Monday, 27 February 2012

The Front Line reviewed

During the last days of the Korean war, the armies of both North and South Korea battle for an isolated mountain, as which side possesses it is essential for the final demarcation of the armistice border between the North and the South during the ceasefire talks between both sides. May I mention that both countries are still, technically, at war, as no peace treated has ever been signed.

It is quite interesting that The Front Line has been filmed now, as the tension between the North and the South has again arisen, with accusations and counter-accusations being thrown across the Armistice line between the heavily armed but economically weak North, and the South, one of the strongest economies in South East Asia. It is also significative that the opening scene shows a military jeep wading its way in the streets of Seoul through a demonstration held by students who oppose the war and claim for the reunification of Korea. As it is when one of the protagonists of the film, Lieutenant Kim Soo-Hyeok, exclaims that “the enemy is the war itself, not the commies”.

This is a film about people who have died long before they actually die, because of the brutality of the war, because of the many who they had to kill, because killing becomes like breathing... Or, as Cha Tae-kyeong (Ok-bin Kim), a deadly sniper in the North's army nicknamed Two Seconds (because the bullet hits its target two seconds before the shot is heard), says, after she has killed yet another soldier from the South: “What that the boy who sang?” Or the commander in the North's army, who used to know why he was fighting, but he had long forgotten it in the mud, the rot and the blood spilled on both sides.

The way I read it, director Hun Jang did not make an anticommunist North propaganda film per se, but rather cast his eye on the battle fatigued people who were actually fighting each other rather than the rather paranoid leaders and high brass from both Seoul and Pyongyang, as we see Lieutenant Kang Eun-Pyo, the officer who was in that jeep, being later reprimanded as he criticised his superiors for labelling commies peasants who were given a gun and a kind of uniform by the North just because they wanted something to eat. The climate and the geography are unforgiving, have no illusions about that. The depiction of this brutal war is also unforgiving, no illusions about that either, so if you, readers, cannot stand scenes of extreme violence, then this film is not for you.

Security Command Lieutenant Kang Eun-Pyo (Ha-kyun Shin) has been sent to investigate a possible communist infiltration in the so-called Alligator Company, based in the Eastern front line, and the suspicious death of its commander, who was found to have been killed by a pistol used by the officers of the South Korean army. Once in the Aero-k Hills, Kang Eun-Pyo finds his old friend Kim Soo-Hyeok (Soo Goo) as a Lieutenant, also commanding the troops, a man he thought was missing in action in an early episode of the war that we see in a flashback. What he finds in those tough hills was not a communist plot or infiltration, but extremely weary and fatigued soldiers from both sides who just had enough of the war and who, in between the fighting, had managed to establish some kind of human contact. The kind of situation that is seen as intolerable in both Seoul, as we see in the film, and we suppose in Pyongyang too, but we do not see that as The Front Line is narrated from a South Korean point of view.

The themes in The Front Line are not new per se, the blood (of the soldiers) and the glory (of the leaders), the two comrades in war who face each other, but they fight together against all odds, the liaisons established between enemy soldiers on the battle ground, the hill which has changed hands more than thirty times just for the leaders and the generals to draw a line on a map. However, director Hun Jang has put them brilliantly together here, resulting in a film which is both visceral in its realism yet intelligent in the way it deals with its subject. This is not a war epic, but a film about war. However, I thought that the flashbacks, while vital in many occasions to understand the unfolding story, were also overdone.

The discs also contain the following enlightening features:

  • Making of
  • Aero-k Hill – Action and SFX making of
  • A daily record of battle – Making of production
  • Ceasefire Agreement – Production design

The Front Line is released in Britain by Cine-Asia on DVD and Bluy-ray on Monday 27 February 2012.

In the final decisive battles of The Korean War, the battle-worn armies of North and South Korea face a brutal deadlock on the rugged Aerok Hills. Fears of treachery and collusion with enemy forces trigger an investigation into the men of the South Korean Alligator Company.
A veteran intelligence officer accepts the assignment and discovers mysterious and tragic occurrences surrounding a former comrade he had long thought dead.
In the epic battle for survival that follows, the two men become locked in a deadly battle of wills. One will sacrifice his humanity for the sake of his ‘brothers’; the other will discover compassion in the agonies of war. Ultimately, both will be forced to fight side-by-side, so their loved ones can enjoy freedom for just one more day… 

Monday, 20 February 2012

MISS BALA reviewed

Daddy was right. She shouldn't have gone to the pageant.

