Monday, 30 March 2015

Festival round-up megablog 3

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter was the film I had my misgivings about beforehand. It had all the hallmarks of a festival fan favourite: it’s based upon an urban myth and it pays homage to another film. I was worried that it might be an American independent movie designed to tickle the fancy of the regulars at Sundance. I’m not against that kind of thing but I can find it on FilmFour. It's not that film. Rinko Kikuchi gives a wonderful performance as Kumiko. She’s a 29 year old ‘Office Lady’ or Personal Assistant. As her boss points out, she’s old for an OL. Usually, apparently, they have married and started families by 29. Her mother, who judges her by phone, is of the same opinion. Kumiko has nothing in common with the other OLs. They behave like young Tokyo female office workers in films always do: they are obsessed with their appearance. [I was reminded of them during the wonderful documentary The Salt of the Earth. The Zo’e Tribe must have thought that Sebastiao Salgado was doing a shoot for Vanity Fair.] Kumiko’s understudy must devote hours every morning to looking flawless and childlike. Kumiko does not – and she’s still late for work. Their chattering of her colleagues brought the all-female scenes of Ten Canoes to mind. She’s in a job she despises. Her life is going nowhere.

Kumiko’s apartment tells us that she’s having a nervous breakdown. It’s not unhygienic but it is a mess. She cannot deal with her post either. It spills out from her pigeon hole; she stuffs it back in. I like these details: they’re well-observed and understated. Both Birdman (2014) and Foxcatcher (2014) feature a smashing-up-the-room scene. It happens in a lot of movies but not in this one. Birdman is the most purely enjoyable film I've seen this year. Its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, plays a few games in each one of his five movies. Some critics found them a distraction. Birdman pretends to be one continuous take; it’s like an album where each song leads into the next. I was reminded of All That Jazz (1979), another film about the key man under stress before opening night. Both films rattle along, take a few risks and they’re a lot of fun.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter begins with a day at the seaside. [Far From the Madding Crowd had one; it never occurred to the husband in Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem.] Her treasure map leads to a sodden VHS of the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo (1996). We don’t find out where this map came from but we see her create her next one. I have a small collection of ‘found films’ retrieved from skips and woods. It’s my contribution to Contemporary Archaeology and one method of escaping my demographic profile. One find was a DVD-R bootleg of Catwoman, copied in the cinema on camcorder. I thought such artifacts were an urban myth themselves.

Fargo, which announces that it is based upon a true story (and the sequence with the tree chipper certainly was set in fact), leads Kumiko to believe that Steve Buscemi did bury a suitcase full of money beside a very long fence in Minnesota. It’s a very funny moment in Fargo and 1990s cinema in general. How did he ever expect to find it again? Kumiko intends to.
Kumiko, the Treasure Huter
It was during a very tactile moment in The Duke of Burgundy that I remembered how little physical contact Kumiko makes with another human being during her film. A security guard takes her back to the library; an old friend she has no interest in prods her playfully with a mobile phone; she responds to a policeman’s kindness. Thankfully, Kumiko has a rabbit. It’s the other thing in her lonely, sorrowful existence that gets her out of bed each day. It’s also a relief for the audience. There’s nothing going right in her life but she is not thinking of ending it.

The film is beautifully balanced. Some films are just a chain of events. There has to be a relationship with the viewer. Amour Fou incorporates moments – the same song is sung three times – to contemplate the latest character developments. Patrick Keiller or Adam Curtis [his latest film, Bitter Lake (2015), is on release on the BBC iPlayer presently] will give you a minute or two, watching a spider build a web or some bizarre clip from the archives, to process the PPE paper's hypothesis being presented. Kumiko is punctuated with well-judged humorous interludes just when a laugh would help.

It’s a skill. Humour is a part of people’s lives, like football. A man in Black Coal, Thin Ice places a bet on Chelsea. [Chelsea also get a mention in Will Hay’s very amusing Windbag the Sailor (1936). It’s on YouTube. There are indigenous peoples in that too. “Did that sound like Norwegian to you?” I’m sure the Chelsea joke is referenced in a Crazy Gang picture. Chelsea had been a Music Hall punchline. Hay reacts because they won away at West Bromwich Albion. The club was founded, at great expense and fanfare, in 1905. Their first trophy arrived in 1955.] The men in Timbuktu are obsessed with the game. I know a few humanitarians who often visit the African continent. There’s a different man in a Man Utd top in every crowd they photograph. The jihadists are debating who’s best: Zidane or Messi. That’s globalisation. One Malian suggests that France won the 1998 World Cup by buying off Brazil with a shipful of rice. That’s ignorance. During the trial of the Toureg herdsman, in Timbuktu, a mobile phone rings. It has the same ringtone as a dead man’s in White God, in Budapest.

