last is Swallowed, Lily Baldwin's love letter to Polanski and Żuławski, starring her as a mother who faces postnatal depression mirrored in utter disgust towards breastfeeding. Inspired by Carbone, who's the only male in the company, this irreverent feminist extravaganza borrows manacing neighbours from Rosemary's Baby and subway scene madness from Possession, marrying them with spasmatic modern dance act, representing the crumbling of the heroine's psyche. Featuring top-notch cinematography, sloppy milk drinking and irrational CGI epilogue, it is the most surreal part of the anthology.

As a whole, Collective: Unconscious can be considered quite successful, so if you're in the mood for something diverse and of course dreamlike, look no further. You can download it for free at the official website.

15 Aug 2016

A Spring for the Thirsty (Yuri Ilyenko, 1965)


Gloriously shot in black and white half a century ago, but not released until 1987, Ilyenko's directorial debut is a profoundly melancholic ode to human fragile existence. Aptly titled A Spring for the Thirsty (originally, Криниця для спраглих), this film is a well of pure and sublime beauty, that is waiting to be drawn and enjoyed by thirsty cineastes. 

It follows the story of an old potter leading a secluded life in a remote Ukrainian village, hopelessly trying to find comfort in recurring dreams and fading memories. His only company is a wellspring, once used by the armies of passersby and now a simple relic of a brighter past. While yearning for a grim reaper's touch, he is visited by his indifferent adult sons and a pregnant daughter-in-law, who brings a last smile to his face.

A desolate reality, floating reveries and gloomy hallucinations are subtly interweaved into a boldly poetic stream-of-consciousness narrative, with overexposed photography serving as a "phantasy indicator". The words are sparsely used, allowing gorgeous monochrome compositions to do all the talking. The themes of solitude, the transcience of time and the inevitability of death, which is personified by a grumpy crone, are explored through metaphors and symbols, whilst even the most banal actions and mundane scenes possess a hypnotic quality.

Ilyenko constantly blurs the line which separates the abstract from the concrete, never losing against cheap sentimentality. Reminding us of our own mortality, he creates a sophisticated, if not captivating drama and introduces a few a capella folk songs to evoke an atmosphere of solemn nostalgia. Simultaneously personal and universal, distant, but kind, his film is the cinematic equivalent of a grandmother's tearful face - one of the most touching points of this visual masterpiece.

9 Aug 2016

The Neon Demon (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2016)

(Niš, bioskop Vilin Grad, 08.08.2016. Nekoliko adolescentkinja u publici uporno je odbijalo da napusti salu, iako je bezrazložno smejanje jasno nagoveštavalo da ovaj art film ne odgovara njihovom senzibilitetu.)


Kitnjasta sofa, koju vidimo u prvom kadru, lepa je čak i onda kada na njoj ne leži Džesi, šesnaestogodišnja manekenka u usponu, sa šminkom koja podražava prerezani vrat i koja određuje sudbinu nevine devojke u svetu zmijskih tela i otrovnih karaktera. Lepe su i tapete iza te sofe, kao i one (otrcane) u sobi trećerazrednog motela, gde Džesi odseda. Bleštava belina i sudar crnog i zlatnog na đalo-likoj foto sesiji takođe su lepi, a lep je i gotovo apstraktan Džesin debi i preobražaj (zaposedanje neonskim demonom?) na modnoj pisti...

"Lepota je suština." - kaže prepotentni kreator Roberto Sarno, dok kroz njega progovara Nikolas Vinding Refn, lukavo primenjujući taktiku "vogue-om protiv vogue-a" u svom najnovijem ostvarenju, enigmatičnoj i ultra-stilizovanoj drami sa primesama horora i prigušene sekploatacije. Ulogu slatke i nevine, ali nimalo naivne Džesi obožavani i omalovažavani Danac poverava El Fening, čiji prozračni ten, srneći pogled i bilingvalni smešak predstavljaju ono "nešto" što iskusne Điđi (Bela Hitkout) i Sara (Ebi Li) nemaju, a uzalud nastoje da nadoknade pućenjem, plastičnim operacijama i/ili zajedljivim komentarima. Nova devojka iz malog mesta pleni pažnju top agenata, budućih koleginica tj. suparnica i fotografa sa izrazom lica serijskog ubice, kao i šminkerke Rubi (opako dobra Džena Maloun), čije namere nisu nimalo časne, a koja je odgovorna za jedan od najprovokativnijih momenata. Zaveden je i Kianu Rivs koji tumači perverznog vlasnika motela - neočekivan, ali hrabar iskorak za miljenika ženske publike. Lepo je (po n-ti put) biti u fokusu, ali to sa sobom nosi i određen rizik, pošto predatori (i  mračne sile?) vrebaju sa svih strana...