Murky is one of those words which have been used, and misused, too many times. However, Gerardo Naranjo (his excellent I'm Gonna Explode still lingers in my memory) has captured the visceral murkiness of the drug wars and institutional corruption in Northern Mexico in Miss Bala, where nothing is what seems to be, where the violence has become as much as part of daily life as the weather. Miss Bala is not only a dramatic example of cinema vérité at its best, but also a gripping thriller on its own right. Issue based cinema can also be entertaining, and Miss Bala certainly is, with its fast pace and more turns and twists than a plate of drunken spaghetti. Yet it left a sour taste in the mouth long after having viewed it.

Laura Guerrero (model turned actress Stephanie Sigman is admirable in her first role), a 23 year old young woman, jokes with her friend that the prize for the winner of the pageant to choose Miss Baja California is not only the crown, but also to sleep with one of those rich guys behind it. If she had known how prophetic were those words! Laura is just a young woman who wants to get out of her rather plodding life in a provincial city in the North of Mexico, to make some money, joining the queue of the many others who aspire at something else in their lives.

By being on the wrong place at the wrong time, Laura becomes involved in the violent drug wars ravaging the Northern provinces of the country, as she witnesses the attack on a night club used by the police by a gang of narcos, led by Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández is admirable in his portrayal of Lino's psychopathic intensity and intelligence), the battles between the narcos and the estate para-military police being openly warfare, those scenes being admirably set up by Naranjo. Three tense days follow, during which she becomes a drug mula for the traffickers between the USA and Mexico, worrying for the fate of her little brother and her father, a winner of the crown of Miss Baja California after the rather convincing intervention of Lino, and a sexual pawn who is used by both Lino and General Duarte (Miguel Couturier), the commander of the estate police force – she was right, she became the prize for the General...

Stephanie Sigman's performance is one of the best I have watched in recent times with her ability to portray the wide range of human emotions crossing the character of Laura Guerrero, the young woman caught as an unwilling pawn in the narco war, as she witnesses the atrocities that happen in front of her eyes, betrayed by those who thought she could trust upon, and, ultimately, realizing she was as much as an expendable pawn as the American DEA agent, Kike Camara (José Yenque), was, murdered in an horrific fashion in front of her. As much of Mexican society is.

Naranjo does not moralize in Miss Bala, he constructs instead a vivid picture of how is to live in a society where brutal violence is a daily occurrence that can erupt at any moment anywhere, where institutional corruption means that no one is what seems to be, where the narcos, los valientes (the fearless) are seen by many as another players in this war rather than as mere criminals, where both authorities, the estate police. and the traffickers benefit from each other as parasites do.

When the last scene of Miss Bala is over, I just did not know any longer what was what in this mêlée. This is what Naranjo has so admirable conveyed, that behind that apparent façade of social order being imposed by force there is only a desolate land: existential and social emptiness.

Miss Bala is out in DVD in Britain on 20th February 2012.

A Metrodome Distribution release.

There are no special features in the DVD.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

HADEWIJCH reviewed

In Bruno Dumont's film, Hadewijch, a novice in a Catholic convent who has taken her religious name from a 13th century mystic, has fallen in love with Christ, and desperately seeks catharsis for her desires for Him. The Mother Superior decides to expel her as, in her words, her love of God and the Son of God has become obsessive, the world could offer opportunities for her that the walls of the convent could not. Her words became prophetic in unintended ways.

I can distinguish in Dumont's film, who has a background in Greek and philosophy, three chapters, although they seamlessly blends into a coherent whole:

  •  The love for Christ
  •  Seeking catharsis
  •  Catharsis

Once she is back in Paris with her parents in their sumptuous baroque apartment, her steps echoing through the vast rooms, Céline's days, she has gone back to her civilian name, drift between waiting for her exams results, caring for her beloved dog, praying and wandering around. The camera zooms to her hands playing with a crucifix as she meets three Arab boys in a café, and she eagerly goes with them to a gig on the Seine. An uneasy relationship develops between her and Yassine, one of the boys, although she rejects his advances as she is a virgin, and wants to stay that way, in spite of her eagerness to befriend strangers, because she wants to give herself to Christ. Yassine, whilst respecting her, finds difficult to understand her feelings. Céline invites the boy for lunch with her parents, an occasion that amplifies their differences as he rebukes her for calling her father, a government minister, a “jerk”.

