It has been quiet for a couple of days at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, or for me at least, as real world commitments came between me and spending the day in a darkened room (not least having to entertain ScreenAnarchy overlord Todd Brown as he whistled through town), but now we are back up and running. Here's what I have been checking out!
Days 6 & 7 (27-28 March)
The Living Corpse (dir. Fedor Ocep, Germany/Soviet Union)
The first film screening in the festival's restored classics section was this incredibly engaging 1929 silent film from Fedor Ocep, with live musical accompaniment from German pianist Eunice Martins. The film, based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy, centres on Fyodor (Vsevolod Pudovkin), a cuckolded man who attempts to do the honourable thing and get a divorce, so that his wife and her new lover can live together happily. However, upon visiting his local priest he is told that there are only three acceptable reasons for filing for divorce: if his partner is legally missing for a number of years, if his partner is incapacitated or if he can prove she has been unfaithful. Rather than attempt to catch his wife in the act, Fyodor is approached by a shady lawyer willing to arrange for his own staged infidelity to be witnessed. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan. This was a long and challenging film, but I certainly saw it under the best possible conditions. The newly restored print from the Austrian Film Museum looks wonderful up on screen, and Martins' accompaniment was indispensible in helping the whole film come alive. A must-see for fans of German Expressionism and early Soviet Cinema.
The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev, USA/Germany)
Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg star as a young couple backpacking through Eastern Europe who hire a guide (the excellent Bidzina Gujabidze) to take them through the Georgian wilderness for an extended hike/camping trip. They marvel at the astonishing beauty of the countryside, which is a mix of mountains, grassy fields and woodland, learn about the local customs and history from their guide and are as entranced with each other as they are with the world around them. But then something happens, something which turns the entire movie on its head and forever alters the dynamic of the group and how all three characters interact with each other. To say much more would be to ruin the many strengths of Loktev's film, which creates a wonderful authenticity to its simple yet emotionally complex story, helped no end by three excellent performances. The cinematography and rich ethnic score seal the deal in making this a gripping and incredibly rewarding cinematic excursion.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin, USA)
Plenty has already been written about Durkin's excellent character piece and the breakthrough central performance by Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman who seeks refuge with her newly married sister (Sarah Poulson) after escaping from a bizarre and eerily oppressive commune. Certainly a film that benefits from being seen cold, with audiences knowing as little about the story going in, but definitely an unsettling yet rewarding experience. From its unconventional structure (which was reminiscent of Wish You Were Here) to its experimental cross-cutting techniques and delightfully paranoid ending, this is certainly the high watermark of last year's American independent output (at least until I see Take Shelter next week).
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 3D (dir. Miike Takashi, Japan)
I have been very vocal about my love for Miike's previous film, 13 Assassins, which was my favourite film of 2010 and marked a welcome departure for the director into more mature and austere filmmaking. That film showed he could be grand but also throw down a hell of a good fight and brought a rich understanding of and love for the jidaigeki genre. I am also incredibly fond of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film Harakiri, and so the prospect of Miike reinterpreting that story had me incredibly excited. That excitement was tempered somewhat upon hearing that the director planned to shoot the film, which essentially revolves around a group of men talking in a courtyard, in 3D. I wasn't sure exactly what the extra dimension would add to the audience experience, and as it turns out my concerns were justified. While Miike does faithfully retell the story, and brings a rich colour palette to the story that had previously been filmed in high contract monochrome, the 3D brings nothing to the film. The performances are strong enough, in particular Ebizo Ichikawa as the grieving father at the centre of this sombre chamber piece. However, where the original had a satirical bite to it, flagrantly ridiculing the outdated rituals and code of honour by which the samurai govern themselves, this is absent from Miike's version, leaving the film rather devoid of meaning beyond its surface drama.
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