Another mixed bag of films. I seem to be sticking to my plan of seeing more world cinema than Hollywood cinema, however…
The Bow, Kim Ki-duk (2005, South Korea). David Tallerman had recommended Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and it was very good, but he also pointed out that not all of Ki-duk’s movies would be to my taste… although this one might be. Yes, it was to my taste; no, it wasn’t as good as 3-Iron. An old man and a teenage girl live on a boat, which they hire out to people wanting to deep sea fish. The old man plans to marry the girl when she is seventeen. He also has a bow, which he sometimes uses to keep unruly cusotmers in line. The girl says nothing. She also helps him with his party trick, in which she sits on a swing before a target painted on the hull of their boat, while he stands on another boat and shoots arrows at the target. And, er, that’s about it. Well, there’s a romance plot, when a student falls in love with the girl. And the old man sometimes turns his bow into a musical instrument and plays it. But this is not a film which makes an effort to ensure the viewer knows what’s going on. But then, the film works mostly because Ki-duk keeps things enigmatic. Worth seeing.
Prelude: Dog Star Man*, Stan Brakhage (1961, USA). Avant garde cinema has been around as along as, well, cinema, and yet the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list features only a handful of examples – early Buñuel, who probably doesn’t count anyway, Meshes of the Afternoon from the 1940s, Baillie and Brakhage from the 1960s, Benning from the 1990s… and all but Buñuel from the US, as if no one but Americans made experimental or avant garde films. Which is nonsense. (Not that I know enough about avant garde film to name directors from other countries, but there are plenty of books on the subject available from a large online retailer…) Having said that, Dog Star Man is apparently highly regarded and considered a watershed work in American avant garde cinema. It’s a sequence of six short films made between 1961 and 1964, but only the first, Prelude, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I found a copy of it on Youtube, I think the entire series is on there. Prelude: Dog Man Star is a montage of soundless moving images, many superimposed: prominences on the sun, clouds, a city at night, trees, washes of colour, scratches, even some bubble-bath. It’s not as mesmerising as the static shots in Benning’s films, but there’s definitely a poetry to the play of images. I guess I should watch the rest of the sequence sometime.
I Clowns, Federico Fellini (1970, Italy). I have become a fan of Fellini’s films after many years of only knowing La Dolce Vita and, later, 8½. It was Satyricon and Casanova that did it, of course. They’re so bonkers, how could I not want to see more films by their director? And Roma was good too. But it’s not like I rushed out and bought every Fellini film available on DVD or Blu-ray, and, in fact, I only bought I Clowns because it was going cheap in a Black Friday sale. (I did have it on my rental list, however.) The title is not a veiled reference to Graves or Asimov but simply the Italian for The Clowns. And the title pretty much describes the film. It opens with an extended performance of a group of clowns in a circus, before showing those clowns out and about out of costume. It’s part documentary and part fiction. Wikipedia claims it was “incorrectly referred as the first mockumentary”, although, to be honest, it doesn’t come across as a mockumentary. Clowns are strange creatures, their personas and appearance deliberately designed to generate laughter, but they can also be creepy as fuck. The ones in I Clowns are pretty typical in that regard.
Star Trek Beyond, Justin Lin (2016, USA). The original Star Trek movies were pretty bland, and turned blander as the series progressed, but at least they weren’t stupid films. And if there’s one thing the rebooted Trek films are, it’s stupid. The first two films made no sense and had plot holes you could fly the Enterprise through. Star Trek Beyond is slightly better than the previous two, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It opens with Kirk bored after three years of his five-year mission and applying for a promotion to vice-admiral. This is the cadet who failed to graduate from Starfleet Academy, but they put him in command of their best ship anyway, and now he expects to make vice-admiral three years after not graduating? WTF? Anyway, before Kirk can be leapfrogged over all those Starfleet officers with the decades of experience necessary for the job, the Enterprise is sent to retrieve an escape pod, which results in them trying to rescue a lost crew on a world hidden behind one of those asteroid belts you only ever see in bad sf, you know, the ones where the rocks are metres apart instead thousands of kilometres. And then a villain makes mincemeat of the Enterprise, and I sort of lost the plot around then, or probably the film did, as it turned into the usual bollocks with the hardy upright folk of Starfleet completely out of their depth against a super-powerful alien but they still manage to win the day anyway. Not that the asteroid belt was the only bollocks in the film. I noted at one point that the Enterprise’s artificial gravity worked fine except when it looked cool if everyone was thrown about the ship when it crashed. Other than that, villain Idris Elba was under so much much alien make-up you have to wonder why they bothered casting a marquee name, the Enterprise’s crash totally ripped off the same thing from the previous franchise, Karl Urban still does a mean Bones but the rest of the cast are rubbish, and the whole thing feels like an over-extended episode from a crap TV show.