However, this chance meeting with Yassine leads her to an encounter with Islamic Fundamentalism through his brother, Nassir, a religious studies workshop leader. She seeks his advice, as a religious man, as she believes he can help her in her quest for God, for Christ. He recruits her for his campaign to avenge the humiliation of his people after a visit to Lebanon, where she witnesses the aftermath of an Israeli aerial attack, where she sees the smoking ruins of a house, the body of a little boy killed in the bombardment, and, most of all, she experiences the anger, that anger coming from the guts. In a democracy, there are no innocents, is Nassir's argument, so we all are target for punishment. In her sacrifice, she glimpses her union with Christ.

Céline is a very open and innocent young girl, at no moment she hides or flaunts the comfort and wealth of her family, in a way, she sees them as much as an obstacle to her desire to give herself to Christ as her body is. There is a recurrent theme in the film, the film opens with it, as we watch Céline climbing a steep hill, panting, crying, reaching a shrine on a hill top church, where she prays for her beloved Christ, the symbolic value of this ascent being visually beautifully rendered. However, she has developed in her quest with each appearance of this film, culminating in the last scene where she, at last, finds her catharsis in an unexpected manner.

Julie Sokolowski gives a powerful and nuanced yet low key rendering of the path that Hadewijch has taken to reach her goal, while Yassine Salime as Yassine gives an excellent performance as the Arab boy from the projects (council housing) with no training nor job, while Karl Sarafidis conveys the low burning yet explosive anger of Nassir for the humiliation of his people. David Dewaele plays the small time crook doing odd jobs at the convent, where he meets Hadewijch.

Hadewijch, a meditative cinematic study on the nature of religious faith and passion, carnal passion, and their impact in contemporary society, offers some thoughtful insights on the nature of terrorism, Julie Sokolowski particularly being worth of praise for the depth and development of her character.

Hadewijch will be released by New Wave Films on selected British cinemas on February 17, 2012.

For screenings please click HERE.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012


There are some films which are the better precisely because they are difficult to put into a labelled box, such as teenage angst, thriller, horror, murder, or whatever. Antonio Campos' sparse yet mesmerizing Afterschool is certainly one of those, apart of also being visually brilliant, and, interestingly, sporting a sound track almost devoid of music, environmental sound being exquisitely sculpted as a counterpoint to the narrative.

Ezra Miller somehow manages to put a strongly expressive depiction of Robert, yet simultaneously conveying his lack of expression of his inner feelings to the outside world. This is quite an achievement for a young actor, Afterschool being his first film. Robert is a closed book to all those around him, the master of the private East Coast boarding school (Michael Stuhlbarg), to the school councillor (Gary Wilmes), to his girlfriend (Addison Timlin as Amy), to his room mate, Dave (Jeremy Allen White). We do not see his parents, apart from a brief phone conversation with his mother that we overhear, a conversation where he does not say much, either. With a few brush strokes, Ezra Miller paints the character of a troubled, lonesome boy, who finds his pleasure watching masochist porn on the internet, later trying some of what he has seen on Amy, who becomes, for a short period of time, his girlfriend. A boy that conveys very little to the outside world, yet who has a kind of pent up energy inside him that he, perhaps, cannot either control or understand. Monster? Psychopath?

Antonio Campos does not give any indication of what is to follow, there is no and they lived happily afterwards that distinguishes so many mainstream movies, no sense of closure of any kind. The very last scene, in the school library, is telling on this respect. It is for us to ponder what this lonesome boy is to become, mass murderer or poet? Rapist, or genius? The sound track is a powerful factor in this clinical and cold stare of the lens on the character, as there is almost no music to emotionally guide us in what has been, in what is to come. Environmental sounds have been moulded and sculpted to punctuate the dialogue, the silences, no sweet notes to accompany the lovemaking between Robert and Amy, only the chirping of birds, the rustle of the wind; or the sharp staccatos of a tray falling in the canteen, drowning the conversation between the youngsters. There is a hint of Haneke here, as it has been pointed out by other critics, those non judgemental eyes, that non judgemental lens staring at the abyss that lies behind the apparent calmness of the human condition.

