Posts Tagged ‘God knows’

There aren’t many films in which the discovery of a severed and putrescent human toe in a tube of Smarties constitutes a significant plot development, but then there have been regrettably few films from the Thai director Prachya Pinkaew. I first discovered the great man’s work through the 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong, distinguished by its combination of full-on sentimentality, bone-crunching martial arts violence, and bizarre peripheral plot details. A beautiful mutant of a film, I thought, but unlikely to prosper as the start of a new lineage. Then I saw Pinkaew’s follow-up, from 2008: Chocolate. This makes Tom-Yum-Goong look very humdrum indeed.


The film opens in a style bordering on the impressionistic as it recounts the first flowering of love between two beautiful young people, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe) and Zin (Ammara Siripong). Their romance is somewhat impeded by the fact that they work for opposing criminal gangs – Masashi is in the Yakuza, she is in whatever the Thai equivalent is. Their affair reaches a bittersweet conclusion when Zin insists that Masashi clear off back to Japan for his own safety. She herself gives up her affluent gangster lifestyle and retires to the Thai equivalent of suburbia to raise the daughter Masashi has inadvertantly left her with. This itself would be the basis for an interesting drama, but Pinkaew and his writers have other things in mind.

Unfortunately, Zin’s daughter is born with autism and needs a lot of looking after. Zin’s life in this regard is not made easier when an attempt to contact Masashi results in her former employer (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) popping round and chopping off one of her toes (he has the foresight to retain the digit for the purposes of the coming plot). However, as is well-known, when a character in a movie is autistic, it is extremely likely to be the kind of autism which also provides them with superhuman faculties in some other respect. And so it proves here, for Zin’s daughter Zen (Yanin Vismitananda) turns out to have uncanny reflexes and the ability to copy any movement she sees – which is fortuitous, seeing as their flat overlooks the local Muay Thai school’s yard.

You may be thinking that Zin has had a hard life so far. But things get even worse when she develops non-specified movie cancer and requires a lot of expensive medicine. The act that Zen has been performing with her friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee, basically playing a junior version of the Petchtai Wongkamlao character from Tony Jaa movies), where she catches things the audience throws at her, is not making enough, and things look bleak. But then Moom discovers a book detailing outstanding debts owed to Zin from her days as a top gangster. All he and Zen have to do is go round to all these minor gangland figures and persuade them to cough up the money for Zin’s drugs. Nothing could possibly go wrong, and there’s no chance at all that Zen could be called upon to display her astoundingly precocious martial arts skills…

When I first heard about ‘the autistic teenage girl debt collector martial arts movie’ I have to admit my first response was ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’ And part of me still wonders if, perhaps, Chocolate isn’t on some level an extraordinary spoof not just of the genre but of foreign attitudes towards Thailand. Zen picks up some of her chop-socky wizardry from watching movies on TV, and they are, of course, other films Pinkaew has directed – either this is a wink to the audience or a cost-cutting measure. Perhaps making the protagonist full-on autistic is a sly comment on the depth of characterisation usually to be found in the heroes of martial arts films. And this is the second film from this director (following Tom-Yum-Goong) to feature an evil ladyboy: in fact, at one point a gang of gun-toting evil trannies turn up in the service of the bad guy. I’d’ve said that the automatic association of ladyboys with Thailand was nothing more than gross cultural stereotyping, but either I was wrong, or Pinkaew is playing games with the way his country is perceived. I honestly don’t know.

If Chocolate is on some level a spoof, it is a mightily deadpan one, opening with an apparently-heartfelt dedication to the special children who inspired it and the transcendent power of human movement – I’m not quite sure what gets transcended when you kick someone repeatedly in the head and then throw them off the roof of a building, but no matter. Certainly, Zen’s autism is played very straight – or at least as straight as possible, given the kind of movie this is – and there’s something very, and probably intentionally, disturbing about the moments where she reverts from being an unstoppable dispenser of brutality and becomes an awkward, inarticulate figure demanding ‘Money for Mummy’. No punches are being pulled in either sense.

