Something must be said about this sidebar selection: I dedicate this section for lesser-known movies that deserved more attention. Well, “deserve” is a big word, and I’m kinda using it in a broad term here. It’s a sad truth that many of these titles can only make small waves in some festival before releasing quietly in DVD-market, if not at all. With this 2017, I focus on debut features. Three films are first-time work from that written and directed by these female filmmakers. One sets in Poland, one in America and the other in France. Ideally, I would’ve loved to review those following titles, but either they aren’t available anywhere online, or I couldn’t find a suitable subtitle for it (hence I picked Ava as my sixth option). In any case, once they’re available online, I’m gonna review them as well:
- Village Rockstars (India) by Rima Das, an Assamese language indie film that unexpectedly won the top prize at India National Film Awards, about a young village girl in northeast India wants to start her own rock band.
- Microhabitat (Korea) by Jeon Go-woon, a debut film about a thirty something year old woman who is willing to give up her basic necessities of life in order to protect what she treasures the most: cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend
- Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Indonesia) by Mouly Surya, which is described as a “Satay Western”, combining aspects of the feminist Western genre with an Indonesian setting. Regretfully I couldn’t find an English subtitle for it.
- Ava (Iran) by Sadaf Foroughi (Iran/ Canada), not to be confused with Ava the French film below, about the life of a high school girl in Iran becomes more complicated after her mother catches her in an act of rebellion.
- What Will People Say (Norway/ Pakistan) by Iram Hag, about a Pakistani Norwegian teenager is kidnapped and taken to Pakistan where she has never been and must learn to adapt to her parent’s culture.
As it stands, I’m pleased to welcome the three films in the Sidebar section at Day 13, Tower. A Bright Day (Poland), Revenge (France, USA) and Ava (France). Enjoy!
Polish cinema has been on a roll lately regarding emerging young female filmmakers whose voices are clearly recognized in their first outputs. We had Agnieszka Smoczyńsk’s uneven but impressive The Lure, this year we have One Day from Zsófia Szilágyi. Add them to the established Polish female households Ildikó Enyedi (On Body and Soul), Małgorzata Szumowska (Body, Mug) and Agnieszka Holland (Spoor, In Darkness), you can see that Poland has no shortage of talented women voice. Now we can add Jagoda Szelc to the list with her achievement here in Tower. In a short foreword she talked during the film festival in which I attended, she asserted that “whatever your take about the meaning of this film is, you’re always right”. Thus, aside from my confidence that my interpretation of it won’t be wrong, it’s clear that this film won’t make much sense narrative-speaking. It’s not an abstract work by any mean, but by the end of it I can see what she meant. Tower is more interested to tackle on themes than it cares much about plot or characters, so at the end it doesn’t pay off in terms of character arcs, but more about its underlying message (or it could be nothing at all)
Basically, the story begins when an estranged sister Mula (Anna Krotoska) visits her sister Kaja’s family (Małgorzata Szczerbowska) when Kaja’s daughter Nina (Laila Hennessy) will receive her First Communion in next few days. It’s a family reunion, where their brother and mom are there as well, but it’s a tense one. Mula disappeared for years and came back oblivious like she’s in other dimension. Soon we learn that Nina is her biological daughter but Kaja forbids her to stay near her, let alone take care of her. Yet her presence draws strange occurrence to the family, and the community at large. Their Mom starts to recover surprisingly well, the local priest starts to lose his grip, the dog disappears mysteriously… Kaja senses something wrong but can’t put her fingers on why.
There are two main themes that Tower tackle throughout its run. First is faith, or to be more exact, the loss of faith. The setting itself happens during Nina’s First Communion for one thing. In addition, the film constantly suggests that Mula has some sort of black power that cause the abnormal events, most importantly the priest who begins to lose his mind. That would explain the bizarre closure where people walk toward the same destination, occult-like. The loss of faith isn’t strictly in religious sense, but also familial sense as the sisters begin to suspect each other.
Secondly, Tower always has a keen sense of dealing with oppression. Everything here is oppressed, from Nina who is forbidden to do what she likes, to the way this old village functions as the way of holding individual to their assigned roles. For me, I could go broader to say that religion in this film context represents the old, traditional way of the community and its desire to break from the convention. It makes sense, as a result, that the ending is a break from its own storytelling format. That nothing makes sense because it doesn’t need to be.
Technically, for the most part Szelc does succeed on maintaining the atmospheric psychological thriller tone. Technically, there are some scenes that stand out, notably when the film recounts the same event from different perspective with eerily sound design. The actual cinematography remains low-budget and low-key. The acting is serviceable with the actors make the most out of their parts (there isn’t much unfortunately). This sure is an ambiguous debut, the one that doesn’t mind to be different and dare us to be on the same wavelength with it. The result is divisive, not all of them work but it’s still a brave feature from a novice who already has a firm grip on her own style.
As the saying goes, revenge is a food best served cold; but for this hyper titular film, it has its singular taste: blood red syrup of revenge. “Revenge” raises above its bareboned premise and even thinner plot with its solid production and some neat physical acting directed by first time director Coralie Fargeat. It tells a story you hear everywhere, especially in this medium. Richard (Kevin Janssens) brings his mistress Jen (Italian actress Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) to his mansion during his hunt trip. Things go awry when his two hunting partners, Stan (Vincent Colombe) Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) come the day before planned. That’s all there is for an entire cast. Sexual tension arose and the next time we know, Jane gets raped by Stan and some hours later is pushed off a cliff because she threatens to tell Richard’s wife about their affair. It’s an usual macho-bullshit world through and through. Except Jane isn’t dead, despite a stake spears through her body, and she takes a matter into her own hands.
