Leeds Film Festival Report no. 1

Leeds International Film Festival kicked off last Wednesday with a double screening of Gravity – and is now in full swing. Armed with a Festival Pass and an envelope full of tickets I’ve seen 11 films in 4 days and have many more to come. In this, the first of several updates, I’ll take a look at the first batch of films I’ve seen: the good, the bad and the weird.

Most of the films on during the festival have multiple screenings and with tickets left for many of them, usually at a very reasonable price, I’d highly recommend anyone in the area having a look at the programme for the next week or so.  With 4 main branches – The Official Selection, Retrospectives, Fanomenon (cult films) and Cineme Versa (docs) there’s a huge variety of films on and I’ve split my time between upcoming films and filling in some glaring omissions in my watched list. I’ve also previewed several upcoming BFFS Booking Scheme Titles and I will highlight those as I go.

Wakolda | Lucía Puenzo | 2013 | Argentina, France, Spain, Norway | 93 min
(Booking Scheme title, Summer 2014 TBC)

The real identity of the charismatic German doctor Helmut Gregor, who arrives in a small Patagonian town in 1960 and wrangles his way into the trust of a family who run a hotel is, contrary to the film’s synopsis, not the real mystery of the film. In fact many people will have figured it out before the film begins, and the opening voiceover almost gives the game away. Instead the question is just what Gregor is planning to do with this family. Their daughter, Lilith, particularly interests him given that her premature birth has stunted her growth leaving her with the body of an 8 year old at 12 years of age. There is much about Gregor that is suspicious: he pays 6 months in advance at the hotel before they have even officially opened, and though he assures them that his wife will join him soon she is never heard of again. He knows many of the town’s German community but rather than treat him as a friend they treat him as if he were their leader. As shady as Gregor is, Àlex Brendemühl’s performance perfectly straddles the line between terrifying and charming and it is easy to see why he is able to win so many people’s trust. Florencio Bado, in her first role, is a tremendous discovery as Lilith and gives an equally good performance. Wakolda is an engrossing and discomforting film, with a terrific final act, and is sure to play well among almost any audience.

Circles | Srdan Golubovic | Serbia, Crotia, Slovenia, France, Germany | 2013 | 112 min

In the brief prologue set during the Bosnian war a group of soldiers confront and violently attack Haris, a Muslim shopkeeper. Another soldier, Marko, intervenes and allows Haris to escape, at which point Circles leaps fifteen years forward where we learn that Marko was subsequently murdered by the soldiers who felt humiliated by his intercession. Circles then focuses on the emotional wounds caused by the event and how this one act of violence has affected Marko’s family and friends as well as the perpetrators and their families. For the most part I was very impressed but Haris’ story is weakened by a character who has none of the depth or understanding present in the rest of Circles‘ characters and comes across as a stereotypical villain figure. Apart from that however Circles is a powerful and uncomfortable depiction of guilt, remorse, suffering and love.

Harakiri | Masaki Kobayashi | 1962 | Japan | 133 min

An unemployed and destitute samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo, arrives at the House of Iyi and requests permission to use their courtyard to commit ritual suicide. As Japan is currently experiencing a prolonged period of peace there are countless impoverished ronin and the representative of the House of Iyi informs him that after a samurai visited another House and made the same request he was given money in exchange for leaving. Since them many samurai have been attempting to copy the tactic in order to extort money. Suspecting that this is Hanshiro’s aim the representative tells him the gory story of the previous samurai who visited the House of Iyi and made the request without intending to go through with it. Hanshiro is undaunted and declares that he has every intention of committing suicide as long as they hear his story; a tale that reveals the hypocrisy of the code of honour.
As both a critique of the feudal system and a gripping drama Harakiri succeeds on all counts and is a truly sublime piece of cinema.

Possession | Andrzej Zulawski | 1981 | France, West Germany | 118 min

I was awestruck by Possession. It is a singularly demented, twisted and bizarre film; hysterical and excessive. Originally banned as one of the Video Nasties Possession was eventually released uncut in 1999 and features an absolutely fearless performance by Isabelle Adjani who seemingly throws herself into every word, gesture or movement.  I loved every minute of it.  

It opens with Sam Neill’s character, Mark, returning home from a secretive business trip for which he is paid with a briefcase full of cash. Returning home to his wife Anna and son Bob he finds that Anna no longer wants to see him. He reluctantly agrees to leave her and Bob in the flat and moves into a hotel. After a bout of depression he returns to the flat only to find that Anna has vanished and left Bob to fend for himself. Mark learns that Anna has been seeing another man and initially believes she is staying with him and indeed speaks to a man on the phone who claims that Anna is with him. Yet when Mark finds Heinrich, Anna’s lover, he claims not to have seen Anna for weeks and believed she was staying with Mark. Gradually Mark’s paranoia-fuelled investigations into Anna’s secrets uncover an altogether more monstrous and horrifying reason for her behaviour.
I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite like it.

After Lucia | Michel Franco | 2012 | Mexico, France | 103 min

If there’s been one recurring drawback to the films at Leeds so far it has been the cop-out ending; a predilection for abrupt fade-to-blacks that don’t end the film on an ambiguous or thought-provoking note but rather cut the story short. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding closure at the end of a film, in fact I waxed lyrical about it being done right in my review of The Comedian, but there is certainly a problem when it leaves you with the impression that the director has simply run out of ideas. While Stranger By The Lake and The Future are guilty of it to an extent (the ending almost works in the former and went down better with others) there is no greater culprit than After Lucia. The final shot, in and of itself, is actually rather impressive but ending the film on it leaves just about every beat of the story up in the air and announces an unexpected (and I would argue unbelievable) genre shift. 

