Laura Morgan and Ron Swanson delve further into the London Film Festival’s schedule and report on what they find…
The Tribe, When Animals Dream and No Man’s Land by Laura Morgan
It’s always exciting to see a genre subverted or turned into something completely new and unexpected. Of my favourite films at the LFF this year one is a sweet and beguiling monster movie; one is a Western set in China and one is – well, there’s no neat way to summarise The Tribe. Set in a home for deaf children in the Ukraine, the film is almost entirely silent – and I don’t mean modishly “silent”, like The Artist or like Blancanieves, but actually silent, which is to say there’s nearly no sound at all. It is emphatically not a film for eating popcorn in, and not just because everyone will be able to hear you, but because it’s a harrowing, hyper-real story of teenage gangs, people-trafficking and organized crime that will take your appetite quite away.
We are introduced to the world of The Tribe through the eyes of Sergey, a new arrival at the home. From the start the use of long tracking shots combined with the bleak setting and the deafening silence draws us in and lets us know we are seeing something out of the ordinary. The film is told entirely in sign language with no subtitles or voiceover: in a sense we have to feel what is happening as much as we see it, which makes the unfurling of the story even more shocking and harder to watch. With a cast formed largely of non-actors this is a breathtakingly audacious film – the final shot, in particular, made the audience gasp – and is a stunning calling-card from first time writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky.
When Animals Dream is a subtle and engaging werewolf movie from Denmark and, like all good Danish movies, it features at least one of our favourite television actors – in this case Lars Mikkelsen, better known to you and I as Troels Hartmann – as the careworn father of Marie (Sonia Suhl), a sixteen-year-old girl whose teenage bodily changes are more alarming than most. It’s a gently affecting and often funny tale of pragmatic, hard-bitten Scandinavian fishing folk dealing with a family of werewolves in their community, and its bleak northern setting and the humdrum, everyday conversations and relationships depicted throw into sharp relief the occasional moments of genuine horror.
It’s also a love story, portraying Marie’s burgeoning relationship with Daniel (Jakob Oftebro, whom you will recognise from The Bridge, see above) and showing the way its twists and turns echo that of Marie’s parents’ marriage, about which she learns much more along the way than she knew before. And it’s a tale of parental love and maternal instinct which is also a light, knowing metaphor for adolescence. For a monster movie, that’s pretty good going.
I’ve been trying and failing to avoid dubbing No Man’s Land “a Wonton Western”. I can only apologise. Apart from anything else the label doesn’t do justice to what is genuinely a thrilling, smart, compelling film. Originally made in 2009, it took years and several edits to get a version past the Chinese censors, and you can see why: the remote northwest of China is depicted as a lawless, corrupt wasteland where criminals and gangsters run wild with no hand of authority to tame them.
Xu Zheng is city lawyer Pan Xiao, who finds himself travelling out to the desert in order to defend a poacher who has been caught trapping a rare falcon. He wins the case and takes his client’s car as collateral against payment of his fees, intending to drive back to the city rather than repeat his uncomfortable outward train journey. What follows is a precision-made thriller of a road movie in which multiple layers of plot and character play out against each other beautifully, and the extraordinary Chinese desert provides an intense, otherworldly background.
The cast are excellent, some of them genuinely terrifying (the old lady in the shop gave me the creeps brilliantly: keep an eye out for her), others genuinely affecting. Loyalties are formed and betrayed, vengeance sworn and enacted, blood money extracted and lost, all in the space of 500 miles of dusty single-track road under a bright orange sun. I don’t think it matters whether you like Westerns or thrillers or road movies: this is a really good film plain and simple, and if nobody wants to go with you, I’ll happily see it twice. Call me.
Leviathan, The Keeping Room, Phoenix, Dearest and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ron Swanson
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year’s London Film Festival programme. Before I saw Andriy Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan on Tuesday evening, though, my festival experience was lacking that one film that felt like it changed me, in the way that great cinema can. A film that is so moving, or powerful, that I feel richer for having seen it. It was missing a masterpiece. It took about thirty minutes for that feeling to disappear, and for Leviathan to worm its way into my brain and soul, where it’s had residence ever since.
