Tagged: mystery

LFF 2021 #3: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô, Japan 2021)

This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.

Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) and her ex-boyfriend Kazua (Nakajima Ayumu) discuss his recent meeting with Tsugumi

Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?

Nao (Mori Katsuki) reads a passage from his novel to Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko)

Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.

Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and Aya (Kawai Aoba) by Sendai Station

There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.

As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.

Nao with her younger lover Sasaki (Kai Shouma) in ‘Door Wide Open’

What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassavetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.

The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. [A friend told me later it was Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’.] I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.

Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?

Ostende (Argentina 2011)

The beach out of season . . .

Ostende is currently part of MUBI’s Library offer, having been part of a New Argentinian cinema strand back in 2017. The development of several film schools in Argentina has meant the production of a large number of films that have been apparent on the festival circuit during the last ten years. I’ve usually found one or more such films popping up at London, Leeds or Glasgow, festivals I visit regularly, as well as at ¡Viva! in Manchester with its coverage of Latin American cinema. There have been a couple of duds over ten years, but most have been well worth my time.

A MUBI article discussing the New Argentine cinema explains that many of these films from younger directors have struggled to get into Argentinian cinemas but have instead found distribution deals in other territories following prizes at international festivals. Ostende appears to be a low budget film that has reached a few international festivals and has been streamed in Argentina, Italy and Germany and, via MUBI, international subscribers. It features a very simple idea that feels familiar but I can’t think where I might have seen something similar. The central character is a woman in her twenties who arrives alone at a seaside resort hotel at the end of the season. She has won (with her boyfriend) a prize in a quiz show of a four day break at the resort, but the boyfriend is still at work and he will join her for the weekend. The hotel is a modern building comprising several two storey blocks, a pool, restaurant-bar and access to a beach.

‘Laura’ and the minimal use of prints in the hotel.

There is very little conventional narrative development in this 82 minute film but the film itself is ‘about’ narrative as a concept. The young woman isn’t named as far as I can see, so I’ll refer to her as ‘Laura’ after the writer-director of the film Laura Citerella and the actor who plays her, Laura Parades. Laura has little to do when she arrives except read, sit by the window or on the windy beach, grab a coffee or a drink in the bar etc. Laura is not especially ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ but she has an interesting face and even if she appears quite serious, she easily opens up to the young waiter who chats her up and tells her a story. She also seems to have decided that she wants to find a story in the mainly empty hotel. She finds it in the shape of the relationship she observes that involves an older man, always wearing a pair of red shorts, and two younger women. Various small details about this relationship add up to scenarios which seem to Laura to place the young women in danger. Added to this, the film’s soundtrack is an odd mixture of the songs and dialogues which Laura receives through her earphones and the melancholy sounds of the wind on the beach and the crashing waves.

The arrival of boyfriend Francisco (who works at INCAA – National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts) doesn’t change things much as Laura continues to worry about the two young women. When she and Francisco leave at the end of their stay, the camera sneaks back to find Mr Red Shorts and the two women. A surprise ending is presented without much ceremony. The story concocted through Laura’s observations and assumptions has led to suggestions of a Hitchcockian narrative. Certainly it bears resemblance to one famous Hitchcock film but the big difference is that Laura does not attempt to intervene in any way. Her spying on these characters doesn’t seem to prompt any obvious self-reflection either.

‘Laura’ thinks the voices from next door are part of the unfolding story of possible abuse.

This is a slight film in some ways but it does have some power. I think this comes from careful pacing, some excellent camerawork and editing (by Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguillansky respectively) and a terrific performance by Laura Paredes. She’s in nearly every scene, often in close-up. We seem to become intimate with her and one reviewer refers to the film being ‘gently sensual’ which seems a good call. In some scenes we switch between close shots of Laura watching and long shots of one or more of the trio of characters under her observation. The other technique that stands out is switch focus with a very shallow depth of field used on occasions. This and the editing of dead ground, doorways, windows etc. adds to the disturbing feel of the mostly empty resort. Much of the final sequence which concludes the narrative of the trio is in long shot. Overall I found this an interesting little film – much achieved, seemingly with few resources.

