In October 2013 my audio recorder captured the following words during an interview to the first Ethiopian graduate in nuclear engineering – the elderly professor Seifu Yohannes – now emeritus physics professor in the University of Harar. “All your dreams of wealth and unlimited power, all your dreams of disproportionate ambition; the satisfaction of feeling analogous to the gods, all your sexual impulses which you deem infinite; all these pharaonic dreams will be reduced to a series of cheap plastic figurines floating in the stratosphere once everything has finally exploded. The American dream will soon enough end up devastating you. Then you will return to your village with your tail between your legs. And you will wish that your old boyfriend or girlfriend – whose breath always reeked of garlic – will once again cover you in kisses and eternally care for your welfare.”
When I finished transcribing these words, CRUMBS was born.
- Miguel Llansó (Madrid, 2015)
With those few words Miguel Llansó was inspired to create Crumbs, his post-apocalyptic surrealist Ethio-sci-fi send up of a Campbell-inspired hero’s journey. And who’d a thunk that a young Spanish director, who films movies in ahmaric featuring the most unlikely of leads – a dimiutive, bodily-mishapen and very talented actor, dare I say star, Daniel Tadesse – could or would jump to the forefront of world cinema with a very singular, frightening and funny vision.
Crumbs opens with Candy (Daniel Tadesse) foraging around a bleak, tortured and strangely beautiful landscape. He spies a mounted retro-futuristic vaguely Teutonic knight, sporting a Nazi arm band. Candy knows better than to tangle with this dude and takes flight to the abandoned bowling alley he inhabits with his lovely wife, Sayat (Selam Tesfaye). All well and good for a low budget intro to the strange world Candy inhabits. He quickly realizes that he has lost his amulet, a plastic teenage mutant ninja turtle, which will soon be seen orbiting earth in the same way as the famous fetus of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the meantime, a quick backstory develops. Outside floats a gigantic, dormant spaceship. It looks a bit like a spark plug with a humungous plastic glove on top in constant salute. Hail Earthmen! This UFO begins to show signs of powering up – so much so, the bowling lanes in Candy and Sayat’s abode begin to start working. A bowling ball bumbles up from the ball return like a planet falling back into orbit. Shades of Godard’s coffee cup! Not only that, but peering into the black chute of the ball return seems to create a conduit directly to Santa’s workshop. At this point, Candy, a bit mixed up in mind, but sure of direction, decides he has to get back to the spaceship – because he’s sure he’s not of this Earth and must return to whatever alien world (as if worlds could be more alien that the one he lives in) that is/was his home. Dutiful and loving Sayat sends him off with a plastic sword (still in its original wrapping). He sets off on his hero’s journey. The sword is quickly and hilariously dispatched – to become more detritus floating around the Earth. I couldn’t help flash on the virtual weapons, potions and talismans that video-gamers collect on their own sub-epic journeys in game-land. Those things of specious and fantasy value that occupy time and clutter their own little universes. He crosses fantastic landscapes, ghost towns and industrial ruins (kudos to cinematographer Israel Seoane for his great eye) until he finally reaches… the North Pole? Santa turns out to be a fairly mean-spirited asshole, protecting himself with protocol – insisting that Candy should have mailed his wish list in advance – instead of admitting to the fake that he is. Beaten and dejected, Candy returns to Sayat to reconfirm their love. The spaceship takes off without him. And they live happily ever after. Or will they?
Llansó’s vision takes a surrealist’s strategy of connecting unexpected images and ideas, but fulfills a deeper and more substantial surrealist tradition of subversion of those very images and ideas, critiquing just about everything one assumes about the state of the world. He’s got a bit of an obsession with Nazism, which he fleshed out brilliantly in an earlier short, Chigger Ale (2013), which featured Tadesse as mini Hitler wannabe, who’s mocked and ridiculed by the denizens of his local bar. And when he finally attempts his revenge, by gassing the place, he fails miserably and is called into account by a statuesque dominatrix and quickly dispatched into the detritus of outer space. Llansó’s complete disdain for the isms, cultural artifacts, memes, tropes and assumptions of the contemporary world are totally refreshing. And the fact that he does it with such joy and assurance puts him in a league with Buñuel. And as for Daniel Tadesse – check him out. He’s got the depth, the chops and the experience (he’s worked a lot in theatre and film in Addis Ababa) and an amazing screen presence. I hope to see more of him, not only in Llansó’s films, but with other directors. Spread the word.
I usually add a Japanese film or two to my list, as that’s what I write about. However this year, I found nary a single Japanese film that was worth adding to the list. Not a one! The inclusion of 2013 films, Nebraska and Inside Llewyin Davis, is because they finally played Tokyo in 2014. The films below are submitted in order. El Futuro’s structuralist strategies and political savvy, coupled with one of the an amazing sound/visual design, shows Luis López Carrasco’s a complete original. Asaf Korman’s Next to Her also has one of the best sound designs of any film ever, plus amazing performances by his 3 leads, particularly Dana Ivgy, in a hugely moving story about the more destructive aspects of love. The Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’s hommage to Juliette Binoch and the art of the actor was magical. The one oddball of the bunch is Survival is Not Virtue. It’s actually a music video of a song by Jordan O’Jordan done entirely with appropriated footage from Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Not only is it an amazing short film – you’ll never look at Josh Mostel’s Herod the same way again – but I’ve added it as a bit of a testament to the whole project known as Clyde Petersen, which includes film, music, installations and so much more. Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya is part ethnographic study, part mythic storytelling and totally fascinating. Are the two Brits, who bring up the batch, at the forefront of a new trend of strangely distant and cold storytelling that end up with heartbreaking results?
