A willingness to delve into the unknown is perhaps the best (and only) mindset to be in when writing about cinema, especially at the LFF, which offers such a diverse variety of films that sticking to what you know seems to defeat the point entirely. Perhaps the best example of a personal leap of faith this year would be Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour, a five-hour drama about four women in their mid-thirties in urban Japan, whose close friendship is tested by the messy fallout from an ongoing divorce. A student of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hamaguchi has been making films and documentaries since 2008, but Happy Hour is his first to gain major festival attention, winning the best actress award, shared between all four women, at this year's very competitive Locarno Film Festival, as well as a special mention for its screenplay. Perhaps Happy Hour's most impressive quality, however, is in Hamaguchi's use of time to present a vivid, novelistic insight into its characters, both together and apart. The successes and frustrations of their professional and personal lives, the unspoken tensions bubbling under the surface of every moment they share, and the silently destructive effects of their friend's divorce on their own lives. The extended duration, as well as Hamaguchi's patient direction (he spends around half an hour watching a young writer read her new short story in full to an audience, as well as the following awkward Q&A), allows these dramas to develop and expand organically. Not enough can be said for good drama, and Happy Hour is certainly that. An all-consuming, low-key marvel of a film, which confirms Hamaguchi as not only one of the most interesting working Japanese auteurs, but one of cinema's most exciting dramatists.
Sylvia Chang's Murmur of the Hearts is similarly bold in its approach to drama, but in a very different way. In Taipei, an artist and her boxer boyfriend suffer a breakdown in communication when two life-altering issues disrupt their lives, while her estranged brother, living on an island off the coast of Taiwan, tries to track her down decades after being separated by their parents' divorce. As these contemporaneous dramas play out, the three characters ruminate on traumas from their childhoods which influence the ways in which they resolve their problems in the present. As far as leaps of faith go, Murmur of the Hearts requires a huge one. It's a complicated, messy film which drifts between the past, the present, and pure fantasy with a total abandon that, at first, mystifies more than it illuminates. Yet as each narrative develops all the seemingly disparate elements begin to converge, and the film finally builds to a tender and moving finale. Murmur of the Hearts is my first encounter with Chang as a director (following her impressive acting role in Mountains May Depart) and her attention to visual and aural detail is immediately evident, especially so within the era-spanning mystical opening sequence, in which the artist reminisces about a story about a mermaid her mother used to tell her and her brother in their youth. It's an alluring, if difficult, point of entry, but on the basis of Murmur of the Hearts as a whole, Chang is a filmmaker whose mysterious work I'd be happy to dive into again and again.
The same can be said of Gabriel Mascaro, whose impressive first film, August Winds, played the festival last year, and whose intriguing follow up, Neon Bull, about the lives of a group of nomadic workers for a travelling rodeo, arrives here again with surprisingly little in the way of fanfare. Narrative takes a back seat to mood and sensuality as Mascaro focuses his attention on the physicality and messiness of the work: the raising and lowering of the gates, the chalking of the bull's tails, the cleaning up afterwards; as well as the reversal of normative gender roles: the group's "leader", Iremar, spends his free time designing and sewing strange, alluring animal-based costumes for Galega, the group's sole adult female member (she has a young daughter), who drives the rodeo's large truck from city to city and comfortably revels in her sexuality as an exotic dancer. Like August Winds, Mascaro places the human body front and centre in Neon Bull, silently observing people at their most intimate: a group of men shower together, for example, and Iremar and a heavily pregnant security guard have passionate sex on a cutting table at a textiles factory in one extended shot. It's a gorgeous, breathy image, and one that represents the film as a whole. And while Neon Bull may be tricky to pin down at first, Mascaro's commitment to its atmosphere reaps rewards for those willing to let it wash over them.
My first encounter with the work of Dutch auteur Alex van Warmerdam took me to the wetlands of rural Holland. Swamps are tricky to navigate at the best of times, but when the element of surprise is an integral part of your job this kind of terrain can change everything. Warmerdam's Schneider vs. Bax tracks a day in the life of a clinical hitman, Schneider, sent on a last minute job on his birthday by his insistent boss. Assured he'll be back home with his loving, oblivious family by midday, he heads to the countryside with his rifle and fake moustache to assassinate Bax, a reclusive writer who lives on the bank of a large lake in the wetlands. These swampy surroundings are both a blessing and a curse, offering plenty of hiding places and vantage points, but at the cost of being impossible to navigate adeptly. Warmerdam fills Schneider vs. Bax with devices like this which only serve to escalate the absurdity of the narrative: awkward locations, convenient coincidences, the ticking clock of needing to make it home for a birthday party. But he has his characters tackle these obstacles with the life or death seriousness that an assassination would inevitably require. It's a straightforward contrast from which Warmerdam draws a huge amount of deadpan comedy, so while Schneider vs. Bax is perhaps hamstrung by its own precise, somewhat stifling engineering, it's still an enjoyably tense, constantly unpredictable thriller - it's just never much more than that.