Difret was executive produced by Angelina Jolie. Sayeeda (now Baroness) Warsi engineered a meeting between Jolie and William Hague. They met at the 'End Sexual Violence in Conflict' global summit, campaigning for an increase in the number of prosecutions for warzone rape offences. When Warsi was profiled on BBC Radio 4 I got the impression that Hague doesn’t rate films. Simplistic tosh and three hours lost networking time. Perhaps Boris “we just want someone to come along with a bunker-buster” Johnson, Mayor of London, could watch Timbuktu then explain how a 10,000 ton bomb undoes an ideology. They would have greater effect launching 10,000 copies of Woody Allen’s fantastic Bananas (1971): “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside. So we can check.”   

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter could have made mistakes. I worried when we spent some time with her video recorder. I’m as prone to nostalgia for solid state technology as anyone (and I still use mine; there are films on VHS you just can’t find anywhere else) but it’s an ingredient that can overpower the recipe. I was in a very appreciate audience for Violette (2013) last month, the French biopic of Violette Leduc, more project than prodigy of Simone de Beauvoir. The period detail was there but gently. Whereas, I could not wait for The Look of Love (2013) to end. Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and many nudie ladies had made a boring biopic of Paul Raymond, pornographer and Britain’s richest man. The film had been colonised by the set designers. I met a man who took the photographs for Kays Catalogues all his working life. If the firm had archived their negatives they would still be in business. Albeit, a different business. British films get the twentieth century all wrong.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter could have been a film as fan convention. They did not resuscitate the fairly fictitious accent for a safe and easy laugh. The movie makes its own laughs. The scene with the library’s security guard has a great pay-off. The cameo by the North Dakota police officer is warm and funny. A funny scene can work wonders. George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), is great fun but it is lifted to the next level by Robert John Burke’s appearance. In Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem Viviane’s witness, straight out of Jewish comedy, has her (and us) in fits. You can feel the waves of catharsis flooding from her. A film without a laugh in it should have its reasons. Given that Kumiko’s situation was extremely cold and life-threatening, it keeps the audience on the right path. I’ve seen a lot of herding in the past week – Gabriel Oak’s sheep, Mali’s cows – but few as skilfully as Kumiko’s audience.

A few years ago, at this festival, I noted the same cinematic shorthand in three very different movies: a male character rearranging his crotch after visiting the lavatory. It tells us what it tells us. In Timbuktu and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter a woman walks oblivious to her ragged shawl dragging in the dust / snow. She is, we can assume safely, a bit chicken oriental.

In Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem husband stopped going to the cinema because of the sex and, after Charles Bronson retired, the wrong kind of violence. He would not have liked The Duke of Burgundy (2014). There’s a scene when three women discuss the purchase of a human toilet. “Well,” I thought, “This film passes the Bechdel test.” The Duke of Burgundy has elicited memories of other films-featuring-bondage. Oddly, because we only see Evelyn’s tied hands for a couple of seconds. I had not heard of  The Nightcomers (1972), starring Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham and Thora Hird, before. It was directed by Michael Winner. He directed more than 40 films. He never revisited them. I am sure some of them have their aficionados. I am sure some of them are better than the garbage Quentin Tarantino’s ilk have championed over the years. Perhaps he thought it wiser to leave sleeping dogs lie. His will’s executioners discovered his accounts to be his greatest epic.

The Japanese have an entire genre devoted to women and knots: kinbaku. The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema describes it as, “A form of sexual bondage specific to Japan, with the emphasis on performance. Kinbaku, literally ‘tight binding,’ has been a frequent component of pink cinema.” A bit like Henry Mancini. I watched a lot of Morecambe & Wise last year. Glenda Jackson appeared with her Oscars. That led me to Negatives, a strange and memorable British film from 1968. She’s involved with a role-playing relationship with her lover but, as good male role-players are hard to find, risks losing him to another. It’s on YouTube.

