Friday, 29 May 2015

After the relative successes of his first two films, both violent yakuza dramas, Takeshi Kitano, ever unpredictable, made A Scene at the Sea, a quiet romantic drama about a deaf garbage man who becomes obsessed with surfing after finding a broken board - emblazoned with the slogan "sink or swim" - at work. He, Shigeru, fixes it, and he and his (also deaf) girlfriend, Takako, head to the beach, where his enthusiastic amateurism is ridiculed by the other surfers and a couple of old classmates.

Kitano's calm, languid visual style is punctuated by brief moments of expression, usually contained within probing close-ups. In A Scene at the Sea, Kitano cuts away from a long, static take of a beach filled with surfers to observe Takako quietly folding her boyfriend's clothes, while later, the two share smiles, his coy, hers beaming, as they walk towards the beach holding either end of a surfboard. These small, loving details make the derision he suffers seem so meaningless, but what is it that makes him so happy: the love of his girlfriend, or his love for surfing? As the film ends, Kitano gives us a montage of Takako's memories as she looks back over the relationship. There's a surfer in every one.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Motorcycles, cars, trucks, trains, helicopters, boats, bicycles; for a film in which everyone walks, Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord is filled with vehicles. Two women - Baptiste, a seemingly self-taught karate enthusiast who wears a wristwatch on her upper arm and cuts the eyes out of movie posters; and Marie, just out of jail with a bottomless hip-flask and a debilitating fear of enclosed spaces - wander the streets of Paris investigating the mysteries held within a briefcase filled with pages and pages of newspaper clippings, and a map of the city with a game-board drawn over it.

Much like the roar of the unseen helicopter that opens the film, Le Pont du Nord's depths are suggested rather than shown. Eschewing convention, Rivette instead fills his idiosyncratic version of Paris with images of construction sites, staircases, and statues of lions, offering the briefest glimpse of their significance before flying off to look at something else, while his characters do the same, rushing around the city following hazy-at-best clues that may or may not lead to another. They're lost in a labyrinth of side-streets and dead-ends, but when the questions are so mystifying, who needs answers? After all, you can't fight dragons with logic.

Friday, 22 May 2015

"I don't drink coffee without sugar," remarks a young Russian woman not far into Sharunas Bartas' Three Days. She's talking to two Lithuanian men - brothers, mid-twenties, from the countryside - who have just picked her up outside a train station in the cloud-covered city of Kaliningrad, a former Soviet outpost left in ruin following the then-recent dissolution of the Soviet Union. The three of them stand around a table in a café, barely looking at each other, let alone speaking, before, finally, they leave. She never touches her coffee.

This kind of thing is par for the course in Three Days. The trio, all outsiders, spend the three days of the title drifting aimlessly around the city, hanging out in derelict churches and empty beaches during the daytime, and trying to find a place to stay in the evenings. The townspeople, solemn and silent in public, raucous partiers in private, treat them like pariahs, either ignoring them completely or side-eyeing them with suspicion, occasionally breaking routine to show their indignation. At one point, a hotel owner suddenly berates one of the men, calling him a "piece of scum" and a "bastard", while later, his brother is savagely attacked in an alleyway.

Bartas' style is similarly nightmarish. Three Days is comprised primarily of lingering, static compositions of the desolate city: thick fog envelopes the empty grey streets, partly masking the ruinous state of many of the surrounding buildings, all crumbling walls and broken windows; weak electric lights, both inside and out, provide only the faintest illumination, shrouding the city in near-darkness; sparse groups of people walk the streets, thick coats buttoned all the way up to shelter from the cold; the abandoned cranes of forgotten constructions are fossils of a prosperous past.

Kaliningrad, a city sandwiched between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea but very much a Russian territory, was geographically severed from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the countries that separated them were freed from Soviet control. As both Poland and Lithuania imposed strict border controls, Kaliningrad was rendered virtually inaccessible to the outside world, crippling its economy and leaving many of its people in poverty. The trio Bartas follows, however, are not people of Kaliningrad; they are foreign visitors - as alienated in Kaliningrad as Kaliningrad is alienated in post-Soviet Europe.

Bartas, a twenty-something Lithuanian when he made this, is too empathetic to perceive this parallel as irony. He contrasts static compositions of the city with revealing close-ups of faces, showing the inconsolable sadness of each character as their isolation becomes more pronounced. In the film's finest moment, held in one long close-up, the Russian woman weeps uncontrollably on a bed while one of the brothers lays with her; muffled loud music is playing off-screen, suggesting yet another party tormenting them from a distance. But then the music stops, and they stay close; she stops crying. Then Bartas cuts to a shot of a faraway factory, smoke billowing freely from its chimney. In this brief moment, intimacy equates to distance, and happiness seems to lie elsewhere.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking opens with two generations of a family, an elderly mother and her adult daughter, peeling vegetables for dinner. The father of the family walks past them towards the door. The daughter, seeing this, asks him to buy milk at the local store, but he ignores her and carries on. Sensing her daughter's agitation, her mother explains that "he doesn't want the neighbours to see him with a shopping bag. Even at his age, he wants to be called 'Doctor'."

A sense of keeping up appearances is the cause of most, if not all of the long-held issues within this family, and each one is aired during the 24 hours they are all gathered together in the same house, commemorating the death of the first born son fifteen years earlier. The middle son, an art restorer married to a widowed mother of one, barely speaks to his father, who disapproves of his life choices; the daughter tries to convince her mother that she and her loud family should move in to their house, while her mother wants to live a peaceful life but can't bring herself to mention it; and the son's wife feels as if she and her child are being treated as guests and not as part of the family, just because she and her husband haven't had children of their own yet.

Much of this drama is left to bubble under the surface, and Kore-eda's presence is similarly muted, unobtrusively observing the minutiae of the family's interactions as they spend time with each other. He tends to compose his shots from the corners of rooms, generally using a table as a focal point, and only cutting to close-ups to accentuate the gestures of his characters. During one particularly emotional moment around the table, the family listen to the parents' "special, romantic song" that the father doesn't remember but the mother listens to every day. Kore-eda cuts from a wide shot of the table to successive close-ups of each person as the song plays: the mother sings along, her husband makes a point of wolfing down his food, and their son and daughter-in-law both look around anxiously, seemingly the only two people in the room aware of the moment's awkwardness; their step-grandson struggles to contain his laughter.

Kore-eda's main strength as a director is how keenly attuned he is to natural behaviour, and as these characters talk around their individual issues for the sake of the family, his unassuming style allows his actors space to deliver the nuanced performances required to make it work. At one point, the family takes a photograph together, and the only person who takes it seriously is the son's wife, who smiles steadfastly at the camera as everybody else looks disinterested. Still Walking is a film of small, revealing moments such as these, but from them Kore-eda has crafted a profoundly moving portrait of a family splintered by tragedy, just as it exists in the world, with all the complexities and dysfunction that comes with that.