U "batorizaciji" ili, ako vam je draže, "eržebetizaciji" radnica modne industrije, odnosno u naglašavanju taštine, površnosti i praznine koje u istoj vladaju, Refn isporučuje arđentovski baroknu, kjubrikovski hladnu, linčovski iščašenu i verhofenovski drsku filmsku ekstravagancu, dajući smisao "poziranju" koje je obeležilo Samo bog prašta. Prepunu vreću najrazličitijih slatkiša za oči pred gledaoca prosipa u usporenom ritmu, kojim postiže gustu atmosferu povišene napetosti, neprekidno vas zadirkujući i stavljajući vaše strpljenje u zagrljaj železne device. Priču, dekorisanu "kriptogramima", i likove, koji su tretirani kao pop-objekti, podređuje raskošnim vizuelnim kompozicijama, u kojima je jednaka pažnja posvećena šminki, kostimima, scenografiji i osvetljenju, ali i moćnom i pulsirajućem elektronskom skoru, kojeg se nijedan reditelj horora ili SF filmova ne bi postideo. Gledanje njegovog glamuroznog košmara moglo bi se poistovetiti sa prelistavanjem kakve morbidno-nadrealističke verzije Kosmopolitena, u kojoj fotografije Nataše Brejer blistaju u punom sjaju i u kojem vas na kraju očekuje visceralni omaž čuvenom presecanju oka iz Andaluzijskog psa.

Demon pod reflektorima je, za sve koji do sada nisu shvatili, "drop dead gorgeous" i vredan je posete bioskopu. A malo pretencioznosti (bez koje nema velike umetnosti) nikoga nije ubilo.

5 Aug 2016

A Cashmere Letter

This plain is the home of the living hieroglyphs
and the only place where he can be cocky and truly alone.

A CASHMERE LETTER
by Nikola Gocić


Dear Little Dream,

The Sun is finally dead, so we are all doing fine. 


The Anomalies surrounding us are quiet lately and the Naked Lady is fearless. Dada Panda enjoys her summer with AfterDeath and our gay Saints stroll under the broken skies. 


Please, come to visit us sometime, but don't forget to bring the Ribbon. The Cosmos is collapsing!

Yours truly,
Empty Shadows

1 Aug 2016

Лесная песня. Мавка (Юрий Ильенко, 1981)


Umetnička etno-bajka Лесная песня. Мавка (Šumska pesma. Mavka), adaptacija komada književnice i aktivistkinje Lesje Ukrajinke, može se komotno svrstati u (skrajnutu?) kategoriju najneobičnijih ostvarenja sovjetske kinematografije (čitaj: antiteza socrealizmu).

Sledeći Sergeja Paradžanova sa kojim je, kao direktor fotografije, lovio Senke zaboravljenih predaka, Jurij Iljenko se okreće prošlosti i ispreda svoju verziju tragično-romantične priče o gorskoj vili iz naslova. Mavka (prelepa Ljudmila Jefimenko) baca oko na mladog frulaša Lukaša (Viktor Kremljev) i ukazuje mu se, uprkos upozorenjima njene "braće i sestara". Njihova ljubav se rađa u proleće, zri u leto i suši se u jesen, da bi tokom zime ona očajnički pokušavala da joj, istruleloj, ponovo udahne život...


Ne dajte da vas lepršavi "hipi" početak zavara, jer kako radnja odmiče, Šumska pesma postaje sve sumornija, što se odražava na izgled same junakinje - ogledalo stanja njene duše. Iljenko je škrt na dijalozima, ali zato briljira u portretisanju onog što je golim okom nevidljivo, obilato se služeći jezikom simbola - vode, lišća, vatre, magle, snega, kamena, pšenice, žabokrečine... Njegove izvrsne vizuelne kompozicije uronjene su u misteriju i melanholiju, neretko i u snažne boje, dok u simbiozi sa eteričnim skorom evociraju duhove Starih Slovena.

U nekonvencionalnom (lirskom) narativu, autor nam ljude, gotovo bez izuzetka, predstavlja kao antagoniste, tako da simpatije preusmerava ka natprirodnim bićima, čak i onim najvragolastijim, poput Perelesnika. Međutim, rediteljev stav nije sasvim mizantropski - on prosto naglašava čovekovu nemogućnost da dosegne savršenstvo, tj. razume božansko. A u načinu na koji oživljava šumske demone postoji nešto istovremeno moderno, mistično i ezoterično.

"Čista magija" nameće se kao izraz koji najbolje opisuje sazvučje svih filmskih elemenata ove poetične paganske fantazije...