While anybody who is anybody was watching Frankenweenie at the Odeon Leicester Square or the IMAX for the opening night of the festival, I was watching Helter Skelter, a Japanese film about the cruel world of fashion in Tokyo. I was expecting a visual fest as if Ken Russell had directed a manga. Did it deliver? I am writing the review for the excellent film site Cinemart, so you will have to wait to hear the answer, sorry for the tease!
As I was writing earlier, the next day brought a trio of films with nothing completely standing out (in 2010 I saw my favourite film of the festival on the very first screening) but nothing heinous either.
The day started with the South Korean Doomsday Book, a portmanteau film in three sections, each dealing with the end of the world in a very different fashion. With South Korean cinema being by far my favourite, I was curious to see how they would handle science-fiction, and it turned out to be a pleasant surprise, constantly inventive within its well worn canvas, and surprisingly funny. I did enjoy it a lot more than Mairéad did.
The first section introduces a new spin on the zombie genre (which is in danger of becoming as fresh as a brain munching rotting corpse) and a winning sense of humour. In it, a shy South Korean man makes the ill-advised decision to recycle an odd looking apple (they recycle their food over there), which becomes some feeding material for a cow, itself making its way on the grill of a barbeque. And it is not long before the same South Korean man, having unwittingly eating the apple/virus infused piece of meat turns into a blood-thirsty zombie, eating and contaminating anybody he comes across.
While the length of the segment does not allow for much development, as dictated by the curse of portmanteau films, it is an alert and inventive story, evoking the recent food scares, which pulls the very difficult challenge of mixing horror and dark comedy perfectly.
The second section eschewed any kind of humour for the story of a robot serving in a monastery and who reaches enlightenment, to the point of being worshipped as Buddha by the disciples. But not everybody wants to be enlightened, and the CEO of the company who designed it, along with his cronies, makes his way to the monastery to destroy it, seeing too intelligent a robot as a threat to humanity. This was both the most ambitious yet perhaps least successful of the stories. It would have needed more time to develop its rather heavy-going themes, and as such, felt a little frustrating.
The third section was the most surreal and amusing of all, focusing on a family as the population of Earth prepares to be wiped out by a very unusual (and I mean unusual) comet. But could this family hold the power to prevent the catastrophe? Even more than in the first section, the humour here really stands out and works surprisingly well, so much so that I laughed out loud several times. It is mainly due to some footage of a live newsroom relaying the upcoming catastrophe, as more and more bizarre events are taking place, including a female politician letting her nostalgia for Russian communism get the best of her, and gossips and secrets within staff bursting out in the open.
Then it was time to join Room 237, the documentary about the allegedly hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. I was cautiously excited about this one. While The Shining is one of my favourite horror films ever, I loathe the obsession of seeking symbols and meanings everywhere in films, an often pointless activity by pretentious film students who miss the point of where greatness actually lies in films.
But what made this documentary fascinating is how far its interviewees have gone into their theories. Anything from the way some cans of food are assembled, the patterns of the carpet and continuity errors (or are they?) are interpreted as a nod to the holocaust of a proof that Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing. I would have loved for the director to be present, to allow for an even wackier than usual Q&A but alas it was not to be (Q&As are at once my favourite/least favourite aspect of film festivals, for the randomness all the way to downright craziness of some questions asked by the audience).
I was surprised to find some of the theories invoked almost convincing, and one the interviewees nailed it: it is apparent that Stanley Kubrick, having been bored making Barry Lyndon, decided to have a little bit of fun, by dropping plenty of clues there and then. If anything, Room 237 is as much about The Shining as it is about itself if it makes sense, and about the very recent trend to over-analyse popular culture. With a little bit of imagination and time in your hand, you could almost see just about any hidden meaning in any film!
The final film of the day was Laurence Anyways by Xavier Dolan. The stakes were high as his previous film, Heartbeats, was one of my favourite films of 2011. Did he repeat the trick? Sadly not. Laurence Anyways follows the relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément) throughout decades while Laurence is embracing his true identity as a woman.
While I applauds the willingness not to turn this into an "issue" film about transgenderism, but to focus on the ever changing relationship of the two leads, this sprawling saga is only intermittently successful. In fact, several pivotal scenes elicited zero emotional impact at all, despite the best efforts of the wonderful cast. The precocious Xavier Dolan wrote, directed and edited this film, and perhaps he would have benefitted from an outside influence, to get rid of some of the indulgence and superfluous scenes, and tighten up the whole thing.
Still, the Canadian director has bags of style, the 80's/90's soundtrack is absolutely fantastic, and I have no shame in admitting that my favourite scene is actually a party scene filmed with all the flair of an 80's music video (I mean that in the best possible way) with Visage - Fade To Grey pumping at full volume. Some of accused him of being too artificial but this is who he is, and I would not want him to give up his stylised flourishes, just the same way you would not expect Wong Kar Wai to renounce slo-mo and neon lights.
Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément came on stage for a Q&A, and the former was very eloquent and charming, while the latter proved a little more disjuncted and overwhelmed in her answers. The French actor revealed he only joined the film two weeks before the shoot, after the initial pick walked away (he was decent enough not to mention his name, but further research have revealed it was Louis Garrel!), and both actors praised Xavier Dolan for knowing exactly what he wants, all the more admirable given his young age.
And this is it for part 1 of my round-up. Watch this space for more coverage from Mairéad Roche and myself. My next post will include a screaming, philosophical fish, a Spanish horror and a Canadian whacked up tale of disease and celebrity.