Category Archives: London Film Festival

61st London Film Festival – Day 12

What a glorious finale to my festival! Going back to who I wasIn this extraordinary film, we follow in the footsteps of a young Buddhist monk, Padma Angdu a reincarnated Rinpoche. Once the little boy monk is around six or seven his disciples are expected to come to find him and to take him back to their monastery.

In the case of Padma Angdu though, this is unlikely to be possible, for he is the latest incarnation of a teacher from Kham in Tibet and he has been born in Ladakh, India. For a while he is allowed to stay, but eventually the monastery reject him and he goes to live with the village healer, Urgyan, also a monk, who has been chosen as his guide.

The socio-political situation in Tibet makes it unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone to come and get Padma, but as a Rinpoche he needs teaching at a higher level and eventually to return to his “home”. So he and his guide, Urgyan have to make the journey themselves.

This is no small undertaking. Padma is about twelve and Urgyan must be about seventy or eighty and the journey will take about two to three months, much of it on foot . But full of hope, they set off on this perilous journey, stopping at various monasteries along the way to see if one will accept Padma for higher training.

This documentary was filmed on location, by a small crew of only two or three and took eight years to film and nine years to edit. This was mostly because the two main people on the team, Chang-yong Moon and Jin Jeon are based in South Korea and make documentaries for television so had to keep dropping this film, to work and to find funding.

Leaving aside the amazing and heart-breaking story, the spectacular scenery and visual delights of the settings makes this a film of exceptional interest. At its centre though is the astonishing love and fidelity shown by the older monk for the younger, and the desire of the younger one to return to Tibet.

We leave Padma Angdu in Sikkim, the nearest place he can get to near Tibet where a monastery accepts him for the training he needs and we see Urgyan turning for home…

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61st London Film Festival Day 10.ii

My second film of the day was in some ways rather a disappointment. A documentary about a Zen Buddhist community in the South of France, Plum Village, known now because of its “mindfulness” programme and the philosophy of its leader Thich Nhat Hahn.

Walk with meWalk With Me sounded as though it was a meditative look at Zen Buddhist life, and indeed in some ways that is exactly what it was, but I expected something a great deal more abstract. While several scenes were of sky, clouds, trees, water and sunrise; there was also a considerable amount of busy-ness.

Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, teaching and listening mindfully – so far so good, except there was so much of it; no sooner had the camera focussed on one thing, when it switched to something else.

Mercifully there was no sound-track as such, so we heard the natural sounds and the gongs, bells and singing; but mindfulness is as much about breathing mindfully as anything else, and this left one with hardly any time to draw breath.

AND THEN…my worst fears: Benedict Cumberbatch sententiously reading extracts from the journals of Thich Nhat Hahn. I understand that Mr Cumberbatch does actually follow this mindfulness practice, so was probably the ideal choice in that sense, but the solemn, sepulchral tone was a mistake; the thoughts were themselves profound, possibly; personal, evidently; and spiritual, definitely and as such, they did not need any added depth of feeling.

Made by the same team (Marc J Francis and Max Pugh) as Black Gold (LFF 2006) this was a good idea which missed its mark, for me at any rate.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 10.i

In the Special Presentation section, a film by Michael Haneke is never going to be a straightforward story, this sardonic and stylish observation piece is no exception. There are going to be several things going on at once and every now and then there will be a shot or a scene in which Haneke seems to be saying “catch-up people”.

Happy EndIn Happy End, we even start with one of these types of scenes. The film has a sequential start, between the credits we have a mobile-phone screen video, first of a women washing; then of Pips the hamster having been fed some of the mother’s anti-depressant pills…the effect is fatal.

We don’t yet know who is filming or indeed who is receiving this video story, that is not important at the time. The film “proper” opens on a huge building site, the main focus seems to be a large yellow earth mover, but suddenly way over on the other side of the building site, a wall collapses causing a large mud slide, then one of those blue site porta-loos tumbles down.

It turns out to have had someone in it.

The site is being managed on behalf of her father by Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) and her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is proving woefully inadequate as site manager.

We then switch to the story about Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin) who turns up now in this household, her mother having overdosed. She is obviously very sad about this but goes willingly to live with her father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife and baby, Paul who also live with Anne (Thomas’ sister) and their father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is slowly sinking into a state of dementia.

As the relationships develop it quickly becomes apparent that Anne is involved with an Englishman, the ubiquitous Toby Jones. There is a possibility that Thomas is also having an affair, but apart from one call observed by Eve there is no actual evidence. But then this is a Michael Haneke film, nothing is there accidentally.