¡Viva! 26 #5: Detrás de la Montaña (Beyond the Mountain, Mexico 2018)

Miguel is taken for ‘a few beers’ by his new boss

This year’s ¡Viva! festival at HOME in Manchester had to be curtailed in March when the pandemic erupted in the UK. HOME’s cinemas are now open again and the festival concluded during September. I’m still not feeling able to travel to cinemas but thanks to the festival, I’ve still got some screeners left to watch. I’ve so much enjoyed the festival over the last few years and I’ve missed the festival experience very much this time round so it’s great to have this opportunity to see some of the films.

Beyond the Mountain is a début fiction film by writer-director David R. Romay after a number of celebrated documentaries for cinema and TV with some high profile collaborators. This new film is billed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘drama’. It’s actually quite difficult to categorise. An opening scene sees a new father leaving a maternity ward without looking in on his wife and baby son. ’18 Years Later’ we meet the boy ‘Miguel’, now grown up, and earning a living in an agency where he types letters for people with poor writing skills. He’s attracted to one of his clients, Carmela, who sends letters to her boyfriend in the north. Miguel’s mother has never really come to terms with her husband’s abrupt departure and one day Miguel comes home to find her dead, clutching a letter to his father. He decides to try and find his father, packing a pistol he finds in a drawer with some ammunition.

Over 18 years the father, Arturo, has moved around and is now in Ciudad Juárez, the city in Chihuahua on the border with Texas and facing El Paso across the Rio Grande. The city has had a terrible reputation for violence between drug cartels but in this narrative it is remarkably quiet. Miguel is able to track down Arturo and also meets up with Carmela, who is not with her boyfriend (Miguel’s letters to him were colder than those she dictated). Although Miguel finds Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), he doesn’t declare himself as Arturo’s son. The final actions of the narrative reveal, but do not directly explain, what has happened. I won’t spoil that reveal.

What is the role of Carmela (Renée Sabina) in Miguel’s mission?

This is a relatively short film (around 90 minutes) that unrolls at a slow pace. It is beautifully shot in ‘Scope compositions and the final section on the border is particularly striking, reminding me in many ways of the Hollywood film Hud (1963) shot just on the other side of the border and which, now that I think about it, has some other shared elements. But though the strong aesthetic engages, the narrative requires equally strong performances to sustain it. Benny Emmanuel as Miguel is in virtually every scene and he adopts an almost anti-‘acting’ stance, looking down and taking his time to speak. He’s a good-looking young man but short and boyish, looking younger than 18. IMDb informs me that I must have seen him as a child in Sin Nombre (Mexico-US 2009). Since then he has appeared in various TV shows and films but is perhaps best known in Mexico for his social media presence, especially as co-host of a popular YouTube channel. He does well here. This is a masculine narrative about fathers and sons. It is worth noting that on his journey of ‘discovery’ Miguel is helped by two older men, one who knew his father and the other, José (Enrique Arreola), a man who offers him a job, who is simply friendly and generous. But I must agree with one reviewer that the narrative fails to develop the character of Carmela (Renée Sabina) enough. I do wonder what function her character is supposed to have in the narrative? Perhaps she had expected to find her boyfriend and cross the border into the US? I also wonder whether the narrative as a whole is a critique of Mexican men’s failure to express feelings and emotions? I understand that fathers abandoning their families is a significant problem in Mexico.

The director and his leading man on location for the final section of the narrative

To return to the categorisation of this film, I’m not sure describing it as a thriller is helpful. Certainly it is tense for much of the time as we fear for what will happen to Miguel or what he might do. Perhaps it is more of a mystery drama? Presumably the mountain is a metaphor for Arturo’s story and Miguel has to seek what is on the other side? I enjoyed watching the film but I would have enjoyed it more on the big screen – and I’m sorry I had to miss the festival introduction by Andy Willis.

Juste un regarde (Just One Look, France 2017)

Virginie Ledoyen as Eva with Max (Jean-Baptiste Blanc) and Salome (Joséphine Hélin)

Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.

In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.

Bastien (Thierry Neuvic) has escaped from his kidnappers

As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.

Jimmy Jean-Louis as Eric Toussaint

Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.

So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.