Yanin is a revelation in this movie, both as an actress and a martial arts performer. Though apparently in her mid- twenties when the film was made, she can easily pass for a girl a decade younger, which makes the lengthy sequences in which she beats the living daylights out of gangs of men much older and bigger than her even more startling. Once the debt-collection plotline got going properly, I found myself in two minds – on the one hand this is a brilliant plot device for a martial arts film, allowing lots of fight scenes without the need for too much exposition, but on the other the film seemed to be squandering this potential ever so slightly – the first three big set pieces all involve Zen wandering into somewhere vaguely industrial (a factory, a warehouse, an abattoir) and having to fend off all the employees in the place: basically, just gang fights. But good gang fights – inventive and funny, with Yanin fast and fluid and surprisingly plausible. Nevertheless, I need not have worried, for as the climax arrives the film becomes much more ambitious.

Not content with a two-on-one all-girl fight on a rooftop and a mass battle with katana, Pinkaew throws in one of the weirdest, most remarkable expert fights I’ve ever seen, as it is revealed that the villain’s own household conceals another teenage combat prodigy. The film itself doesn’t quite make clear what’s going on with the lad in question, but either he is also autistic or – and I think this may in fact be the case – he is epileptic. Yes, taste barriers are shattered like the collarbones of stuntmen as the autistic girl and the epileptic boy engage in ferocious, acrobatic hand-to-hand combat. It is the jaw-droppy-open moment to crown all jaw-droppy-open moments and no mistake. Even here the film isn’t quite finished, concluding with an exuberantly original final battle up and down the side of a four storey building.

I suppose it is possible that Chocolate is the phenomenally bad taste spoof that I’ve been suggesting – but the earnestness of the thing, together with the apparent seriousness of the performances and the script, really make me doubt it: in between the fight scenes, the stuff about Zen and her mum and her mum’s illness seems heartfelt and is actually quite moving, as if a serious social drama has had some tae kwondo action spliced in just to draw the crowds. Any way you cut it, this is probably one of the weirdest martial arts films ever made (and I’m saying that as a connoisseur of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) – but it’s also an extremely accomplished and highly enjoyable one. I am excited to learn that 2013 promises the release of Tom-Yum-Goong 2, in which Pinkaew and Yanin will team up with Tony Jaa. I literally cannot imagine just what realms of strangeness that film will doubtless take us to, but I am eager to find out.

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So, a friend of mine who I haven’t seen for a bit got in touch and suggested we met up for a drink. ‘I can only do this Tuesday at six thirty though!’

This was a bit of an issue as I was planning to go to the cinema (just for a change) and the only showing of Ron Fricke’s Samsara was on Tuesday at six thirty. ‘Er – I was going to the pictures, fancy coming with me?’

‘What are you seeing?’

‘It’s a non-narrative non-verbal guided meditation on the eternal themes of life and death. Certificate 12A.’

My friend was, shall we say, rather dubious, and warned that she might very well fall asleep on me (not the first time this has happened, of course) but in the end agreed to come along, mainly due to her boundless tolerance for my silly ideas and the fact that strategic use of a 2-for-1 voucher meant it was a free night out for her.

So we watched the movie (and I snuck surreptitious sidelong glances to see if she was awake every now and then), and at the end – well, first of all, at the end of the film there was spontaneous applause from the audience, which hardly ever happens in British cinemas, but my friend was joining in with it.

‘You didn’t fall asleep then?’

‘No… that was incredible… amazing… maybe the best film I’ve ever seen!’

I didn’t respond to Samsara quite that strongly, but I still thought it was a remarkable experience and I do wonder if the distributors and cinema chains aren’t being a bit too cautious about how this film is meeting the public. Rather to my surprise, it hasn’t shown at all at the arthouse, and – as previously mentioned – only a solitary screening was scheduled at the multiplex, and that was barely advertised. And yet I think this is a film with much wider potential – as someone else has said, quite insightfully, many people who might really enjoy this film would never dream of going to see it.

This is probably because non-narrative non-verbal guided meditations on the eternal themes of life and death are not a regular feature of the release schedule. As a result there is some danger of going in with the wrong kind of expectations (on a similar note, I was amused to see some people turned up for Samsara with buckets of popcorn), or indeed trying to discern some kind of plot. If you did, the results would be something like this:

In a pre-credits sequence, three dwarves in very fancy costumes do a ritual dance together. This causes a volcano to erupt, killing various people including King Tutankhamun. After the titles, Angkor Wat looks pretty in the sun, while some Himalayan monks play the trumpet. Other monks at the same monastery are making a mandala from coloured powder, watched by their younger brethren.