While this film is largely about relationships and consequences, it is  also an observation on aging, Georges hates his situation and tries in various way to remedy it, unsuccessfully though at times absurdly comic. The whole film has these occasional scenes and there were many outburst of laughter, even when the hamster dies from the overdose – a foreshadowing of the fate of Eve’s mother obviously.

The title is also a double entendre, this is set in Calais – the happy (ie rich) end of the town, but clearly there are migrants and poorer people about, the great unseen. The Laurent family don’t have to have anything to do with that – what with their servants, comfortably large house and money. But at the same time, relationships have endings as well, some happier than other perhaps and to all intents and purposes the final scene should be a fairy tale ending, except that it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The ending is sublimely funny in a rather macabre way, and again we see much of it playing out on the same small phone screen.

There is great deal of food for thought and this film will be in UK screens at some point, possibly December or January. Definitely worth looking out for, if only for a marvellous ensemble cast.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.ii

Angel wear white

Angels Wear White could not have been more different. Though also a film about exploitation, this is set in a seaside town in South China. Directed and written by Vivien Qu, it follows the lives of some young schoolgirls and their indirect relationship with a young girl working in a motel.

Brilliantly cast, with young girls who were not necessarily actors, this film explores Ms Qu’s observation that in modern China, where families are becoming dis-united, parents sometimes working in different cities, leaving children with grandparents, relatives or alone, there is a growing and disturbing rise in young people living rough on the streets, sometimes working in the sex-industry or simply giving “favours” for food and accommodation.

Runaways without ID are also vulnerable to exploitation and do menial work in hotels and restaurants, low paid and borderline work which is neither legal or safe.

In this film the setting is a coastal town, there is a huge funfair at the gates of which is a gigantic statue of Marilyn Munroe (who some might also see as an icon of exploitation) in her famous dress malfunction pose in Some Like it Hot. Her high-heeled shoes are just about the same height as the first girl that we meet, the runaway hotel worker.

The story focuses upon bribery and corruption in the highest echelons of the justice service, and the behaviours which lead to blackmail and beatings. It is a compelling look at the underworld and although set in China, it has a universal message about how young people are treated in the 21st century.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.i

Anyone who regularly visits my blog will know that if there is an Australian film available I will be at the first screening. Sweet Country is no exception.

Sweet Country
Made by the same director as Samson and Delilah (LFF2009), this film shows Australian history from a slightly different perspective. Warwick Thornton is himself of Aboriginal lineage. His two feature films show primarily the lives of the aboriginals, in the first feature it showed the lives of two teenagers struggling against the perceived wisdom of twentieth century whites that all “blackfellas” were useless, ignorant and frequently drunk. The protagonist was Delilah, it was glue-sniffing Samson who need help, this was a beautiful love story.

In a way, this second film Sweet Country is a meditation on how that impression might have come about and why. Directed as a faux-Western in the Spaghetti-Western mode, no one is entirely wrong or entirely right, we first meet Fred Smith (Sam Neill) a solid Christian rancher who treats his Aboriginal workers as equals, a new neighbour comes to ask for assistance and obligingly Fred sends off his main worker, Sam (Hamilton Morris) with his wife and niece. But things do not go according to plan and Harry March (Ewen Leslie) sends them back. Harry then goes to another neighbour, Mike Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) who also obligingly sends two hands, Philomac, a young half-breed (almost certainly Mike’s own son) played by the twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan and another older man, Archie (Gibson John).

At this point things really begin to unravel, though this film has more twists than a barley-sugar stick ( a reference probably lost on anyone under the age of 65), there is a pivotal moment when everything that could go wrong begins.

Like any good Western, there are wild chases across vast empty landscapes, night camps under glowing starlit skies and beautiful scenery. Led by the aboriginal tracker Archie under the direction of Sergeant Fletcher (SELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48Bryan BrownSELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342).

It is not for nothing that people who go to Australia and people who live there think this is God’s Own Country, it is indeed sweet country. Filmed on location in the area surrounding the McDonnell Ranges, this is grass plains, light scrub and acres of flat land in every direction under an enormous sky, and then you get the mountains, rising like stone giants from the plains they are vaguely reminiscent of Monument Valley, but of a very different composition. Iron-stone, I would guess, craggy, crevassed and opening into deep gorges. It is an arid land and there are large salt-lakes of piercing whiteness.

The story unwinds to its end with occasional flashes of precognition, which only make sense once the film has ended.