The other interesting point in Afterschool is how the camera is used under Campos' direction, gone are the thirds composing rule, we often see main characters either on the edge of the frame, or partly outside it, we see bodies and no heads, the camera pans on a room and we see only the top of the heads of people crouching, or a beautiful bokeh in a school hall for a spot to come forwards, metamorphosing into Robert. By using the camera in this manner, Campos is constantly conveying a sense of disorientation, of uneasiness, of not knowing what is what, of the kind of existential limbo that constitutes the world as seen through Robert's eyes.

The outline of the story is, really, quite simple. The complexities lies in the psychological level, in what lies underneath our actions. Robert, a young student, decides to take video as his after class activity, that all students are urged to take (although McDonalds will probably be still hiring staff after graduation, as the schoolmaster cheekily mentions). Exploring the school buildings with the camera, he happen to capture the death of the Talbot twins, two beautiful and popular young girls. He apparently helps the one still surviving, until she dies in his arms. And this is the point, we do not know what actually happened, even with the video camera running, as Robert was giving his back to the lens. We learn, later, that the girls died from a poisoned drug overdose. So, who actually gave the drug to them? Someone inside the school? A climate of paranoia is created. The staccatos in the sound track exacerbates it. The uncertainty of the memorial video is crucial to depict this atmosphere.

Did he kill the surviving Talbot girl? If he did, was that an act of mercy? Or was he play acting on what he has seen in the cesspit that the internet can also be?

Campos does not give a clear indication of what is what, he throws the questions at us, open ended questions. The whole film has been constructed with this aim in mind.

This is the brilliance of Afterschool.

AFTERSCHOOL (18) is available to buy in Britain on 13th February 2012, RRP £9.99

It is distributed by Network Releasing.

Special features:
  • Deleted scenes
  • Mobile phone videos
  • Teacher testimonials
  • New York Film Festival trailer
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery


1. What was your inspiration for making the film?
In my last year of high school, 9/11 happened in our first week back. That day my best friend's father died in one of the towers, and at the end of that year, after we all graduated, another close friend of mine died in a freak accident in Amsterdam. It was a strange time, and the bookending of that with these two events was quite confusing. I felt very connected and disconnected at the same time, and all the ideas I had had for films I wanted to make seemed somewhat trivial at the time. Then I had this idea about a boy who witnesses the death of two girls by drug overdose--girls he had never spoken to and only knew from passing in the hallway or through gossip. How does he deal with it versus everyone around him? For me, the idea being how does he deal with it feeling so close but at the same time disconnected from the death.

2. Are the internet clips shown at the beginning of your film real and why did you choose them? Did ever really exist?
Some of them are real and some of them were staged by us. I wanted to give a pretty broad spectrum of what you see on Youtube or Youtube kind of sites, in no particular order, almost in the way that you could potentially consume them online. So if you haven't seen that particular clip of THAT baby, you most likely have seen something like it.
Unfortunately, I wanted to have a clip from a TV show somewhere, but this would have been impossible to get clearance for or to recreate. doesn't exist. We had to come up with a porn website that didn't exist, which if you ever try to do, you will realize is nearly impossible. Almost every filthy combination of words has been taken. My art director who was designing the site and i kept throwing ideas around, and one of our young actors came in and started throwing some pretty awful, disgusting names around. But he landed on "nastycumorifices" which wasn't quite right but close. So we replaced orifices with holes and we had it. Apparently, it was only the dirty mind of a teenager that could come up with something so offensive that no adult could come up with!

3. Is Afterschool a positive or negative portrayal of the YouTube generation? Has the internet made people in general better or worse?
It's really the portrayal of one boy who happens to be part of this generation. And it isn't necessarily a positive or negative portrayal in my mind, really just a portrayal; whether it's good or not, it's up to the audience to decide. I think the internet, like any technology, comes with its positive and its negatives, but the fact is that technology for as much as we try to use it to bring people together, ultimately works in doing the opposite somehow.