A gothic cathedral looks very pretty from the inside, as a lot of young children are baptised. There are some rocks in a desert, and some crumbling statues. The desert is eating some houses. This looks a bit like the part of New Orleans destroyed by the hurricane, which in turn looks very unlike the inside of the Palace of Versailles, which is beautiful.

Modern life is not very beautiful, and perhaps as a response to this a Japanese man has built a robot double of himself. People working in an office whizz around very fast for no obvious reason. One office worker plasters his face with clay and appears to have some sort of psychotic episode at his desk. Some modern cities do look beautiful in their artificiality after all.

And so on; I would hate to spoil the ending for anyone. As you can probably tell, they’re not kidding about the non-verbal non-narrative thing – Samsara is essentially just a succession of images of dizzying diversity: the natural world, human civilisation and its ejecta, people themselves, from all kinds of social and ethnic backgrounds.

The first thing to say is that this is a stunningly beautiful movie, shot wholly in 70mm. Many of the individual shots are breathtaking in their vividness and the way they’ve been composed – the first time I saw the Angkor Wat sequence, part of me was certain it was CGI: the real world doesn’t usually  look so lovely! Others are striking in the way they depict things one doesn’t usually see or even think about – often these are a bit less pleasant to look at.

But what’s equally arresting is the way in which the shots have been edited together, creating strange and provocative juxtapositions. Post-Katrina New Orleans is followed by the grandeur of Versailles, in one of the film’s more cryptic associations. While the film-makers claim not have a particular overall message, what they’re getting at in some of the sequences is fairly obvious, as when a look at the manufacture of sex dolls is intercut with some gyrating pole-dancers (but even here this sequence is bookended with a woman being prepared for plastic surgery and a geisha in full make-up).

Parts of this are quite obvious, possibly even awkwardly so, but this doesn’t necessarily stop them being moving – I was particularly struck by a section on the manufacture of weapons, which features several posed shots of members of archaic tribes, where the only signs of the modern world or western culture are the guns they are carrying. Then again, my friend thought other sections were much more affecting, and saying different things as well.

It seems to me that once of the great things about Samsara is its very refusal to insist on a narrative or a single message – something every standard documentary does. This movie shows you the world – or different aspects of it – and permits you to form your own conclusions about what you’re seeing. Having seen it, I was glad I’d gone with someone else as it’s the kind of film that demands to be talked about afterwards, ideally with as many people as you can muster. And this is a film best watched on the big screen – I might even say that seeing it anywhere else is not really seeing it at all.

I suppose there is always the possibility of people seeing this movie, not buying into it, and just dismissing it as a lot of pretentiously weird pictures strung together with a vaguely New Age-y soundtrack playing over the top. However, whether you think Samsara is a non-narrative, non-verbal meditation on the eternal themes of life and death, or just a lot of landscapes and time-lapse photography intercut with people with weird stuff on their heads staring at the camera, the film grants you the permission to make that decision for yourself: and that’s no small thing these days. For me, this was one of the most memorable films of the year, and well worth seeking out.

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Looking back on the last few months, I see that most of the really interesting and thought-provoking films that I’ve seen were the ones showing at the arthouse, rather than the multiplex. That shouldn’t really be very surprising, I suppose: we could talk at some length about the relatively parlous state of modern mainstream cinema, but it would be neither cheering nor particularly surprising.

What may be slightly startling is the news that the really hot ticket down the local arthouse is not a screening of a movie but a selection of filmed highlights of an art exhibition. Yes, it’s that Leonardo show that’s currently getting all the press: ‘Leonardo Live’, as the filmed version entitles itself, is doing a roaring trade. Certainly the showing tonight was sold out. I know this not because I was planning on seeing it (stand down, troops) but because a group of disappointed ladies of a certain age who’d turned up for it but couldn’t get in decided to make their second choice the same film I was going to see, Miranda July’s The Future.

And why was I going to see this film? Well, I have to say, folks, it’s been a pretty thin week for new releases, but I do enjoy going to the cinema, no matter what’s actually on. Machine Gun Preacher has been showing too late, and I was warned off the Tintin movie, despite the gallimaufry of talent associated with it, in no uncertain terms by a colleague who’s seen it (I really should stop giving so much weight to the opinions of someone whose style guru is clearly Rastamouse). So off I went to The Future despite a few misgivings.

