There’s nothing like an autumn season film festival that can drag me out of my hole than London Film Festival, this frenetic city’s premier twelve-day movie marathon. OK, it’s not exactly as prestigious as Cannes, or as glorious as Berlin or Venice, but this festival injects the much-needed High Art and Cinematic Joy to Londoners and visitors alike (at least those who can afford to shelve out shitload of pounds to see the latest from Jarmusch or Verhoeven). And the fact that there aren’t really any better film festivals around these isles that can lift the mood of this chilly post-Brexit Britain than #LFF, illustrating that we might as well embrace the blues. After all, there’s some warmth to be had in BFI’s rather agreeable programme selection this year.
Do bear with me, as I binge-watch the newest Lonergan, Mungiu, Chazelle, Assayas and Villeneuve – practically everything I can lay my eyes on with whatever free time I possess, and catch as many films as my brain cells can cope with. As any professional Londoner will have you know, life in this metropolis is fucking hectic, so the cinema, for some, is a luxury. So despite being busy with life, I shall escape momentarily to the movies, be grand and luxurious and write either bold or self-deprecating words in this infinitesimal blog, and hopefully champion the films that deserve real attention (instead of your usual overpraised shit that smears your screens these days).
Park Chan-wook does not disappoint. Not only he has compellingly transposed Sarah Waters’s source novel Fingersmith into 1910s Colonial Korea, but he has also given us one of the most unapologetic, breathtakingly bold films of the year, packing exquisite storytelling nuance and world-class filmmaking craft in one head-spinning, jaw-dropping, one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. It’s a full-bodied piece of gothic noir melodrama that’s so magnificently composed that nearly every frame is a masterclass in mise-en-scène, matched with a deliriously twisty narrative that’ll have anyone squirming into their seats. And that’s before Park serves up some heady erotica, depicting scenes of female lovemaking that, to place in context against film’s sadistic, repellent male oppression, becomes gloriously, cathartically romantic. Basically put, The Handmaiden flipped my head seven ways to Sunday, made my brain cells do pirouettes and sweat-glands do proper workout.
In light of the Philippines’ current political landscape, Brilliante Mendoza’s gritty, unrelentingly bleak drug-trade drama forces the kind of perspective that powerful social realist films hammers home what it’s actually like to be under the regime of poverty. While incumbent President Duterte has waged war against the drug trade by unleashing extrajudicial massacre of both dealers and users, director Mendoza allows us to see that it’s never black-and-white. In the hardscrabble capital of Manila, a matriarch survives through illegal means to feed a family and is subsequently enforced to deal with a corrupt bunch of policemen. Ma’ Rosa isn’t always consistent in portraying its protagonist’s whirlwind of emotions, but when it truly delivers, it’s morally and emotionally reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica’s Italian neorealist opus Bicycle Thieves.
Far too few films have deconstructed black masculinity as it were an armour against a brutal sociological construct. In this case, Moonlight should be praised for having the temerity and intelligence for laying bare what it means to be homosexual and black in contemporary America. Barry Jenkins’ three-act melodrama encompasses three vital periods of its protagonist’s conflicted life, and while the middle chapter borders of the cliché, it finds quiet beauty and poetry in others. Undeniable in its beauteous aesthetics and thoughtful study on the ‘alpha male’, it somehow lacks the cathartic power to truly elevate this into the pantheon of great cinema. Jenkins does achieve one ravishing scene though: an aching Wong Kar Wai-esque diner scene near the film’s end that’s as tender and moving as any best moment captured this year.
Diabolical horror only really achieves its maximal potent force when its left undefined and unrestrained. Such is the approach of this incredibly protean South Korean import that it defies linear explanation, let alone easy genre categorisation. But practically put, absolute shit hits the proverbial fan in The Wailing, where all fucked-up things befall in a rural Korean village that includes demonic possessions, mass murders and supernatural activities. It builds such an intense crescendo of pitch-black humour and heart-stopping terror, with its last 40 mins or so sustaining a theatrical cardiac arrest unit. And yet, none of it is explained, which makes it even more frightening. It’s as if director Na Hong-Jin took the premise of Park Chan-wooks’s great police procedural Memories of Murder, opened the gates of hell and rained all existential darkness on it.
It’s no surprise that the tragic figure of Christine Chubbuck has spawned not one but two features this year – Robert Greene’s portraiture documentary Kate Plays Christine and this one, Antonio Campos’s dramatisation of the events that led to the 1974 on-air suicide by a news anchor. For Chubbuck’s self-imposed fate is so steeped in urban legend that the public has somehow forgotten the isolated, complex woman at its centrepiece. And that’s exactly what Campos attempts to achieve here, by narrowing everything to the woman, her inner malaise, her fraught professional life and distraught psychology. Instead of playing it as a straightforward satire à la Network, Christine gives us a haunting character drama with a ferocious, magnificently pitched performance by Rebecca Hall, who unpeels layers of pain, angst and distress, allowing us to comprehend the very forces behind that conclusive gunshot.
Damien Chazelle, bless him, has flung, pirouetted and jazzed his new feature all the way into crowd-pleasing triumph that it’s nearly impossible to fault anything without being prompted with a “go fuck yourself, you cynical bastard” admonition. His retro-inspired musical La La Land sends a soaringly beautiful ode to the dreamers and soul-searchers of the Hollywood boulevards, paying nods to the MGM musicals of its heyday and cinematic chansons of the Nouvelle Vague. But what’s even more wondrous, it’s totally drunk and intoxicated with Jacques Demy’s masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that Chazelle lifts the entire narrative backbone and appropriates it to this tale as old as time: star-crossed lovers sing and dance their way into each other hearts until reality grabs hold of their lives. It’s a familiar song, but one you can’t stop listening to, featuring the career-best performances from both Stone and Gosling.
I doubt there’ll be any other film this year that will have me crying and laughing altogether as Maren Ade’s sublime Toni Erdmann, a film that’s bursting with human wisdom, pathos and beautifully rendered observation of loneliness. What initially plays like an arthouse take on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa immediately transforms into a profound comedy about family and the strains of modern life, lending every single scene with an incredible mixture of funny-sad-melancholic undertow that you’ll hardly notice the complexity of human dynamics that plays around in Ade’s dexterous screenplay. What is more, the father figure and his comic creation Mr Erdmann becomes a quintessence of life’s greatest rebellion against tribulations – humour. Think of him as a huge-hearted human hero, sweeping into Bucharest to save his deeply lonely, stressed-out daughter from the mad, mad, corporate-ridden world. An awe-inspiring reminder to humanity to stop being so goddamn serious all the time.