The eighth installment from our team film critics swarming the cinemas of Auckland and Wellington for the 2018 NZ International Film Festival.
To my western eye, Shin Dong-seok’s debut feature Last Child seems, on the whole, to be in the same gritty realist tradition as English films by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Especially in the way the action unfolds. As the film starts, we’re in the aftermath of an event – Sung-cheol and Mi-sook are grieving the loss of their only child, a boy, who drowned saving another boy, Ki-hyun. The strangeness and pathos of this situation causes a character to act in a way they might not normally. Possibly in an attempt to find peace or meaning in his son’s death, Sung-cheol starts helping Ki-hyun, who is withdrawn and perhaps a delinquent. From this act, the film is allowed to unfold in what might be seen as a naturalistic way. One action causes a reaction that demands action and so on. I’m not sure if Shin Dong-seok uses improvisation while writing, like Leigh, but the film relies heavily on the performances of every actor in it and no one disappoints. The film, I think because of its structure, depends acutely on the relationships between characters, and these are performed very convincingly. A few hours later I’m remembering most keenly Kim Yeo-jin as Mi-sook, who is given a lot of extremely subtle and emotional work to do; but I think the strength of this film is that all the performances come at the same frequency. No one seems to have the ‘limelight’ – our sympathies are equally divided and this makes for an emotionally affecting and complicated story, which is extremely satisfying.
The film is shot in a muted colour palette which reflects the suburbs the action takes place in. The apartments, shops and restaurants the characters live and work in feel documentary-level real. I got a sense that I could open any cupboard and it would be full. Here I need to indulge in one of my big loves in cinema – work. Last Child includes extremely beautiful shots of wallpapering and plastering. The satisfaction of seeing a trade represented so heroically made my hairdressing heart sing. A big part of the emotional action of the story takes place around Ki-hyun’s apprenticeship to Sung-cheol, and Last Child captures the pride and joy of work, and possibly even the redemptive nature of it.
Even the subtitles seem written for naturalism – they feel conversational rather than formal, which worked well for me as a non-Korean speaker. I guess there’s a risk that subtitles can interrupt a realist illusion, but because of the translation choices made, they flow in an unobtrusive way and showcase what I think is the real star of this film – Shin Dong-seok’s script. As a non-Korean, I’m sure I missed things. I’ve just been reading about the importance of birth order in Korea, so it’s possible I can’t even experience the potency of the film’s title. However, Shin Dong-seok’s script is generous and so well-crafted that I left feeling I was given insight into these particular characters and their particular plight, and possibly, some of the broader context of modern Korea.
I can’t finish without touching on the final part of the film. About half an hour before the end, the film settles into a resting place which could have been a satisfying end and fades to black only to regenerate itself into what could be described as a ‘vengeance’ narrative. I’ve heard a bit of debate over whether this topples into melodrama but I really loved it. I almost feel like it pulls the whole realist agenda of the film into question – not overtly, but in a fascinating, subtle way. Last Child is an extremely well-executed realist film but it seems to offer something almost subversive to the tradition. /Pip Adam
A documentary about a 100-year-old labour dispute I know nothing about (albeit one with a truly tragic end), that occurred in a small Arizona mining town I’ve never heard of, has no business reducing me to tears on a Tuesday afternoon. And yet, here we are, me brushing aside quiet tears in a darkened theatre. Such is the power of the story told in Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17, and more particularly, in its telling.
With his previous two features, Actress and Kate Plays Christine, Greene zeroed in on a performative exploration of the story of an individual (Brandy Burre and Christine Chubbuck, respectively). But with Bisbee ‘17, the filmmaker weaves together strands of performance and anecdote from a whole town full of people as they gather a century later to remember the long-buried tragedy known as the ‘Bisbee deportation’. Blending reenactment (and scene-prep for this) with straight interviews – techniques recognisable from Joshua Oppenheimer’s brutally compelling war crime investigation The Act of Killing, as well as Kitty Green’s innovative true crime documentary Casting Jonbenet – Greene captures the interiorised shades of trauma lurking beneath this place and its people. As the town comes closer to the centenary date, and the consequent reenactment event, more and more people are forced to confront the narratives created within their family histories to justify this tragic occurrence. Greene maintains a balanced observational stance as the townsfolk wrestle on camera with problematic elements of their own points of view. Bisbee reminded me a lot of an Errol Morris joint in this respect.