The Puppetmaster*, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1993, Taiwan). One thing that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has shown me is how piss-poor the UK is at making films available on DVD. The latest Hollywood shit, no problem; but world cinema, or even classic Hollywood, and it’s absolutely useless. Most of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre is available – no doubt because he was championed by Merchant Ivory – but only two of Ritwik Ghatak’s films (and the remastered edition of one is available in the US but not here). There’s plenty of wu xia and Chinese historical epics available on DVD in the UK, but only a handful by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien… so I ended up buying a box set of five Hou films on eBay from South Korea (and the “box set” proved to be five DVDs in the cardboard box in which they were sent…). The Puppetmaster is one of Hou’s best-known films, and is essentially a sort of dramatised reminiscence by a, er, puppeteer who was forced to propagandize for the Japanese during their occupation of the country in World War II. The film opens with the puppetmaster discussing his birth, and how he came to be registered twice under two names. At intervals, as an old man, he talks directly to camera, as if being interviewed. Hou has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list I’m using, although others by him regularly crop up on other lists. The Puppetmaster certainly belongs on the list, and I’m now looking forward to watching the rest of my “box set”.
Heroes, Samir Karnik (2008, India). Bollywood is not all 3-hour-long rom coms with songs and dances, it tackles other genres and subjects too. In fact, but for the inclusion of song and dance routines, it pretty much covers the same bases as Hollywood. In Hollywood, Heroes would be a serious drama, with a po-faced cast all gunning for an award. In Bollywood, it’s just as serious, but it also features broad comedy and dance routines. A war reporter interviews three soldiers in the Indian Army fighting in, I think, the Kargil War. The soldiers each give the reporter a letter to post on his return to civilisation, but the reporter later learns all three were killed in action. Three years later, a pair of slacker student fail to graduate from film school and need to make a graduation film. A friend in the army prompts them to make their topic “why you shouldn’t join the armed forces”, and the girlfriend of one of the pair puts them in touch with someone who could help… the war reporter from earlier. He gives them the three letters he was given by the dead soldiers – throughout the film they’re referred to as “martyred”, which is just… odd – and suggests they deliver them by hand and make that the subject of their graduation film. So the two load up their motorcycle, and head off to the Punjab to deliver the first letter, written by a Sikh soldier. They discover that the widow and young son are extremely proud of the soldier, as indeed is the whole village. The second letter, they deliver to the wheelchair-using brother of the dead soldier, who used to be a fighter pilot. The ex-pilot now teaches kids to stand up for themselves, but is proud of his brother’s sacrifice. There’s also a jaw-dropping action sequence in a bar when the ex-pilot takes on a gang of rowdies and beats the crap out of them, and pretty much demolishes the bar, first from his wheelchair, and then from the floor after they’ve managed to tip him over. The final letter is addressed to the dead soldier’s colonel and proves to be a request for leave. There’s an unposted card in the soldier’s file, so the colonel gives it to the film students for them to deliver to the family. But the family don’t seem especially bothered, and one of the film students accuses the dead soldier of cowardice for wanting leave during the height of the war. The dead soldier’s mother plays them a tape of her son, proving he was a hero. Heroes is all a bit jingoistic, deliberately so, but it’s palatable because the film is based on the Bollywood model, with songs and dances and daft comedy. Entertaining, but it did lay its “love your country” message on a bit thick.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 833