My last day at the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival gave me the opportunity to finally catch up with yet another of 2011's most praised and talked about dramas with Shame, as well as new works from other British heavyweights Ralph Fiennes and Terence Davies, and a new Thai thriller that we have been following on ScreenAnarchy for some time.
HKIFF Day 13 (4 March)
The Deep Blue Sea (dir. Terence Davies, UK)
Though I was a big fan of Davies' previous films Of Time And The City and The Long Day Closes, I struggled to find much of interest in his adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play. Rachel Weisz is on excellent form as the lonely wife of a high court judge who embarks on a passionate affair with Tom Hiddleston's cocky young fighter pilot, but as she descends into crippling paranoid depression she becomes an increasingly frustrating heroine. Hiddleston is charming and amusing, but his character is somewhat one-note and unlikeable and although Davies renders an immaculate post-WWII setting, the whole affair remains rather cold and impenetrable.
Headshot (dir. Pan-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)
An ingenious twist on the familiar hitman story sees cop-turned-assassin Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) take a bullet to the head during a job and only narrowly escape death. When he awakes his vision has been inverted and this new perspective on life (subtle, isn't it?) encourages Tul to leave his life of crime for a more spiritual path that might re-balance his karma. However, his employers are less than willing to see their best hit man retire without a fight. What is most disappointing about the film is that, after introducing such an original and intriguing premise and a central character rife with complex physical and emotional trauma, the film retreats into familiar genre territory rather than attempt anything new or adventurous. Using numerous extended flashbacks detailing how Tul turned from cop to killer, Pan-Ek and Co. are able to avoid exploring what life is like when everything appears upside down. As a result, Headshot becomes just another "crook going straight" movie with a vague spiritual undercurrent, when it had the perfect set-up to be so much more.
Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes, UK)
Whenever a new film version of Shakespeare's work is announced I am instantly intrigued. The prospect of Ralph Fiennes transferring his hugely acclaimed performance as the title character in Coriolanus from the stage to the big screen as his directorial debut seemed an audacious challenge. Coriolanus is a notoriously dense and difficult play, even by The Bard's standards, and as a result is rarely performed and little-known compared to the likes of Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet. It is the story of a Roman general who successfully fends off an invasion by his arch nemesis Aufidius but has great contempt for the people as they have not fought for their freedom. When elected consul, the newly monikered Coriolanus is soon provoked into further condemning the populace, which results in his banishment from Rome. Looking for vengeance, Coriolanus turns to Aufidius and together they march on the city. Fiennes does an incredible job of stripping down this complex text to its bare essentials to produce a film that feels current and engaging, while retaining the true spirit of Shakespeare. Given a present day setting and filmed on location in Serbia, Fiennes was clearly paying attention while on the set of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, as his battle sequences are shot with the same intense levels of energy and freneticism. As one might expect, the heavyweight cast all put in exceptional performances, led by a frighteningly ruthless Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave as his manipulative and calculating mother. Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and a particularly impressive turn by Gerard Butler as Aufidius round out the cast of this excellent addition to Shakespeare's cinematic canon.
Shame (dir. Steve McQueen, UK)
Following up his incredible debut, Hunger, British artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen reunites with Irish star Michael Fassbender and heads to New York City for this riveting and visceral examination of sex addiction and urban alienation. At first glance very different from the confined world created in his debut, McQueen has again created a space of visual and aural stimulation, in which - ironically - successful executive Brandon (Fassbender) is unable to quench his insatiable sexual appetite. Pinballing from prostitutes to one night stands to self-gratification whenever and wherever the urge takes him, Brandon has created a bubble in which he can indulge himself and still carve out a successful living. However, when his wayward sister Sissy (fellow Brit Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep, Brandon's carefully constructed shield comes crashing down. Fassbender rightly deserves the accolades he has received for this role and frankly it is a travesty that he was denied an Oscar nomination (was Brad Pitt really better?). Mulligan is just as impressive and the sibling rivalry, fueled by an almost unbearable sexual undercurrent, makes every one of their encounters electrifying and volatile. Beyond that, McQueen paints an accurate, if somewhat pessimistic portrait of NYC itself, as a sinful pit of ammorality and cold, clinical detachment.
And so HKIFF comes to an end for another year. I managed to catch 41 films in total which, while not my personal best, is still a healthy total across a two-week festival. As always, the list of films I wanted to see but was unable to find a slot for in my schedule is just as long again, and so begins the quest to seek them out elsewhere as the year unfolds.
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