Edinburgh International Film Festival '14: Five Reviews

Koo! Kin-dza-dza (dir. Georgiy Daneliya & Tatiana Ilyna)

Image courtesy of EIFF

Present day Moscow. World famous cellist and cultural snob Vladimir Chizov and wannabe hipster DJ Tolik are accidentally catapulted onto a strange and desolate planet known as Puke. How will they make it back to Earth? This is the premise of Koo! Kin-dza-dza, an animated remake of the homonymous 1986 Soviet sci-fi satire. 

It's refreshing too see an animation that doesn't have to rely on CGI or 3D, especially when it skillfully infuses a picaresque story line with the absurdist touches of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In the dune world of Pluke, inhabitants fall into two main categories - Patsaks and Chatlanians (the latter being the dominant people), a humble match (known as a ketse) is the most valuable item, and common sense doesn't seem to apply as strict hierarchies extend to the colour of pants one wears. The two main characters must fight their way through unreliable journey companions, perennial bribes and cacophony-loving  grandmothers. The comic darkness of this dystopian universe is  occasionally provided with light relief: it's hard not too smile when Vladimir plays his cello for an unusually appreciative and rather timid Plukian creature, or when Vladimir and Tolik seem to finally make an emotional connection.

For all its analogue ambition, Koo! Kin-dza-dza is far from perfect -  clocking in at 96 minutes, it feels overlong, leaving us with the impression that the script could have been much tighter in parts. 

Seeing this film presented again in the 21st century, when the USSR has become a distant memory makes for thought-provoking viewing, as its powerful depiction of laughable hierarchical structures, corruption and racism still resonates in contemporary Europe.

Koo! Kin-dza-dza 27 June, 18:15 at Odeon 2

[Erika Sella]

Anatomy of a Paperclip (dir. Akira Ikeda)

Director Ikeda Akira has stated that his starting point  for Anatomy of a Paperclip was his wish to create the modern equivalent of a Japanese folk tale.

The quiet, submissive Kogure is certainly the kind of character that can be found time and time again in both literature and film (his body language and tubby, inexpressive appearance reminded me Italian popular cinema staple Fantozzi); the linear simplicity and even pacing of the storyline (matched by the minimalist, deliberately two-dimensional and immaculately balanced, often symmetrical shots) are also somewhat reminiscent of a parable. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

The flat cinematography also complements the deadpan humour that springs from a world that has become devoid of pleasure - this is Japan, but not as we know it. Kugore lives in a small, bare room, works in a factory (which actually looks like a converted garage) where he is repeatedly abused by his horrific boss, survives on horrible food and is regularly taunted by a couple of thugs who have a penchant for stealing his clothes. This routine is gradually eroded by the vision of a butterfly (a presence usually loaded with meaning in Japanese culture) and the consequent appearance of a woman who speaks gibberish (a 'language' that was invented by the filmmaker) and decides to move into Kogure's bedsit without an explanation.

At the press screening, a fellow viewer felt that Anatomy of a Paperclip was 'essentially a Japanese remake of Eraserhead'; while the bleak, quietly hysterical  atmosphere that pervades the film may certainly recall some aspects of David Lynch's output, I felt this statement detracts from the film's complexity. This is a mysterious and often profound film; a poignant (yet very funny) comment about human nature and the meaning of interpersonal connections. 

Anatomy of a Paperclip, 28 June, 13:15 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]

Displaced Perssons (dir. Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren) 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Pelle Persson is one of the most intriguing characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter on the big screen; perhaps inspired by a childhood adventure book (having recently watched Mark Cousin's A Story of Children and Film, I was reminded of Palle Alone in the World, and not simply because of the similarity of the main character's name), he sets off to adventure as soon as he is old enough to drive, living and working in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He eventually settles in Lahore, Pakistan, where he marries Shamin, and has two daughters. As his children reach adulthood, he finds that his liberal parenting idea clash with the local customs (the girls find they can't leave the house by themselves), and decides to return to his native Sweden. But can you ever go home again? 