Greene and cinematographer Jarred Altman’s visual storytelling is exceptional, with many stunning vistas, standout framing, and the kind of arresting camera movement that I didn’t expect to see in such a documentary. In particular, there’s a phenomenal steadicam follow-shot early on, capturing one of Bisbee’s key subjects (an extremely photogenic young Mexican-American resident named Fernando) walking into a building and down into a dusty old theatre space below, which is bewitching to behold. Keegan DeWitt’s score is equally evocative, helping to draw you into the unfolding narrative of avoidance of responsibility, systemic racism, and racially based injustice. These are themes that have strong resonance in the USA and worldwide in this day and age. With refugee crises, detainment and deportation of immigrants, and prejudicial labour practices at the forefront of local and international consciousness, Bisbee holds up an unexpected mirror to the shameful events occurring around us now and challenges us not to retread the same tragic paths. /Jacob Powell
Dog’s Best Friend
I’ve been looking forward to Eryn Wilson’s documentary about Jacob Leezak and his Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre since I heard Leezak interviewed in 2014 on RNZ. I’m really interested in dogs, especially ‘bad’ dogs. I was scared of dogs as a kid and I think I willed myself out of the fear because I wanted to be around them so badly. I’m fascinated by the way we live with these pack animals and the effect this has on us and on them.
Dog’s Best Friend is a film about love – the presence and absence of it. The film opens with Leezak adamantly rejecting the title of ‘Australia’s Dog Whisperer’, and as the film unfolds, his philosophy differentiates itself firmly from the popular idea that humans need to dominate the dogs they live with. What I think fascinates me particularly about Leezak, and what comes across so well in the film, is his challenge to the species hierarchy – indicated by the wordplay of the title. He talks in the film about his difficult childhood and military background and there’s a line early on which hangs over the rest of the film. Leezak says, “It’s unfortunate within the human nature that we destroy everything we come in contact with.” There’s a real sense throughout the film that the dogs are the ones Leezak wants to be like. That, with a handful of exceptions, he’s pretty disappointed in humans. He’s working with the dogs, not trying to be in charge of them. Most of Leezak’s interviews are filmed with him sitting on the ground, face-to-face with the dogs, and there are some great dog’s-eye view shots in the film. The cinematography wants to reinforce the idea that we are not better than dogs and even, perhaps, we could aim to be more like them.
But this isn’t a sugar-coated look at Leezak’s work. The work is difficult and sometimes dangerous and Wilson’s story, shot over 18 months, shows us this. As well as showing us, warts and all, the work of rehabilitating dogs damaged by humans, Leezak is given space to air some of his challenging views: compulsory de-sexing and controlled breeding of all dogs, and a firm rejection of specific breed legislation. There’s violence in the film but none of it comes through pushing or harassing the subject in the real-time of the documentary. There were moments when I thought I wanted Wilson to ask slightly harder questions of Leezak, but I think Dog’s Best Friend showed me how lazy I’ve become in my documentary viewing. ‘Conflict!’ I shout when I see a sympathetic view of a subject, completely ignoring the complication of the situation past and present. Leezak and his partner Jeenah give so much of themselves for the film, and it’s refreshing to watch a documentary where there’s a sense of the subject being in control of the story. Wilson appeared before the screening I saw and thanked the people who crowdfunded the film, stating he didn’t want funding from anyone who would tell him what to do. I feel like he extends this autonomy to Jacob and Jennah Leezak. There’s a respect for them which ripples out into a respect for the story, which unfolds really well around the progress of three dogs brought to Leezak for rehabilitation.