I didn’t find much to like in the rest of the film either – an unremittingly bleak and gruelling bullying drama that portrays most of it’s teenage characters as terrifying sadists. It’s an undeniably tough and painful watch, but one which I felt went unrewarded, thanks in part to the aforementioned ending but also because it both tells us nothing new about human nature and does so in such an extreme manner. That said the film has been drawing some very impressive reviews elsewhere and it’s clear that many others found a lot to admire in the film. At the very least it’s a divisive film which could make for interesting programming.

Computer Chess | Andrew Bujalski | 2013 | USA | 92 min
(Booking Scheme title, Spring 2014 TBC)

In the early 80’s a group of programmers descend on a hotel for the annual Computer Chess tournament an unusually competitive battle of programming expertise that sees rival chess programmes compete for the chance to play against a human chess master. The teams are host to a delectable selection of eccentrics: one claims that his programme is being monitored by the FBI, another believes his team’s programme refuses to play against other computers but is incredibly successful against human opponents.  Amongst them is Michael Papageorge, a perpetually frustrated programmer who finds himself left without a  room and whose midnight wanderings are some of the most enjoyable scenes in the film. Filmed in an amateur documentary style Computer Chess authentically recreates every detail of the period and is funny and delightfully offbeat in equal measure.

Concrete Night | Pirjo Honkasalo | 2013 | Finland, Sweden, Denmark | 96 min

Shot in stunning black and white this dreamlike film follows 14-year old Simo and his older brother Ilkka over Ilkka’s final weekend of freedom before he is due to go to prison. Ilkka’s crimes are never revealed but at first he refuses to leave the house and sends Simo out to buy beers or food. On his last day however Simo and Ilkka wander the streets looking for a place that will serve Simo alcohol while Ilkka dispenses suspect theories on women, the future and family. As the night draws in they are split up and both experience tragic encounters. A very moody film, visually stunning, unique and uncommonly powerful.

Fortress | Lukás Kokes & Klára Tasovská | 2012 | Czech Republic | 70 min

Though formed over 20 years ago the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is an unrecognised state internationally and its existence is entirely reliant on the presence of Russian peacekeepers putting Moldova off an invasion. This documentary is an exceedingly rare look at a totalitarian Communist state. I was initially fascinated by the very existence of this country and its bizarre state propaganda.  The interviewees in the documentary are a mixture of state supporters, hard-line patriots and those who have suffered the state’s ill wrath. Whether due to poor lighting or pollution the capital, where most of the film is shot, is usually seen in a very sickly light. The state’s treacherous existence is unavoidable and the different participants in the film exhibit this fear in very different and illuminating ways. Unfortunately an extended look at their New Year celebrations at the end of the film goes on too long when more insights into everyday life would have been welcome.

Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France | 2013 | 100 min
(Booking Scheme title, Summer 2014 TBC)

Set solely along the shore of a lake, the car park and the woods surrounding the lake Stranger by The Lake is a slow-burning thriller that makes the location a central part of the film’s simmering tension. In interviews the director mentions that he chose to set the film along a lakeside rather than a beach because he wanted the horizon to be much closer. It’s a wise decision and over the course of the film this idyllic lake begins to feel more and more claustrophobic.
Taking place over the course of a scorching summer week amongst a cruising spot for gay men Stranger by the Lake focuses initially on Franck and Henri. Henri is recently divorced man and has no interest in sex and is instead just looking for company to stave off his loneliness. Franck however is enraptured with Michel and when Michel’s boyfriend is found drowned in the lake Franck is unable to resist seeing Michel even though he believes that Michel is the murderer. The conflict between desire and fear is at the centre of the film’s palpable tension, and Guiraudie exhibits a remarkable talent for building suspense.

The Future | Alicia Scherson | 2013 |  Italy, Chile, Germany, Spain | 94 min

A mostly disappointing adaptation of a Roberto Bolaño story. As a huge fan of Bolaño I was curious as to whether or not the film could capture the weird atmosphere of Bolaño’s stories. Perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t and the parts where dialogue seems to be lifted directly from the page (I can’t say for sure as the novel is yet to be translated into English), don’t work at all. Bianca and Tomas are orphaned by the death of their parents in a car crash and struggle to make ends meet from what’s left of their father’s pension. Tomas befriends a couple of older men at the nearby gym who unexpectedly move into their flat and eventually convince Bianca to help them rob a reclusive ex-Mr Universe and film star (who calls himself Maciste, the Italian name for Hercules) played by Rutger Hauer. Bianca is tasked with seducing and gaining his trust in order to find out where he keeps his substantial fortune.

The scenes between Bianca and Maciste are the film’s best but the film lurches between styles – an over saturated intro is doubled with B-Movie style credits and looks terrible – while Scherson frequently adds weird sound effects to the background – the rumblings of solar flares, scratches and so on – which I struggled to see the point of. Many of Bolaño’s stories end in mystifying circumstances, or very abruptly, and it only works because the plot is usually secondary to a sense of mood, place and character where everything feels like it could suddenly descend into madness, violence or an abyss, an atmosphere which Scherson tries hard to replicate but is unable to.

I also rewatched 2001: A Space Odyssey because the opportunity to see it on the big screen was too tempting to resist. A marvellous film that hardly needs my recommendation.

Part 2 can be read here.

2 thoughts on “Leeds Film Festival Report no. 1”

Comments are closed.