This is a documentary that tackles complex issues such as identity, the meaning of national cultures and of family ties. It's hard not to like the Perssons as they face their Swedish adventure with defiance and a great deal of humour, but also with fear and maybe some regret; the camera only needs to sit back and watch them, letting the occasional title card guide us through the passing of time. We see the deadpan Shamin braving the freezing winter and unenthusiastically learning Swedish, Pelle having to prove to the local bureaucrats that he still exists in order to receive his pension, their daughter Zahra struggling with life-changing decisions. There is no place for stereotype here - both Sweden and Pakistan are represented in ways that we not normally accustomed to. We are faced with a family that don't conform to the narratives we are fed by the popular press: Pelle, Sharmin, Zahra and Mia all prove that identity is something complex, fluid and not necessarily defined by a country of birth, and that love and family really can overcome the biggest difficulties. As soppy as that might sound, there was not a dry eye at the screening - Displaced Perssons delivers the kind emotional punch that is becoming increasingly rare. Do not miss.

Displaced Perssons, 27 June, 18:10 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]

Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

It’s quite startling that an actor better known as Captain America (AKA Chris Evans…no, not that one) to many should be the protagonist of a film that critiques Capitalism quite so overtly (if in an occasionally naïve, often daft way). The premise is a bit silly but clearly analogous: in a post-apocalyptic world, a train rattles around the world carrying three groups of people, the last humans left on Earth – an elite that lives at the luxurious front, a servile group that do their bidding, and lumpenproletariat that dwell in slum-like carriages at the rear. Evans’ Curtis leads a revolt, blood is shed and a fable of the perils of Capital emerges through action setpieces and a great deal of humour. It does feel a little lacking in nuance in its politics and is silly in that comic-book-film way at times, but is enjoyable all the same. John Hurt expertly plays the wise old man, Tilda Swinton is a hilariously grotesque Lancastrian spokesperson, Kang-ho Song amuses as the drug-addled security expert and Jamie Bell is an entertaining sidekick (if a little heavy on the Oirish Eejit schtick) to Evans’ hirsute and oh-so-tortured American hero. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Snowpiercer may struggle to escape the inherent limitations of its form but is entertaining with both heart and head in the right place. One can’t help but feel that Harvey Weinstein has probably bludgeoned Joon-ho Bong’s film into something more straightforward for Anglophone audiences than it may have been in the form shown to audiences in South Korea and elsewhere, but entertains and manages to be not entirely brainless with it, which is more than can be said yer average comic book (sorry, graphic novel) adaptation.

Snowpiercer, 28 June, 20:15 at Cineworld 3

[Andrew R. Hill]

The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil (dir. John McGrath)

Buried treasure screened on Saturday afternoon as a part of Dick Fiddy of the BFI’s lovingly programmed Border Warfare: John McGrath’s Work in TV, Theatre, & Film thread at the EIFF 2014. John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil shouldn’t work; a Brechtian play filmed live (audience and all) with inserted dramatised exterior scenes (with different actors from those in the play), contemporary interviews with real people, Gaelic folk songs, Scottish country dancing and old-fashioned one-liner comedy collide in an hour and a half that is by turns tragic, didactic, polemical and hilarious.

The play takes three instances of the Scottish Highlands being carved up by outside forces, from the Clearances through to the Victorian stag hunting playground to North Sea oil. An unashamed attack on Capitalism, The Cheviot… is a breath-taking work of deceptive complexity – detailed, rich, informative, entertaining and moving. That it was screened on BBC One is astonishing now, especially on a weekend where the BBC News has proven itself to be little more than the propaganda wing of the Tory government, failing to report 50,000 people marching from its own headquarters to protest anti-austerity measures. That the film has yet to be released on DVD is, sadly, not much of a surprise – and, no, a screening on BBC Alba in 2012 isn’t enough (and Auntie’s tack has shifted all too far in the wrong direction in the interim). Luckily, YouTube saves the day – it  really is essential viewing. 

