London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 2

After the hit and miss of the previous day, I was pretty sure I would be on safer ground for my next two cinematic excursions.

One of the most eagerly awaited films of the festival for me was Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps – and I’m pleased to report that it didn’t let me down.

Alps

Lanthimos broke out from the cudgels of the festival circuit with his 2009 film Dogtooth, a highly original, visually striking and often disturbing satirical drama that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars.

Often, the weight of expectation on a director to strike gold again and follow-up a critically lauded film with something equally as impressive is too much to handle and the result can end up as too self-indulgent for its own good. But Lanthimos clearly understands these pitfalls and in Alps has employed much of the same formula that made Dogtooth so fascinating, while also creating a whole new beast.

Alps begins by introducing each of the main characters at work, whether that be in a hospital, caring for a blind, elderly woman or training to become a rhythmic gymnast. At first it appears there is no connection between these people, but then they assemble together to form a new group called Alps.

Why Alps? As the group’s leader (Aggeliki Papoulia) explains, the mountains of the Alps cannot be replaced by any other mountain; however, these peaks can replace other mountains – the perfect metaphor for the purpose of the group; namely to act as substitutes for the deceased in order to help their grieving loved ones. For a price of course.

It’s an absurd notion, but Lanthimos creates a  world where such things seem eminently possible, logical even. After all, why not assist in the grieving process if people choose to pay for such a service?

However, it’s not as easy as that, of course, especially when the members of Alps (who all name themselves after its mountains – the leader naturally snaps up the title Mont Blanc, its tallest peak) are damaged souls in their own right. The adage “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” has never been more appropriately applied.

They spend so much of their time pretending to be other people, be it a woman’s dead husband, or a talented young  female tennis player who has died following a car wreck, that they begin to lose all sense of self identity, to the extent where one of the group can no longer live her ‘real’ life and instead chooses to exist as a dead person, whether the deceased girl’s grieving parents want her or not.

Just as in Dogtooth, Lanthimos shows no fear, giving us a set of characters who exist in the bubbles they have created, or have been created for them. The blackly comic dialogue, often delivered in a totally deadpan fashion speaks to the absurdity of the situations these characters find themselves in, without ever winking at the audience.

Although Lanthimos may not have intended it, the mood of Alps rather speaks to what is happening in the director’s native Greece at the moment, where its citizens must feel that another reality, any other reality is preferable to the one they are being forced to live through right now.

Although world cinema is becoming a far easier concept to embrace thanks to film festivals and, more significantly, the digital age there remains a bias towards American film – or rather movies in the English language. Sure, there are new waves crashing in from eastern Europe (specifically Romania), South America and South East Asia, but the directors who helm these acclaimed films are still largely unknown outside of their native countries, and can struggle to make a name for themselves unless they suck it up and come to Hollywood.

One director who broke out a long time ago and has garnered a truly international reputation – without ever feeling the need to work abroad – is Japan’s Takashi Miike. Miike has been more prolific than Woody Allen in his 20-plus years as a director, regularly churning out two or three movies a year.

He rose to international prominence with his gut-churning 1999 masterpiece Audition, and in the intervening years has been rattling cages with a series of controversial films, most notably the jaw-dropping Ichi The Killer (2001).

Then in 2010 he had his biggest international hit for years with Thirteen Assassins (check out my blog for last year’s LFF to read a review). Restrained by Miike’s standards, Thirteen Assassins was nevertheless a gloriously violent samurai flick, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai and which featured one of the most awe-inspiring set-piece battles ever seen on screen.

Miike treads similar ground with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, based on a story by Yasuhiko Takiguchi and a loose remake of  Masaki Kobayahi’s 1962 film Harkiri, regarded as one of the greatest films ever to come out of Japan.

Hara-Kira: Death of a Samurai

The outbreak of peace during the early 17th Century in the castle town of Edo (now Tokyo) under the Shogun has meant  disaster for the samurai, who have been reduced to penniless, impoverished ronin. Times are so tough that some have seen no alternative but to approach noble houses and request that they be allowed to use their premises to perform ritual suicide.

Many nobles are sympathetic to the plight of these samurai and talk them out of it, providing them with money and quietly ushering them away. However, as news of this quick cash solution gets out, some samurai employ the tactic of  ‘suicide bluffing’ – pretending to ask for hara-kari, while secretly hoping and expecting to be bought off.

When ronin Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at the House of Li, making this same request, feudal lord Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) tells him a story of another warrior, Motome (Eita) who got far more than he bargained for when his bluff was called and his ‘wish’ granted.

Realising he has no choice, the terrified Motome unsheathes not a metal sword, but one made of bamboo, leading to a quite horrific and prolonged death for the tragic samurai.

However, it transpires that Hanshiro is all-too aware of Motome’s fate and has come to the House of Li to exact his revenge on Kageyu and the senior lieutenants who sealed the young warrior’s fate.

With Thirteen Assassins and now Hari-Kiri, Miike is moving forward in his career by looking back to a classical period in Japanese cinema. But that’s not to say Miike is necessarily aping his forebears, he’s simply too daring a film-maker for that and here presents a familiar story of love, betrayal, tragedy and death in a bold and striking way.

One fluffed note, however, is the pointless use of 3D. It’s not surprising that Miike has employed Hollywood’s favourite new toy – he’s as keen as any director out there – but Hara-Kiri wasn;t the wisest choice frankly as the 3D adds nothing to the experience of watching the film; a sentiment that can be applied to 99% of 3D films, but that’s a separate conversation.

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