As the movie begins we are introduced to Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July herself), a couple in Los Angeles. He works from home as an IT specialist, she teaches children to dance. They are clearly devoted to each other in a slightly mawkish, tooth-grindingly schmaltzy-sweet way. They are also expecting to soon adopt a cat (with a injured paw – ahhhh!) from their local animal shelter. However, on visiting the beast (which they christen, with grim predictability, Paw Paw), they learn that the cat’s life expectancy is considerably longer than they thought would be the case – maybe even five years!

‘In five years we’ll be forty,’ quavers Sophie, shocked at the prospect of such a commitment. ‘And forty’s nearly fifty. And once you’re fifty…’ Jason agrees that once the cat takes up residence their lives will be as good as over. And so they both quit their jobs in order to spend their final month performing acts of profound self-realisation. Jason becomes a door-to-door visitor for an environmental charity and strikes up a friendship with an octogenarian after buying a hairdrier from him. Sophie aspires to become a dancer on YouTube but ends up having a very creepy affair with a guy whose phone number she finds on a bit of paper. (Let me just reiterate: all this is only happening because they have decided to adopt a cat.)

One is never allowed to forget the, er, cat-alyst of all this nonsense, as the film is narrated by Paw Paw him or herself (the cat is portrayed by July, doing a little yowly voice). Paw Paw’s contributions are not especially notable but they at least perform the valuable function of making the rest of the movie seem less colossally self-indulgent and twee by comparison.

Normally I don’t quote from proper film critics in this column (it’s tantamount to putting up a big sign saying ‘ You may as well read someone else’), but Peter Bradshaw has essentially described the experience of watching The Future as being rather like 91 minutes of fingernails-down-a-blackboard screeching and I have to say this is absolutely on the money. This is probably not the worst film I have seen recently, but it is certainly the most consistently annoying one.

It may well be that Miranda July (who in addition to directing, starring, and voicing the cat, also wrote the thing) has insights to offer into the nature of human relationships and the ways in which they fail, and how that affects the participants. But if so, they are utterly undiscernible, completely swamped by the affected and utterly pretentious tone of this movie.

The story rattles along with the pace and inventiveness of a tranquilised slug, pausing occasionally for another update from Paw Paw, and completely omitting numerous key events – we don’t see Jason actually becoming friends with the old man, nor do we see Sophie’s relationship with her new lover develop: one minute she’s going round to his house on a business pretext, the next she’s (cover granny’s eyes) bent over the sofa and bracing herself. Linklater is reasonably convincing given the lines he has to deliver, but July herself…

…sorry, I had to pause to calm down for a moment there. July’s character spends the entire movie looking like she’s constantly having new insights into the deepest secrets of creation, and utters every line as if she’s sharing one of them with us. After a while the urge to deliver an admonitory headbutt becomes almost uncontrollable.

And all this is before we even get to the film’s excursions into fantasy (sorry, it’s probably meant to be ‘magic realism’ or something like that) in its latter stages: Jason accidentally stops time and has a heartfelt conversation with the moon about what he should do about it, while Sophie finds herself being stalked by old clothes. And so on.

Those of us watching this movie endured it fairly stoically for a bit, but a clatter of seats like a volley of gunfire about forty minutes in indicated the moment at which the Leonardo ladies gave up and walked out. Everyone else hung in there, so far as I could tell: but towards the end people were no longer bothering to stifle their derisory laughter at the banality of what was up on the screen and the seriousness with which it was being treated – a scene in which July spends what feels like minutes rolling around on the floor with a t-shirt over her head was the point at which the balloon went up and everyone appeared to concede that this film was simply not working as a piece of drama.

I know Miranda July’s background is as a performance artist and she does not come to cinema with a traditional narrative sensibility. And it may be that much of the strangeness of this film is intentional, designed to make a point of some kind. But if you’re going to make a narrative film, then you’ve surely got to stick to the ground rules and have characters who behave like recognisable human beings, and a plot that actually hangs together, doesn’t go off on weird random tangents, and actually has a sense of closure come its end.

In the past I have made numerous cracks about the now-defunct UK Film Council and its impressive ability to invest serious money in deeply underwhelming films of various kinds. Its successor agency, part of the BFI, has its logo at the beginning of The Future. The legend continues…

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