The EIFF should be commended for unshowily yet unashamedly political programming, in an era where artists (by which I include filmmakers, musicians and writers) seem content to shy away from politics altogether, for fear of alienating audiences – audiences that are often very receptive. John McGrath certainly was no such artist and the opportunity to discover (or, indeed, rediscover) his work is an unmissable opportunity.

[Andrew R. Hill]

EIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film

Following the making of his fifteen and a half hour epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a project that took six years to shoot – Mark Cousins made the poetic film essay What is this film called Love? in just three days, a film that was a meditation on the nature of happiness (among other things). What is this film called Love? functioned as a kind of creative palate-cleanser for Cousins and, unlike the herculean effort of The Story of Film, was spontaneous, unplanned. A Story of Children and Film (that indefinite article is important) feels, in more ways than one, to be a meeting of the two films, a historiography of cinema through a personal prism, prompted by a chance incidence of home recording.

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

The film was inspired by an unplanned recording of Cousins’ niece and nephew playing in his Edinburgh flat one morning and takes its structural queues from the themes he found in this ad hoc footage (and then some). These themes encompass shyness, social class, the strop, enacted parenting, conflict, dreams and adventure (among others). In his distinctive and captivating (captivated, even) Ulster brogue, Cousins leads us through fifty-one films from Denmark in the ‘40s (Palle Alone In The World), Iran in the ‘70s (Two Solutions For One Problem), Japan in the ‘90s (Children In The Wind) and the USA of the current decade (Moonrise Kingdom); his selection encompasses directors as diverse as Bill Douglas, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel to explore his chosen themes.

At one point the unnatural (actually somewhat creepy) performance of Shirley Temple in Irving Cummings’ Curly Top is contrasted with Margaret O’Brien’s bum note laden duet with Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis, Cousins remarks that "We are spellbound by [O’Brien]” – we are, but we’re spellbound by this film too, entirely apposite given its subject; we marvel with childlike wonder at both children in cinema and at cinema itself. This only serves to illustrate and underline the thrust of the film, “Could it be that kids are movies? That the movies are kids?” That would be an eye-rolling moment had these questions come at the end of a film that did not so subtly nudge us towards this conclusion all the way through, and it’s a very convincing argument, beguilingly executed. Cinema in its purest experience is open to the world and open to everyone, everything; it is egalitarian, simple, profound, honest, fantastical - these qualities only get disrupted when adults (or, perhaps, ‘adults’) get in the way.

Andrew R. Hill

EIFF 2013: Leviathan

A documentary that is prefaced with a quote from The Book of Job rarely creates anticipation for a light-hearted romp. Leviathan begins with such a quote in white text on black, an extract from chapter 41 regarding the titular beast. We fade to black; deep metallic groaning as water laps in surround sound, light leaks in, red and then an image forms: waves, the deck of the boat, a fisherman’s gloved hands – our hands in fact, as the camera’s eye is the fisherman’s. We’re hauling in a catch, an enormous net, the trawler leaning toward the sea. We could go in those waves at any moment and then, apparently, we do. Have we gone overboard? No – this camera moves about as it pleases, possessing fishermen, swimming in the wake of debris, climbing nets, writhing among gawp-mouthed fish, defying gravity. The camera is our narrator. From that slow fade in, we plunge into a semi-psychedelic miasma of images and sounds, edited into a practically seamless hallucination. This is no ordinary documentary.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In acid-droppers’ parlance, this is a bad trip. The fishermen live on a knife edge, everything is poised on the brink of destruction at all times, it’s dark and it’s wet and it’s choppy as hell. The camera eye, our eye, is unflinching: fish writhe and suffocate, and are beheaded and gutted with ruthless efficiency by the fishermen – in this initial sequence – mostly faceless, sou’westered automatons. The physicality of their job combined with the harshness of their environment makes it hard to believe they’re human sometimes. In one grimly hypnotic sequence, two fishermen remove the fins from stingrays, hooking them through the eye, hacking off the fins and then throwing the three dismembered pieces into buckets - hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck – a (presumably) routine process in their day’s work, a routine of metronomic brutality. Later, we see blood and slurry pouring from the side of the boat, back to the sea.