Leviathan is a huge film, both in terms of running time (north of 150 minutes) and ambition. It starts with the reuniting of two friends, Kolya and Dima, and goes on to examine friendship, love, lust, luck, corruption and modern Russia without putting a foot wrong. It’s surprisingly funny in places, and utterly devastating in others. It doesn’t feel like Zvyagintsev is changing the tone, more that he’s just showing us an interpretation of life, one played out across a handful of characters in a remote, but beautiful part of Russia.
The location, and photography of it, is absolutely extraordinary. Given Zvyagintsev’s leisurely pacing and the film’s beauty, it’s hard not to be reminded, in places, of the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I can think of no greater compliment for Leviathan that it doesn’t suffer from the comparison.
Leviathan is one of 12 films in the Official Competition at this year’s festival. We’ve spoken about The New Girlfriend, The Duke of Burgundy and The Falling in our last two round-ups. I wrote about Girlhood in my Cannes write-up earlier this year, but suffice to say that it’s a film that has grown stronger in my memory, and one of the best of this year’s line-up. The rest of this round-up will focus on four other Official Competition entries.
The Keeping Room, a US Civil War-era Western about three women (two sisters and their slave) trying to protect their isolated house, doesn’t have much in common with director Daniel Barber’s previous film, Harry Brown, on the surface. Actually, though, they do both showcase the director’s skill with location and space. The Keeping Room is a strong improvement for Barber, and actually plays like a terrifying home invasion movie in its best moments. Kudos to the three lead actors; Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru for their performances, which are key to the film’s success.
Peter Chan’s Dearest was one of my biggest and most pleasant surprises in the festival. I was expecting a straightforward weepie from this smash-hit Chinese drama, based on a true story about two parents whose young son is abducted. The first half of the film plays much as you might expect, with significant time given to both parents’ grieving process and attempts to find their child.
At the halfway point, the focus of the film dramatically broadens; including in its scope the disparity between classes in modern China, the laws regarding reproduction and the nature of forgiveness. It’s in the second half of the film that Zhao Wei’s character, who has been raising two abducted children, she claims unwittingly, is introduced, and her performance is the catalyst for the film’s gear change. Dearest is still not a subtle film, but it’s one full of heart, and asking the right questions; it’s a fascinating and moving watch.
I was, for most of the film’s running time, a little disappointed by Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. That disappointment was sparked by how much I loved Barbara, the director’s previous film. However, Barbara was something of a slow-burn, a film that stayed with me for days, and I think Phoenix might do the same, especially given that the final scene is extraordinarily potent.
Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, a Jewish singer whose friend finds her and brings her back to Berlin immediately after WWII. Injured and disfigured from her time in the concentration camp, Nelly is told by her friend that her husband betrayed her to the Nazis, but Nelly is obsessed with finding him. What follows is an odd, slightly offbeat story about love and clinging to it.
I don’t think I should have liked A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The fact that nobody seems to be able to talk about it without referencing Jim Jarmusch wasn’t boding well. I certainly wasn’t sure I was enjoying it while I was watching, but the more I think about it the more I’m seduced by it. Described by some as Iran’s first black-and-white female vampire/moral avenger film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could have been as ironic and arch as its hipster-bait premise would suggest. Instead it’s a soulful, romantic film that is absolutely full of heart.
It’s not that the world that Ana Lily Amirpour has created isn’t cool, because it most certainly is, from the French new-wave visuals and stylings to the incredible soundtrack, just that its coolness, which feels like a gimmick at first, soon becomes little more than an aside from what else is happening. Amirpour has made a truly beautiful film, it’s ravishing, the best looking film of the festival so far (along with Catch Me Daddy), a collection of beautiful shots, great locations and superb choreography. When added to the simplicity of the love story, and quirkiness of the concept, you get something very original and thoroughly worthwhile.