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After a somewhat slow start, the Festival came through with a few excellent films in City and Certain Kind, but already the Festival seemed to be quickly ending. Unfortunately, again, Spring Fling decided to fall right during the Festival, making it almost impossible for me to see anything on Friday and Saturday night. My week beforehand was packed pretty well, though, accordingly.
From the director of the UltraViolent 2002 Festival film Versus comes Aragami, a tightly directed, compact and dazzling samurai duel genre film. Reigning in the madcap pacing of Versus, Kitamura gives himself time to build up and flesh out his characters thanks to a minimalist story featuring one setting and three actors. Hideo Sakaki and Tak Sakaguchi are superb as the duelists, slowing building the honor and respect for each other that befits a proper battle to the death. Kitamura still lets his playfulness come out in his snappy dialogue and fast action, but makes it all the more successful by tempering it with more restained moments. Kitamura takes his time building up the action, but the film's short running time means we certainly never get bored and the payoff is even better for the waiting. By the time the two samurai stare each other down with icy, icy determination, we know that the fun is just beginning. The movie was likely filmed quickly, but the fight choreography is stunning and Kitamura's direction keeps us glued to the action. In one particularly dazzling scene, Kitamura even cuts out the candles, letting the only light come from the sudden, lightning clashes of the swords. Even after the duel ends, the film keeps the game moving and finishes with yet another rush of energy. Again, complaints would likely be be about the film's limited aspirations, but as we've seen in other films in the Festival, there is something refreshing about familiarity done with a gloss of perfection. Kitamura has now two successes under his belt and continues to make his case for attention in the world of new Japanese cinema.
Again, I think there's no need to question what caught my eye about this film, but it turned out to be a refreshing change of pace to go from Aragami to a film that takes many of the same concepts of honor, loyalty, and revenge evident in Kitamura's film, but puts them in a brand new context that compliments the themes while also bringing out new facets of them. Take a conventional samurai training film, complete with sadistic headmasters, rebellous neophytes, and plenty of blood and violent, but move it to a brothel with a chilly lesbian headmistress, a tempestuous new prostitute, and the same violent madness and you've got a fun film to watch! Yuan delights in playing with convention and keeps us engaged with the same motifs and themes that we've seen in other films before, but have never seen from such an original perspective. By the time the headmistress is licking the open wounds of the newly beaten courtesan, we don't know what the hell we're seeing exactly, but it's certainly something different. There isn't a great deal to be said about the film without going into a history of Chinese cinema that I don't have the time or knowledge for. Taken just as what it is, it's as fun a trip as it seems it should be, ass-kicking, domineering lesbian headmistresses and all.
Picked on the spur of the moment to complete my Ten Pass, I was pleasantly surprised by Pat O'Neill latest experimental film, a quietly elegant meditation on the connections between physical decay and artistic decay. O'Neill sets his film in the dank, musty, dilapidated halls of the Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood. Once a glittering highlight of young Hollywood, it is now a relic of an era of grandeur and tinsel. As the camera slinks around the halls, actors in period costumes haunt in and out of the picture, ghosts trapped within the myth of the hotel. The decay is not simply a physical one for the building, but a figurative one for the mythology and fiction contained within the history of the hotel itself. Once a home of the Academy Awards and the site of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the walls of the hotel contain the haunting memories of intense loss and high glamour and fashion. The various actors seem fragments from films from the era or simply memories from the substantial history of the hotel. The time-lapse photography gives an otherworldly quality to the hotel, making these ghosts appear out of time, completely disconnected from normal reality. The film hints at a narrative structure and almost seems to tie stories together, but everything remains just out of our reach, just illusionary enough to keep the theme of decay alive. This break from reality takes a more prevalent focus in the various surreal interjections O'Neill places throughout the film (can you say, "large naked woman doing a cartwheel?"). The film's gorgeous photography and seamless editing keeps it easy to watch, but, sad to say, like many of the experimental films I've seen, I couldn't help wishing it would end a little sooner. O'Neill makes a strong point with his film, but the lack of an underlying structure means that there isn't too much propelling the film forward by the end, when the technical success is no longer enthralling us and the message has already been made pretty clearly. Still, it is a very watchable film and another success by O'Neill.
Coming from the director of the first film I ever saw for the Philadelphia Film Festival, the pitch black comedy 6ixtynin9 (in 2001), his follow-up film is somewhat of a disappointment. I should preface this review, however, by saying that at this point my sheer tiredness from having not slept the night before had DEFINITELY caught up with me and sleep was an unavoidable enemy. I'm still not sure how I made it through Decay, but I couldn't make it a great deal further. So, I probably didn't give Transistor a great chance, but, at the same time, I think it certainly could have done a better job holding my wavering attention. We follow hapless singer Pan, who wants nothing more than to live happily with his love Sadaw. However, when he is drafted into the army, separated from his wife, and forced to go AWOL, the troubles begin. After spending years forging a pop music career, he needs to decide how to win back his life, avoid the military still on the watch for him, and write himself a happy ending. The leads are charasmatic enough to give the script a jolt, but the path seems familiar and overall something vibrant is missing from the film. The cheery, poppy music permeates the movie, but its spirit should as well and the film seems a bit disconnected. Again, I'll say that this could be because I was a bit disconnected that night, but regardless, I was hoping for more from Ratanaruang's film.
Despite this somewhat lowkey ending, the Festival was a joy to attend again this year and I look forward to having the chance next year as well. Favorite films were The City of No Limits, Aragami, and A Certain Kind of Death with least favorite probably being Mon-Rak Transistor or Aro Tolbulkhin. As always, I look forward to the chance to discuss any of these films (or any glaring grammatical mistakes I've made)...just drop me an email at email@example.com. Until then, it's late, another big batch of reviews are done, and sweet, sweet sleep is just about calling me. Until later...
Philadelphia Film Festival
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