That’s basically the entire plot of “Revenge”. This film is, after all, a revenge-action-thriller plot, so is it thrilling enough to justify its running time? Pretty much. “Revenge” has a great flair for striking visual. From the underwater shots to the explicit violence (where it’s determined to show you all the way), to the wild desert landscape, to even the ‘bodies’ of the characters, are beautiful to look at. It’s stylish for sure, it has a memorable groovy soundtrack and sometimes it goes for bold visual choices: extreme close-up, slow-motion, out-of-focus imagery, to good effects. You can see a blood dripping through a close-up ant that each drop sounds like a gunshot. What I’m impressed the most, in addition, is how the film knows how to use the silence. Characters in the genre tend to talk a bit too much, explain the plan out loud in order to direct us on the direction it goes next. In “Revenge”, its best moments always come from those long scenes with no actual dialogue. Whether it’s Jane who struggles through her injury, or the men’s frustration over Jane’s increasingly threat, these moments are smartly conveyed visually.
Moreover, what make this flick so entertaining (and queasy) to watch is its unflinchingly fixtate to the ultra-violence of the flesh. All characters have blood dripping through their wounds, and chasing each other in a pool of blood. They find their “prey” through a trail of blood and they trip over their own blood. It’s not a campy ultra-violence Tarantino’s type, although its lust for blood is clear. It’s more gorefest in a sense your usual horror films are, but without glorify the violence. In one of its most memorable scene (which, to be honest, raises the film a mark for me), Jen has to deal with her open wound with a stake still sticking on the wound. The film is never shy for let us see the whole thing and we squirms the same way she does, but in the end it’s all worth the experience. This whole sequence is simply, for the ages.
When “Revenge” deals with the genre’s own trope. It manages just about enough to avoid obvious genre traps and make the journey suspense till the end. The final blows usually go short and sweet, without any meaningless conversation in between. The bad boys don’t often talk bullshit or spell out their plans (though there was one instance they did that). It does drag here and there and sometimes it falls back again on the cliche. One scene that comes directly to mind is when Jen successfully plant shards of glass on the ground. Instead of coming back to the injured victim to give him what he deserves, she runs so that the guy recovers and chases her again.
As for her character Jen, while Lutz does a admirable job to gain our sympathy, it remains a fact that we don’t know much about her. She talks very little, even in its early scenes which were supposed to flesh her character out. That might be a point, given the gang’s mistreatment to her is something all the women can relate to, thus Jen emerges not as a full-fledged character, but more as an icon. Her relationship with Richard, however, suffers given we never know for sure how long their relationship is and how intimate they were. It’s obvious the way the film frames Jen at first as a sex bomb. Through the eyes of hunger men, she’s nothing more than a disposable trophy girl, although it’d benefit the film better if it explores Richard and Jen’s foundation first. Usually, for an exploitation film like this one, it comes with an empty aftertaste. For “Revenge”, however, its ultra-violence and its flashy execution add up in the end. For Jen, she truly has a gut of steel.
While coming-of-age story about young girl who comes to term with her own identity has always been my soft spot (hence the main reason I picked this title), Ava, the debut film from Léa Mysius, is a misfired tale about the titular character on her summer holiday in Cote d’Azur beach. The film features a compelling character in the centre, Ava, a 13-year-old kid who learns that she’s going to be blind soon. Newcomer Noée Abita (she was 17 at the time of the shooting so it justifies all the nudity) plays the role with full commitment, although her character alone can’t save the film from going off the trail in the last half. We start with an eye-candy opening shot of all kind of people lying around the beach. It successfully establishes the beachside settings, and as we follow a black dog makes his way pass all these people to our Ava, our story begins. Ava has many definitive traits: she’s at the age where sexuality becomes awkward, she has trouble connecting with people, she has nightmares that keep her awake at night and most of all, her reduced version worries her.
As a result, Ava hits its stride when it focuses on her dealing with her own situation. When she decides to blind herself to awake her other sense, for example, the sequence has a purpose. Her relationship with her working-class mother, in addition, serves the film well. Those first half comes off as solid story because it still sits on the ground. The same goes for the film’s effort to deal with her struggling with losing her sight in the dark. We could feel her hesitation when the night falls and it parallels greatly with her nightmares (when it’s only darkness). Even to her first nude scene, it plays out with purpose. As she trips off her clothes to go the beach, it’s an image of a teenage girl who comes to term with her sexuality. The camera follows her closely, and we could feel the waves under our feet ourselves.
It’s the latter half when she follows Juan (Juan Calo) that the film loses its purpose and becomes a third-rated Badlands. All the character threads that the film build up before is thrown out of the window. Its downhill begins with the montage where Ava and Juan put the clay all over their naked bodies and steal the tourists’ belongings with gunpoint. Well, this tonal-whiplash could’ve worked if they care to build up before, which they didn’t. Her bad eyesight, in particular, is mentioned but never explored. The beach setting is replaced by road-setting, which feels random and underwhelming. The previous cast is disappeared, and the last arc, which involve a Spanish gypsy wedding, feels pretty much like a detour. It’s a shame given Mysius isn’t quite sure how to tie up her narrative knots, and the more the film moves away from Ava’s grounded concern the less impact it gets. As a result, “Ava” feels wholly incomplete and unrewarding.
Only one day left. The last day (Day 14), which will consist of the closing film – an Australian film that based from popular novel Jasper Jones, and an awards announcement. Tune in to see the winners for this 2017 Women’s Cinema Festival on this weekend.