El Futuro (Luis Luis López Carrasco, 2013)
Next to Her (Asaf Asaf Korman, 2014)
The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Survival is Not Virtue (Clyde Petersen, 2014)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
Les jours venus (The Days Come, Romain Goupil, 2014)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2013)
Bwaya (Crocodile, Francis Xavier Pasion, 2014)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013)
If there was ever a band that represents the epitome of punk, it must be Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day. The quartet consists of developmentally challenged musicians headed by their namesake Pertti, a garrulous and sensitive shouter who writes terse and brutally uncensored songs about his condition, obsessions and problems. An example goes, “I don’t want to live in a group home / I don’t want to live in an institution / I want to live in Kallio / In the privacy of a bomb shelter.” Directors Jukka Karkkainen and J-P Passi document the band with sensitivity, humor and no whitewashing in The Punk Syndrome, one of the best music docs of the year. Documenting the travails of Pertti and his collaborators, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Valitalo and Kalle Pajamaa walks the fine edge of being exploitive of this unlikely punk phenomena, but ultimately comes across as a finely-honed and honest look a group of very creative individuals, connecting with their problems and difficulties in life and ultimately, celebrating their brave and wonderful response – a healthy “fuck you!”
Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2015
Man, what a sad year for Japanese film. When even Mark Schilling pens a piece on the lackluster product produced in Japan, you know things aren’t looking so good. I also had a conversation with another film writer, who shall remain unnamed, wherein the conversation drifted to the idea that the standard of what’s good in Japanese films is far lower than that of the rest of the world’s films. A kind of “not bad for a Japanese film” attitude. So, even the best Japanese films these days are much lesser than other films from around the world. Of course, that’s an extreme statement, but a relative truism. And of course, someone like Koreeda still makes incredible films that are right up there with the best. But I’d say on this year’s list, it’s a no go. There are some fun films, some moderately provocative films and one crazy bad/good film, but none have made it to what I’d call an important film. Yes, it is a sad state.
Missing from the screens this year were any new films by some of my favorites – Haruhi Oguri, Masahiro Kobayashi, Tetsue Matsuake, Hirokazu Koreeda. I dutifully watched new premiers at TIFF and Filmex, of which there was little of interest. And there was the genuinely laughably bad “remake” of Fires on the Plain by Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s one of those films that makes you reconsider everything else he’s ever made. I still like Tetsuo, though.
So, in just a few years, my list has been, out of necessity, whittled down to a mere handful of best films, rather than a top ten. And one of them really isn’t that good. Here you go.
1. Idol Is Dead: Non-chan’s Propaganda Major War
Yukihiro Kato’s sequel to his 2012 opus finds the Brand-new Idol Society (BiS), a thrash girl group pitted in an epic battle against corporate idol group Electric★Kiss. This spirited essay on the social Darwinism of Japanese society is appropriately low budget and trashy and mainly, fun.
2. Tokyo Tribe
Sono Shion treads similar waters as Non-chan with his utopian musical about a Tokyo only of his imagination. Here, rival gangs, again go down Darwinistic paths amid tons of gore, machismo, sex, violence and overdone sets that all strangely ends up all hearts and flowery.
3. Still the Water
Naome Kawase gets back a little of her magic, after a few years of serious, and seriously bad, new ageism. In Still the Water she finds many magical moments in a frank and touching coming of age drama.
4. Sad Tea
Rikiya Imaizumi lets a talented cast of 20-somethings work out the ins and outs of relationships in a deliciously funny comedy. He screws up the end where he has all the characters meet cute and resolve their plotlines – at a beach! Shades of Sansho the Bailiff!
Sharing looks horrible. It’s too long. The acting is fairly atrocious. And did I tell you that it’s way too long? But Makoto Shinozaki’s Bunuelian vision of the trauma of 3.11 as a constantly reoccurring nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare… may be the only film made since that fateful day to deal honestly with the many issues it brought up.
Even with a sharp script by Shin Adachi, director Masaharu Take doesn’t quite pull of the complex balance of something between an homage and a send-up of Million Dollar Baby – not quite getting the effective tragedy out of tragic-comedy. And bringing a questionable sensibility to what should be funny. The story of Kazuko (Sakura Ando), a loser taking her one shot in the boxing ring sends up the usual hero dynamic. Ando, who is being dangerously typecast for her ennui, spends half of the film as a misdirected cliché of a downbeat slacker, stuck working in a convenience store after escaping from her family and her largely unexplained dysfunctionality. Kazuko meets Kano (Hirofumi Arai), a washed up boxer and strangely unattractive individual, who needy person that she is, ends up with. This pushes her into her attempt at Rocky-ness and finding self worth. 100 Yen Love has several moments – the boxing ring scenes are great – and a lot of filler that keeps the viewer wondering what Take is up to.
Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2014
One of the pleasures of Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats is watching some of Japan’s best comic actors. Miyuki Oshima (doing a fine genderfuck as the titular character), Asato Iida, Tateto Serizawa, Toshiyuki Kitami and the great Kanji Furitachi work hard, bringing out the best from the slim material they have to work with and the flat gag fillers that give them a chance to stretch a bit, but add little to the plot. This romantic comedy seems to come to roadblock after roadblock on its way to its flabby and unfulfilling ending. The story of the fat, unrequited kid, now grown up having a second chance with the love of his life is at the heart of Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats. There’s a bit of cheap clichéd flashback psychology to describe his current state, but despite that, Oshima inhabits Fuku-chan wholly, giving him heft and heart. She’s one of a great cast of characters that give the film a bit of well-earned sentimentality and feeling – despite the obstacles from writer and director Yosuke Fujita.
Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2014.