4. How difficult was it to get such a natural performance from the young cast?
It wasn't difficult. As a director, you just need to listen and treat your young actors with as much seriousness and respect as your older actors. Their opinions on things are just as valid. The kids also spent a lot of time getting to know one another before and during the shoot,and that comfort and chemistry carried over into the film.

5. If you could go back in time to make films, what decade would you choose and why?
Sometimes I think I would like to go back and be making films in the 70s when there was a real freedom in the studio system and American mainstream cinema was really daring. Other times, I'd like to go back to the 40s or 50s in Hollywood where the studio system was really strong and you had all these wonderful craftsmen from the crew to actors all on the same lot, constantly making movies. Obviously, there were huge restrictions but at the same time, it just made filmmakers work harder and be more creative to be subversive in their work. At the end of the day, I wasn't there, and there must be some reason that I was born when I was to be making movies now.

6. What¹s the craziest experience you¹ve had so far promoting this film?
We had been asked last minute to show Afterschool at a private club's screening series. In the back and forth with the coordinator, we realized that this screening wasn't being held at the club but at a much bigger theatre in Times Square. Unfortunately, I was in a festival in Nashville but my producer Sean Durkin and actors Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Jeremy Allen White went to the Q&A. First, my actors were greeted by a big bouncer outside the theatre who upon discovering they were the stars of the film, said, "You know, if you need any protection, I've got your back. For now, maybe you should get back stage quickly since the movie's getting out soon." Confused, they asked "Why?" "Well this is a screening series for senior citizens. They came here tonight thinking they were going to see The Soloist (with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.). No one told them that was cancelled and that they were screening your film. Once the film started, people started screaming, 'This isn't The Soloist! Where's Jamie Foxx? Where's Robert Jr.?!' And people started leaving in groups, complaining to management. I haven't seen your film, but people are pissed." They go backstage, and eventually Sean arrives and hears the story. The critic who is moderating the event--a local NYC TV critic-- gets backstage, completely flustered and annoyed. "Who's the director? Who directed this?!?" Sean tells him why I'm not there. "Oh! Great! The director doesn't even show up. You know, I had no idea they were showing this tonight. I'm not taking responsibility for this." He introduces Sean, Ez, and Jeremy to the stunned audience of elderly people (of which there are still two to three hundred) and right away says "I'm not going to say anything, except to let you know I had nothing to do with this screening choice. I thought we were gonna see The Soloist." Still very flustered, "I guess I'll just ask one question and then open it up. Why would you want to make this film?"  They all give their answers, unwavering about why everyone involved was excited about the film. Well, the critic just didn't have anything else to say, and the angry audience was unleashed on them. "This was the worst movie I've ever seen. Why couldn't you have made a nice movie like The Soloist? What was the point of that?! Why would they show a movie about these crazy kids to people our age?!?" So they answer all the questions they can, politely. Apparently, they were very excited about such a heated response, as I would have been too. But then the tide turned. Someone stood up and very loudly said "All of you who booed this film or who left the theatre should be ashamed of yourselves! We're not just a bunch of senile senior citizens who need to be shown nice pictures every week. This is the most important film we've ever been shown at this series. This film is about the world that our grandchildren are living in and we should be seeing more films like this!" At this point, half of the remaining audience gave a loud applause. The critic who began with nothing nice to say, kind of slumped back into his seat, and said "Well, yeah, I guess that is true. This film portrays a world we haven't seen much in films." The discussion went on for so long after this, between the people from the film and even between audience members that the critic said that he had to leave and that everyone could stay if they wanted to but most of his Q&As don't last this long and he had to get home to his kids. So he left, and Sean, Ezra, and Jeremy stayed with the audience for another half-an-hour discussing the film with the audience of passionate senior citizens. By far the best post screening discussion.

7. What web site could you not live without?
I'm sure I could live without any of them if I had to. I would say IMDb or Youtube, but 10 years ago I didn't have any of them and I was fine.

8. What advice do you have for young filmmakers trying to make their first feature?
Do something personal and do something for as small of a budget as possible, since the smaller the budget the smaller the risk for the investors and the bigger the freedom you'll have to take risks. In general, I think young filmmakers should experiment as much as possible with their short films. You'll quickly realize what you like and what you don't like, what you're interested in pursuing and what bores you.
And by the time you get to your first feature, your voice as filmmaker will be a lot clearer and louder.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Nopporn Watin's Yamada Way of the Samurai, while offering a series of spectacular Thai boxing action sequences, is actually based in real events that happened in Siam (nowadays, Thailand) during the 17th century.

