Amongst the 240 strong programme, London Film Festival (LFF) is host to a large number of familiar names and flagpole films, acting as something of a net for the festivals preceding it. Mainly suiting a public (for most press, Karlovy Vary Festival or Krakow's New Horizons will serve the same purpose in more attractive landscapes), cine-literate, if conservative, population seeking varying fare from across cinema’s many spectrums; it is completely possible - though perhaps slightly unexciting - to navigate the festival entirely through known entities.
Starting then, with one of the most well known, well regarded and satisfyingly reliable voices in world cinema.
Right Now, Wrong Then marks, some 17 features in for Hong Sang-soo, yet another formal experiment and, despite this sense of familiarity, proves to be one of his most successful explorative ventures. Two hours split down the middle by a reset. Two halves repeated wherein the circumstances, locations, even many of the conversational strands are identical, but the outcomes, occurrences, even the tone emerges as something entirely different. Slight directorial adjustments from Hong, and nuanced performative inversions from his co-leads Kim Minhee and Jung Jae-young, see that two distinct trajectories emerge from almost identical premises. In its emphasis upon the potentially major effect of minor variations, as well as the almost infinite variability of human experience, Hong encourages speculation over how minor alterations in tone, language or behaviour may effect the outcome of moments in a life, how the course of a personal narrative could be altered by even the slightest variation in what was done, said or suggested at any given moment.
Showing two chance romantic encounters that both reach the same non-conducive conclusion, Hong lets the viewer interpret even the most minor piece of visual information - the meaning behind a customary zoom, a downward turning glance or the placement of a prop within the frame - in any given way, opening Right Now, Wrong Then for reviewings and reinterpretations perhaps more than any of his films have before. Cinema as a mirror at its most natural, simultaneously simplistic and complex, this probably sits as Hong’s best since The Day He Arrives, as well as a fitting tonal-reversal (wanton and gleeful, to largely melancholic) of previous, similarly formally-tricky, delicately nuanced film Hill of Freedom.
Also seemingly familiar, Aferim!, from Romanian director Radu Jude. From the opening shot, a near silent horizon-crossing straight out of Albert Serra’s Birdsong, Aferim! looks like it could be recognisably by the books ‘slow cinema’ fare. A miscue however, as before long Jude reveals the differing direction his film will take. A frantically verbal, frequently funny, journey film that moves at considerable pace, Aferim! is more Aleksei German than Lisandro Alonso. In German’s Hard to be a God (similarly smart and acerbic, and also shot in beautiful B/W 35mm) the vulgarity was physical, but in Aferim!, its largely verbal. As they travel across picturesque Wallachia mountainscapes tirelessly after their target, an escaped slave, Constable Cindescu (Alexandru Dabija) spews a relentless tirade in the direction of his companion, son and receiving ear Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu.) Teaching him trade and tenor, Cindescu unloads a mix of unwieldy xenophobia, offbeat wisdom and peculiar, sidewinding aphorisms upon the witless, wide-eyed boy, an act entertaining and repellent in equal measure.
Intelligently, just as the constant barrage of sharply scripted (apparently sourced in part from historical texts) verbal digressions begin to bear down on the viewer, the film’s tone shifts towards something more serious. As a noble duty becomes a moral quandary, Jude generates more and more sympathy towards the now captive gypsy slave as his captors weigh up whether “the filthy crow” deserves his fate or if their prejudice might be misguided, in this case at least. Thus Jude opens a dialogue on the fragility of justice and the mindless barbarity of intolerance (now as much as then, Jude seems to be suggesting). A smart balance of wit and seriousness, and a well-measured inversion of the classical western, Aferim! was the Silver Bear winner at Berlin, and is also Romania’s Oscar entry, so singing its laurels hardly constitutes backing an underdog, but judging from the 6 people at the press screening (High Rise clash) and the lack of general discussion about it at the festival, it may have gone under radars, unjustly.
Less conspicuous was much lauded Son of Saul from former Bela Tarr collaborator and first time director László Nemes. A tremendous technical accomplishment if nothing else, Nemes’ film will continue to receive large amounts of attention for its vivid, unerringly grim (and newspaper-crit friendly) holocaust depiction, as well as its dogged dedication to a challenging aesthetic. Fixing immediately on Saul - a sonderkommando at Auschwitz (a jewish prisoner given minor privileges in return for being forced to work, tirelessly and horribly, cleaning the gas chambers) - Nemes’ film remains with him for the duration, Mátyás Erdély's roaming camera locked tight on either the front or back of his head for almost all of the film.
Apart from putting tremendous pressure on lead actor Géza Röhrig, this directorial choice means the horrors of the holocaust technically occur offscreen (though their presence is more than felt.) Firstly, in the edges of the screen or outside of it as characters approach Saul or he moves past the bodies, instruments and perpetrators of genocide; and secondly, through the impeccably cacophonous, traumatically loud sound design, the screams, crashes and bangs of the the camp clangoring around Saul as he journeys relentlessly on. Putting aside any debate over whether this singular focus spares the audience unnecessary exposure to the horrors of the situation or undermines the suffering of everyone but Saul, whose own mission is pursued with a fervid intensity that comes at the expense of many around him; it is slightly strange to see such immeasurable effort put into production design as well as set piece staging, for it to be almost entirely obscured by the claustrophobic framing and fuzzily low depth of field. Thrilling as much as it is troubling, despite plot contrivances and telegraphing, Nemes’ film proves an impressive achievement, if a gruelling, somewhat monotonous viewing experience.