The unsettling horror sequence of the first hour is abruptly interrupted and the film turns round into a more human affair. The fishermen, below deck for the most part, are now human; they still conduct their business in a well-worn manner but we can see their bare faces: physically and emotionally exhausted, damp and hollow eyed. Fish are processed, cranes are operated, incomprehensible New England gutturals exchanged. A hefty, moustachioed man in a vest blankly watches television beneath deck, he doses off and we’re in another frame of consciousness again. A slow-motion, woozy drift, the camera floats in and around the ship, in and out the black water - is this the fisherman’s dream? Is it ours?

To call Leviathan a documentary is in many ways inadequate, a convenience of categorisation. But while it does so in an extraordinary, hypnotic, hypnagogic manner, it actually cuts to the heart of its subject matter by simply showing us, unencumbered by narration or a narrative. In among the viscera of the operations of the boat, we feel the brutality of nature and the brutality of industrialised human consumption. To call Leviathan a horror film is something of an exaggeration too but it might be just as accurate as calling it a documentary: like the best horror films, one is relieved when it’s all over - but the pull of the dark currents, the impulse to plumb those depths again, recurs too.

 Andrew R. Hill  


“This apartment is very aware of itself”. A throwaway comment; a not-so-casual insight into the realm of one of the EIFF's biggest films.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha has so far been received with glowing reviews – critics have even invoked the spirit of 'sacred masters' like Woody Allen's Manhattan (it's shot in black and white and deals with the emotional struggles of aimless pseudo-intellectuals), and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (the plot is episodic, the opening  montage has a light-hearted freshness that recalls the early work of the French director, and we even hear the work of much-loved composer Georges Delerue).


Image courtesy of Metrodome   

Image courtesy of Metrodome


Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who lives in New York and works as an apprentice for a modern dance company. She seems reasonably content with her life until her best friend Sophie decides to move on with her life and leave their flat. Frances soon realises that she is not equipped for dealing with the challenges of adulthood (“I am not a proper person yet”): she is clumsy, has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and is constantly defined by her closest male friend as 'undateable'. We follow her journey through five different locations – the film is structured in five chapters, all opening with a title card providing the new address Frances lives at: Baumbach seems obsessed with the concept of personal space and what it says about people. The protagonist's struggles begin when she can no longer afford the flat she shared with her best friend and end when she finally gets her own place and puts a label with her name on to her new post box (she can't quite fit her full name in the provided space – a visual gag that not only gives the film its title, but perhaps also a comment on her skewed attempts at being  a 'proper' adult).

Even if at times she seems a bit like a a stereotypical 'adorkable' lead character, it's hard not to sympathise with Frances, as she is surrounded by self-absorbed and narcissistic rich pseuds. Unfortunately this is when film's lightness of touch becomes a weakness.  Just as we begin to see our protagonist crack under the pressures she faces and we start scratching beyond the bitter-sweet hipster surface, Baumbach goes for the easy way out and opts for a lazy sugar-coated resolution. It's a shame, because the sequences that have real emotional depth could have conjured a much more interesting portrayal of what is like to  grow up and realise that your dreams might be unachievable. The sequence where Frances awkwardly describes her ideal relationship is genuinely moving as her idealised vision of love completely contradicts what we have seen on screen; her meeting with a disillusioned and drunk Sophie in their old college surroundings is also an impressive portrayal of the fragility of relationships.


Frances Ha will be distributed in the UK by Metrodome. It is an Audience Award nominee at the EIFF.