A young Japanese Samurai warrior, Yamada Nagamasa (Seigi Ozeki), has a painful secret in his heart, the secret being that the bandits terrorizing the kingdom are, in fact, fellow Japanese, an elite force of Samurais. Betrayed and left half dead by them, he manages to flee, seeking refuge in a remote village, where he recovers and decides that his heart is where the land will cover his face when he dies, and that land is Siam under King Naresuan.

As he knows that his former comrades will seek him to silence him for ever, he masters the art of Muay Boran, or Thai boxing, a devastating martial art form that uses eight weapons: two arms, two legs, to elbows and two knees. Yamada, after joining the fearless elite force of King Naresuan's body guards, confronts his former comrades, and wins the fight. Knowing he cannot return to Japan, his wishes are granted and dies in Siam after a long life.

Whilst Yamada Way of the Samurai is based on historical events, they are in fact used as a vehicle to show the spectacular Thai boxing fights, which are excellently rendered, with a camera that moves from long view to close ups with the same precision as the boxers have. Whilst the film was beautifully shot in the Thai landscape, the story itself is too shallow to have much credibility, both the dialogue and the scenes becoming too repetitive in parts, which exasperated me to no end (I almost fell asleep), and as I wasn't expecting too much in the acting front from these excellent Thai boxers, I wasn't that disappointed by it.

In short, Yamada Way of the Samurai is a film for the martial arts fans, they will not be disappointed with the fight sequences.

Before I forget, I must add that the little girl was simply adorable!

Yamada Way of the Samurai is out on DVD and Blu-ray for sale in Britain in a special collector's edition, distributed by Cine Asia.

Special features in the disc:
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo
Audio commentary by Bey Logan
Trailer gallery
Deleted scenes
Cine-Asia documentary “Masters of the Ring”

CASH reviewed

Cash seems to have been openly designed for the American market, presumably the producers expecting to cash from the larger than life figure of Jean Reno's, whom I first met in the silver screen in Léon, together with a delightful Natalie Portman, still a child then.

Cash, directed by Éric Besnard, which could well have been called Twister, as the twists piled upon twists upon... well, you get the picture, I hope, left my head and my limbs entwined so tightly that I somehow managed to get sense of myself, and the film, as there are several strands in the storytelling which, I gather, have been designed to throw us, the audience, out from our tracks. I reckon this will be the allure for many, apart of the rather corpulent figure of Jean Reno filling the screen every time he appears, his figure giving even a heavier impression by the choice of suits he wears.

There is a scam that went wrong at the beginning, leaving the perpetrator dead, leading to the subsequent revengeful actions by a rather gallant and skilful scoundrel, Cash (Jean Dujardin), which is partly a plan to entrap a corrupt police officer, Julia Molina (Valeria Golino), and partly a plan to not too gently relieve a rich Southafrican of his substantial cargo of diamonds, which is were Maxime (Jean Reno), a mastermind that several European police forces would like to get their hands onto, gets into the action. The beauty of this plan is that, as the stones are unregistered, therefore non existent in the eyes of the law, no crime will be committed.

The plan to get the diamonds is actually highly implausible, relying on too many coincidences to make any sense at all, but still quite fun to watch as it develops, all set in an environment that the poor of the earth, like myself, do not usually get to see, such as a luxury barge in the Seine, a five star hotel in the South of France, and a mansion which Maxime uses to lure punters (or pigeons, as I learned a new meaning of the word designating that most misunderstood of all birds), which could be rented for the day.

The pace of the film is fast, resulting in the fact that I was all the time wondering where I was. The actors are agreeable, although is very unlikely they will get any prizes for their performances, and Reno gets to cash his cheque for basically filling the silver screen with his presence and little else. However, he is good at that, so I am not complaining.

Cash is released today 6th February 2012 in DVD & Blu Ray formats in Britain by Metrodome Distribution.

Running Time: 100 Minutes DVD RRP: £15.99 / Cert: TBC