This film left me wanting to be a better dog owner. My dog is lying on the couch next to me as I write this, and after seeing Dog’s Best Friend, I feel I have a different relationship to her. But I think also, through the compassion of Wilson’s approach, the film also made me want to be a better person – to perhaps listen with less interruption. /Pip Adam
A full-scale sensory assault, Panos Cosmatos’s 1983-set Mandy turned out to be just what I’d hoped upon hearing who was involved: equal parts artful-fantasy and crazed-Cage-genre-beast. Though these sensibilities bleed into each other all the way through the film – even the most gleefully manic Cage-out is thoughtfully framed, lit, and edited – the film firmly switches modes about halfway through, moving from head-trip thriller to complete revenge-driven gorefest. The first act belongs to Andrea Riseborough who, despite being an ostensibly ‘good’ character, radiates a slightly creepy energy as the eponymous Mandy. She appears quite taken with fantasy/occult imagery (as seen in the book she’s reading and the drawings she produces) and her darkened eyes and intense manner add significantly to the tenor of unease being generated via the production design. Cage’s character Red initially comes across as an earthier, little-spoken labourer type (who’s clearly smitten with Mandy), but when the couple’s isolated idyll is infringed upon by the arrival of a wacked-out cult group with dark desires, Red transforms into the most Cage of you-fucked-with-the-wrong-people Cages. Despite its artsy inclinations, Mandy is also shot with a pleasing vein of humour, leaning hard into the OTT proclivities we’ve come to love and expect from the actor. In the back half of the film, Cage sports so many fab crazed/angry/lamenting expressions that I hope to God somebody makes a supercut of these for future YouTubery.
Mandy’s purposeful, confronting application of colour – dark, shadowy settings show up the intensity of the chromatic theming, with red washes, followed by yellow and then green – reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s colour themed spaces in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (despite them being very different films in every other way!). If this comparison seems a bit of a stretch, Cosmatos’ film includes a slew of more obvious genre hat-tips, such as a silhouette shot of bad guys arrayed along a treeline, which brought to mind Kathryn Bigelow’s classic Near Dark hill silhouette; a cabal of monster-villains who look suspiciously akin to the Cenobite crew from Hellraiser; the inclusion of 80s/90s action genre regular Bill Duke (Commando, Predator, Action Jackson, Payback etc.) as loner-survivalist Caruthers who helps Red tool up for his ‘mission’ and many more.
Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn use the film’s genre scenario to confront toxic masculinity in the form of cult leader Jeremiah Sand (an exquisitely awful Linus Roach) who castigates and cajoles his followers and quite literally thinks the world revolves around him. When Jeremiah doesn’t get what he wants, he acts like a spoilt (albeit dangerous) child. He meets his match in Mandy, whose spirit can’t be quelled by whatever narcotic mixture they slip her, and later by Red, who’s simply unstoppable. Which is to say that Mandy has substance at the core of its mind-meltingly awesome style, and the finished product was well beyond my wild imaginings. /Jacob Powell
Crystal Moselle’s follow up to the much talked about Wolfpack feels like a lower-stakes companion to Céline Sciamma’s 2014 Girlhood as a posse of skateboarding girls ride the streets of NYC. The story is fiction, but the skate crew Moselle used as actors – the real Skate Kitchen, so named because whenever they posted videos of themselves skating they’d get guys replying “get back in the kitchen” – are being more or less themselves, each bringing her own aesthetic to her part.
When she’s not skateboarding, 18-year-old Camille is watching skateboarding vids on Instagram while still trying to be the good girl her hardworking mother wants. After a particularly embarrassing accident requires stitches, she promises her mother she’ll stop. But she’s soon sneaking out of her Long Island home to go check out a park in the city. When she arrives it’s full of guys who try to freeze her out, but the few girls present turn out to be welcoming and she’s soon exploring the city with them. For Camille, who doesn’t seem to have had female friends she could talk frankly with before and who misses the camaraderie of the boys she used to hang out with before puberty happened, this group provides freedom and self-discovery. The leaving-home-and-troubles-over-a-boy story that follows is somewhat slight, though refreshingly lacking in menace; the film’s real strength is in how it celebrates the girls glorying in their physical prowess. /Aquila