The Duke of Burgundy is a study of the law of diminishing returns. There was a comic strip in the science fiction comic 2000AD called 'Rogue Trooper'. It had a superb premise which made it the favourite strip of every new reader. The problem was, after a couple of years, they’d done everything they could do with it. It became a post-apocalyptic Billy’s Boots – he loses his most prized possessions most weeks and goes looking for them. The authors admitted as much. There was nowhere to go with it but they were stuck. In Love is Strange George criticises a girl’s piano recital. It’s the most animated he gets. It sounded fine to most of us. He tells her how to do it better. It is much better. The sales pitch patter of the two novelty toy salesman of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, very much in the wrong job, falls exhausted from their mouths. I was reminded of those grim comedies about very old Vaudeville acts doing the same routine together several times a day for forty years: production line work plus that old razzle-dazzle. It’s no wonder some go mad. One act attacked his producer last week.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The Duke of Burgundy was the film I had to see. I enjoyed Peter Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio enormously. Almost too much. It’s about a sound engineer; I’ve done that. The soundtrack is by Broadcast; I went to their first ever gig, supporting Pram, at The Jug of Ale, Moseley, in 1996. At one point I expected Toby Jones to spend the next half hour cleaning the tape paths of Uhers and Revoxes with Q-tips and his bottle of isopropyl alcohol. I wouldn’t have minded if he had. In The Duke of Burgundy Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) enjoy a sado-masochistic sex-life, the most trusting of relationships. The first time we see it, we see its greatest game. Like Groundhog Day (1993), there’s one outlier date that goes far better than the rest. Evelyn purrs that it was perfect. In fact, it cannot be matched. It grows as dull as ritual. There’s a lot of humour in their less successful sessions. It’s like watching a sheriff trying to get his horse to start. On one occasion Cynthia cannot ‘perform’ at the crucial moment. On another, Evelyn gets the surprise she demanded but, like Kato and Inspector Clouseau, it’s not how she imagined. Cynthia allows her true emotions into her performance. Cynthia worries that Evelyn might want to break up the double act. There’s an old joke about S&M: the masochist makes a suggestion and the sadist ignores it. There are jokes that had to be made but this is a smart film. They have a good relationship but, like any other, they will have to keep working at it.
The Duke of Burgundy
I like thorough credits. The opening credits alert us to Lingerie by Andrea Flesch and Perfume by Je Suis Gizella. That’s because it’s important. Evelyn dresses up Cynthia in complicated arrangements by her favourite fashion designer. And a woman complains about the underwear her partner bought for her. Their relationship is punctuated by equally complex lectures about butterflies. They are both lepidopterists. The audience, and you will have to imagine the scent, are arranged with the same precision as the moths in their display cases. I want to believe that they’re all wearing Je Suis Gizella; method acting needn’t involve missing a night’s sleep. The closing credits list all the insects featured in the film, stage name and Latin name. The documentary Leviathan (2012) – not the other one (2014) – honours its featured sea-life in the same manner. I’m sure there are other people who want to check out the film clip or the painting or the architecture or the dreampop. Hot Shots! (1991) includes a recipe for brownies.

Peter Strickland makes every penny count. There are passages involving rostrum cameras that are a lot cheaper than filming explosions. I avoid films with explosions but there was one in A Little Chaos (for gardening purposes). I am reminded of an interview with a ‘lo-fi’ band: “Why are you ‘lo-fi’?”, “Because we have no money.” There are no men in his film at all. Not even a picture of one. A mannequin among the lecture audience is as close as we get. I found this incredibly refreshing. There are very few women in The Tracker – and the Australian soldiers ridicule then kill them.

Stephen Fry was interviewed about British cinema. He pointed out that other countries prefer our films to be about the class system. They can make their own gritty urban dramas. But they don’t have butlers. The minor aristocracy are as exotic to them as hunter-gatherers are to me. Hence, I’m guessing, a quarter of British movies feature a country house and a large number of actors are employed as the types who live and work in them. I’m grateful that British directors like Peter Strickland, Joanna Hogg and Peter Greenaway travel the World’s film festivals, demonstrating that there are other stories in British cinema. Though, it has to be said, the dwellings in their films aren’t humble either. There’s a lot of unclaimed territory in the British film landscape waiting to be grabbed.

Robin Clarke

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