Everyone needs to face the facts of the brutal history of Australia. Before European settlers (mainly British) arrived there were at least 900 different nomadic groups living there, not necessarily peaceably, but at least not rapaciously. White settlers changed all that and although the start was slow and devastating in small areas, after World War I land grabs of gargantuan proportions began in earnest. Central Australia and Western Australia, until then hardly touched, were plundered remorselessly, native bush scrubbed out and cattle grass laid, and cattle and sheep brought in and with them the infamous flies! With the land grab came the indenture of many aboriginals, anyone on the land, nomadic or not, became the property of the owner.

Unpaid, indentured labour, treated like dogs or worse than dogs. Introduced to alcohol, tobacco and small pox, the effect was devastating. And that does not include the “abo-hunts” where white settlers went about killing every “blackfella” on sight, until the population was suitably reduced (ie: they had enough hands and no more). If you think I might be exaggerating, I can assure you that I wish I was not. I have heard it told without a trace of shame by the grandson of a rancher in Northern Territories.

Failing to catch up with either of these films would be a pity, but you can also read the novels of Mary Durack Kings of the Grass Country, which is about her grandfather and his “appropriation” of land, though that is not exactly how she presents it and Kate Grenville who also writes, but with a good deal more self-awareness about her family history and its good and bad effects on the local (New South Wales) population in her trilogy that begins with Sarah Thornhill. Then there is Thomas Keneally in both fiction and non-fiction.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 8.ii

The second film of the day was completely different. A re-mastered documentary from the 1960s. New technology had transformed the possibilities of this medium. No longer the images with a voiceover, it became possible to film and record simultaneously and two masters of the art, Albert and David Maysles with a consummate editor, Charlotte Zwerin made a series of cinéma verité or “real life” films and Salesman is one such.

This is a film that puts The Bible into Bible-belt America! We follow four salesman flogging Bibles and Catholic Encyclopaedias through Boston and then through Miami. On the way they are given pep talks and instructive lectures on the “good work” that bringing the Bible into people’s lives is going to do.

With their promotional material and sample bibles, they are also evidently provided with cars: in snowy Boston they all have identical saloons, in Miami suddenly, open-topped Cadillacs!

A premier salesman gives an inspiring talk about Jesus saying “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”, and this salesman equates flogging Bibles to people as just that “our Father’s business”. The double-entendre was not accidental!

These men are going into homes of people for whom the word ‘dirt-poor’ is no exaggeration. The terms of the deal is $1 a week payment for one year. But many of them cannot even raise that amount. There is an absolutely desperate scene in which the woman can hardly bear to say no to this frantic saleman, and even though she already has a Bible, she faces a complex problem. She doesn’t want to say no, but she doesn’t have the money to say yes. The emotional agony for both of them bleeds from the screen.

There are four salesmen that we follow, and they have varying success, but one has clearly lost his mojo, and the final shot of him, the final screen shows his face: an absolute picture of defeat and misery.

Made in conjunction with the Mid-Western Bible Society, this is cinéma verité at its most telling. A powerful and woeful story.Salesman

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61st London Film Festival – Day 8 i

Three PeaksThe day started with an absolute nerve-shredder! It was under the LOVE section so I was not entirely prepared for this. Three Peaks, an new film by German director Jan Zabeil, was filmed on location in the Dolomite Mountains. A three-hander, we meet a young couple with a little boy, Tristan, who is about eight. It soon becomes apparent that Aaron, a strong, healthy outdoorsy man, played by Alexander Fehling, is the step-father.

This becomes more and more problematic, mostly for Tristan but also for Aaron who says openly that at times he loves him but also at times wishes he wasn’t there.

There are some really beautiful scenes with Aaron and Tristan walking and climbing in the mountains near to the three peaks, it is astonishingly beautiful and also changeable, both the weather and the emotions can alter in a fraction of a second…

The boy, Arian Montgomery, is a consummate actor already, his expressive little face showed anger, joy, excitement and anxiety and it was in the Q&A that we were told quite how remarkable he had been, able even at such a young age to take instruction, think about it and then “act”.

This should have been an idyllic holiday, a log cabin in the mountains, what more could one ask? The film explores both the potential wonder of such relationships and the toxic alternative, with devastating truthfulness.

One thing I do notice though, audiences (and I have seen a good few in the thirty years that I have been coming to the London Film Festival) seem more and more uncomfortable with open endings. At nearly every Q&A that I have been to in the last three years, members of the audience have asked the director whether what ended the film meant either/or. In today’s film, Jan put the question back to the audience and it went 50/50 to a bad or good next step. But I find it interesting that people want to KNOW…is it that we live in such uncertain times that we cannot bear even our entertainment not to tell us exactly what happens next?

This film, as yet, has no UK distribution which seems a pity. You have one more chance to see it on the screen if you can get tickets for Saturday 14th at NFT2

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