I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)

Savage (Les fauves, France 2018)

Laura (left, Rose-Lily Depp) and Anne (Aloïse Sauvage)

The online festival, ‘My French Film Festival’, is on offer again via Unifrance and various streaming platforms. You can sign up on this website. There are 12 features plus 19 short films on offer over a period of 28 days. In some territories the films are free to watch but in the UK I’m paying £7.14 for the features (the shorts are free). My first film is an 83 minute mystery film deemed suitable for any audience, though that is a French classification. It would probably be 12A in the UK.

Laura with the writer, Paul (Laurent Lafitte)

Les fauves begins with teenagers ‘making out’ in cars in a clearing when the sounds of a predatory animal growling are heard. The cars are all started up and they drive away. After the credits we find ourselves on a campsite somewhere by a river in the Dordogne. Laura and her cousin Anne are staking out a cabin on the campsite. When the family leave the cabin, the cousins break in and steal some cash which they spend in the camp’s café while flirting with two guys. Later we learn that there is a ‘rural myth’ that the campsite is threatened by a ‘big cat’, possibly a leopard, that the previous summer killed a man. These kinds of myths are quite common in the UK and I guess are likely to be even more familiar in France, a much bigger land mass with more remote regions. As a reviewer has pointed out there are also a couple of ‘big cat’ horror stories associated with the producer Val Lewton at RKO in the early 1940s. Cat People (1942) starring the French actor Simone Simon and The Leopard Man (1943) are actually quite different films but they both use the idea of a big cat prowling around people. Given the interest of French cinephilia in this kind of Hollywood ‘B’ picture material, it is possible that they have inspired a film like this. (But when I checked the Press Pack, the director’s comments revealed that he only thought of Cat People later on when he was shooting the film – and then he mentioned the Paul Schrader film.

The police officer (Camille Cottin). Note the scar beneath her eye.

Laura is a typical curious teenager. She determines to find out what is creating the fear in the campsite. Laura is played by Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp and as might be expected she is an attractive young woman when she smiles – but she spends much of her time with a sullen teenage scowl. Director Vincent Mariette and his co-writer Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq make Laura the central character by involving her in up to five separate ‘investigations’, four of which are directly concerned with the possibility of a predator in the forest. These will implicate her in the mystery of a young man who goes missing after Laura was the last person to see him one night. A female police officer questions Laura about her relationship with the young man and Laura’s cousin is still in touch with the young man’s friend. Laura also stalks a man on the site who she recognises as writer ‘Paul Baltimore’ and who might himself be investigating the possibility of a predator in the woods. She gets closer to Paul and she also engages with another young man, a worker at the site who takes his rifle to the woods, hoping to find and kill the ‘beast’. Finally someone is stealing Laura’s underwear. It’s probably Anne’s brother.

Paul and Laura explore the caves where the beast may be hiding. This is a region where pre-historic cave paintings like those at Lascaux show animal images

The film is a mere 83 minutes long and it could work as a ‘B’ picture – if cinemas still programmed double bills. But it needs more coherence as a narrative. It’s not a bad idea for a story but the script seems undeveloped and the narrative just seems to fizzle out. I’m assuming that the intention is to explore Laura’s ‘self-discovery’ and one of her investigations seems to make more of an emotional impact on her than the others. The director confirms this but he suggests a great deal of psychological motivation that didn’t make much sense to me – he also namedrops several other references that didn’t add much to my understanding of what he was trying to achieve. There is a tradition of films like this, arguably going back to Cat People and with a more modern cycle associated with Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000). But Les fauves (which I translate as ‘Wild Beasts’) doesn’t come close to the excitement of either of these earlier films. The cast features two established actors, Laurent Lafitte and Camille Cottin. I’m not sure what they expected from the script but they seem wasted on this material. I suspect that the film would have been more enjoyable if the setting had been used for a teen genre picture that followed a more conventional narrative.

This wasn’t a great start to my festival viewing in 2020 but I suspect that things will get better soon! Here’s the French trailer:

GFF19 #10: Rojo (Argentina-Brazil-France-Ger-Spain 2018)

The detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro in the foreground) and the lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) in the background

Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.

Claudio gives up his table in the restaurant to Diego (Diego Cremonesi)

These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.

A possible metaphor? People at the beach don glasses to watch the ‘red eclipse’

In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.

Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.