Also gruelling on the face of it, Happy Hour, a five hour long film about the turbulent feelings of a group of four Japanese women seems a hard sell, even within a festival setting, but emerged as an effortless joy to sit through. (Though, where else can this exist but a festival, unless split and distributed on television?) Cataloguing in detailed, unhurried fashion the cycles (work, family, leisure and love) of the regular lives of a group of women approaching middle age, this film from under-exhibited, evidently undervalued Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi shows a cinematically underrepresented aspect of human experience captured with a remarkable sensitivity and acuity. Made mostly of extended conversations between the women, often reassessments following revelations, Happy Hour is anchored by a terrific, naturalistic script that achieves the difficult balance of fluctuating between the cinematically interesting and realistically mundane. As the fallout from one women’s divorce proceedings causes them to interrogate and reevaluate their own relationships, their sense of self and the nature of their engagement with each other, Hamaguchi’s dialogues (co-scripted with Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi) replicate the experience of a conversation naturally expanding from the trivial into something deeper.
These conversations, often a response to the connective narrative event that proceeded them (a book talk, weekend workshop or away trip the women shared) have a tremendous flow that Hamaguchi imparts onto the film as well, constructing scenes that are afforded time to play out then segued together with a gentle sound bridge, piano interlude and a style of editing that creates a sense of gently forward moving continuity between scenes. It is all straight forward, unpretentious stuff, but the combination of such observational precision and clarity of dramatic expression, and four terrific performances from the actresses, means that the resulting film is irresistible. Some technical sloppiness may betray Hamaguchi’s relative inexperience and negligible budget, but his calculated, multilayered understanding of the complexities of human emotion is that of an old master.
On the total opposite end of the spectrum stylistically, tonally and topically, but also well in tune with human emotion, Tangerine has Starlet director Sean Baker in pseudo-Harmony Korine mode, forging a kind of ‘Spring Breakers with sensitivity’, a sun-bleached, soundtrack driven feature that follows a transgender sex worker and friend as they chase down the girl who cheated on her pimp boyfriend - high drama from the offset. It’s a fast paced, vibrant film - utilising the iPhone (5S) camera for mobility as much as budget, allowing Baker and co-DP Radium Cheung to duck, dart and dive with a ferocity that is sometimes invigorating and sometimes irritating, whilst hyperactively rapid cutting to further generate energy - that seems to avoid slowing down to not give time for viewers to start to wonder whether or not this is exploitative.
Laughs come thick and fast thanks to towering, unreal performances from co-leads Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and for a while Tangerine feels invigoratingly new, jubilant as much as despairing of the area, people and culture it portrays. Unfortunately, it builds to a climax that feels over-orchestrated and farcical, a barrage of misfortune (self-inflicted and societal) that pushes patience slightly too far. It may come down to sensibility, but Tangerine seems to work best at its quietest, the song recital in the bar or the activity in the car-wash, which is also the mode it operates in least. It may be fairest to celebrate Tangerine for its successes - Baker’s care for his characters, ingenuity with his tools or the actor’s bravery and earnestness - but its also hard to not feel the film may have made a better short than a feature, bloated with filler sideplot (non sequitur back of the cab cameo characters, for instance) at feature length and often leaning on clichés that might have slipped the cut with a more compact structure.
The inverse of Tangerine and an exercise in absolute restraint, Paula from newcomer Eugenio Canevari shows, across sixty five sparsely filled minutes, a young nanny attempting to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in a country where abortion is illegal. Canevari follows Paula around her routines as she struggles listlessly to generate the currency required to fund the secret procedure, all the while invoking an unusual sensation - one of both immense leisure, in the feeling and tone of his languidly observational, long take filmmaking, and of a taut urgency, in the growing bump in the girl’s stomach and the strain upon her face. Velvety, low depth of field photography, often framed off centre or with an unusual focus point, gives the feeling of detachment, of a psychiatrist dispassionately examining a patient, which Canevari furthers by dialling up the ambient sound and lingering on pointedly empty moments, alienating his subject and emphasising the banality of those around her.
Despite suffering from slightly too evangelical adherence to the stylistic code of ‘what arthouse cinema should be like’, Paula manages to transmit a lot about the social situation it depicts (economic inequality, strained relationships, familial tension, and a bitter class divide) in few, lengthy shots and even fewer words. The patches of dysfunction that crop up across the films duration give way to full on malaise in a final scene showing a party at the family home, Paula sitting, toes in the pool, her expression moving from forlorn to total despair, Canevari's camera locked static on her and her alone. Right on cue, black screen and a cut to credits, predictable certainly but also disarmingly effective, her pained grimace lingering well past the duration.
A mix of expected deliveries from major names and well received newcomers, LFF’s first few films ran the course of what the year has provided, suggesting three differing perspectives (Happy Hour, Tangerine, Wrong Then, Right Now) upon the human interpersonal experience; as well as three films on personal suffering placed against a larger social situation, one (Paula) playing this pain out at the lowest of levels and another (Son of Saul) at the most aggressively, traumatically highest.