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|Shadows off the beaten path
Indies, foreign, docs and shorts...
|See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 6.Sep.20
Review by Rich Cline |
BERLIN FILM FEST
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This bracingly authentic drama takes the audience on a harrowing first-person odyssey that's far more common than we like to think it is. Indeed, slavery is more prolific today than at any time in human history, and this film centres on trafficking in the South East Asian fishing industry. With his first feature, writer-director Rodd Rathjen addresses an urgent situation in a way that's observant and quietly haunting.
At age 14, Chakra (Heng) is a bright kid in rural Cambodia. Annoyed that he labours much harder on the family farm than his big brother (Chhun), he runs away to find a better life in Thailand. To pay his passage across the border, he agrees to work, but he and fellow migrant Kea (Ros) are sold to Rom Ran (Kasro), the sadistic captain of a fishing trawler. Chakra learns quickly that only the strong survive, so he ingratiates himself to Rom Ran, mastering the job and hardening his heart. And Rom Ran underestimates him.
The opening chapter is warm and realistic, a doc-style slice of small-town life, where nothing seems possible or fair. Then of course things get much worse, as the boat becomes a squalid prison. Cinematographer Michael Latham keeps the camera close to Chakra, emphasising his internal strength even in this nightmarish situation. The contrast between his idyllic homeland and this harsh coming of age is obvious, but pungent. As is the repeated symbolism of fish flopping helplessly on the deck.
First-time actor Heng has terrific presence, bringing charisma and humour into the toughest scenes, revealing Chakra's internal journey. It's a physically and emotionally demanding role, and he never overplays it. Even as he becomes cold-blooded, he remains sympathetic. By contrast, Kasro's Rom Ran is effective as a larger-than-life monster, strutting shirtlessly as he revels in his power over helpless men. And yes, the story does boil down to an escalating series of collisions between them.
A shot of the trawler alone in a vast ocean offers a chilling reminder of how easy it is to hide human trafficking from society. The film's depiction of the violence is intensely horrific but never explicit. And the narrative becomes internalised in the final act. This shifts the tale into a churning thriller that delves into Chakra's mental state, struggling with this turn in his life, what he has become and what he's going to do about it. Some of the details in this section are rather tidy, but they also give the film a dark, grim kick.
The Eight Hundred
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Guan Hu
prd Zhu Wenjiu
scr Guan Hu, Ge Rui
with Ou Hao, Du Chun, Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, Wang Qianyuan, Jiang Wu, Xin Baiqing, Zhang Yi, Tang Yixin, Liu Xiaoqing, Yong Hou, Zhang Youhao
release Chn 14.Aug.20,
US 28.Aug.20, UK 16.Sep.20
20/China Huayi Bros 2h29
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Using Imax photography and state-of-the-art effects, this battle epic is properly thrilling, packed with riveting set-pieces and plenty of melodramatic moments for its enormous cast of characters. None of them emerges as a lead figure for us to rally behind, which means that the film ends up as a rousing historical spectacle rather than an involving journey. Still, there's never a dull moment over the long running time.
In October 1937, as Japan's army launches its final assault on Shanghai, a group of 452 Chinese soldiers, security officers and deserters find themselves defending a six-story warehouse. Across the narrow Suzhou Creek lies the international zone, where Europeans, Americans and locals see the battle unfold. Not wanting to reveal the true scale of his defence force, Colonel Xie (Du) claims that he has 800 men. Over four nights, the Japanese throw wave after wave of attacks at them, while they defiantly raise the Chinese flag and receive help and encouragement from across the river.
Fiercely shot and edited to put the audience right in the middle of everything, the film features a wide range of characters with distinct challenges that offer entry for the audience. Alongside apocryphal heroism and movie cliches (like a symbolic white horse), detailed battle elements carry a powerful punch, such as how the Japanese initially resist deploying mustard gas, as they had elsewhere, because of the proximity to international press. Or a young woman (Tang) who bravely swims over to deliver a pivotal message.
The actors make the most of the essentially anonymous characters. Most memorable are wide-eyed 13-year-old Xiao (Zhang Junyi) and his brave brother Duan (Ou), and the terrified Tie (Jiang) and his wry sidekick Guai (Wang). Many emotional beats are heightened, as are some pushy patriotic surges. As the film skilfully shifts to capture engaging details about a variety of people in various locations around this battle, nobody has more than one note to play. So it's the accumulated effect that hooks the viewer, rather than any sense of personal involvement.
Each sequence looks flat-out terrific on the big screen, with a propulsive coherence and a sense of urgency that helps us care what happens. There's an odd hiccough in the narrative as the action suddenly jumps forward then back by 14 hours, revealing some background preparations for a stirring finale. This vicious, violent battle galvanised the Chinese to stand against the Japanese invasion, and it also forced the world to take notice.
Unknown Origins Orígenes Secretos
Review by Rich Cline |
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Adapting his own novel, filmmaker David Galan Galindo gives a pastiche vibe to this Spanish thriller, with its witty characters and hyper-grisly murders. The film is infused with comic book subculture, cleverly weaving in familiar storylines and characters that inform the central mystery about a murderer who has spent years patiently planning his elaborate crimes. It's a great little film, and a ripping love letter to comic book fans.
Madrid is being terrorised by a gruesome serial killer, but retiring chief inspector Cosme (Resines) and his handsome replacement David (Rey) can't find a connection between the victims, and their tough young boss Norma (Echegui) is on their case. Then Cosme's slacker son Jorge (Efe) notices that the murders are recreations of superhero origin comics, so he's brought in to advise David. He isn't happy about working with a chatterbox geek, but becomes more convinced as Jorge finds important clues. And David is horrified to discover his deep connection to the case.
Characters are introduced in amusing ways that immediately shatter stereotypes. Even as they occupy standard roles, offbeat details are playfully revealed. The sceptical, super-fit David and the slobby-smart Jorge make an hilarious odd couple. Amid continual flirtation, cosplay-loving Norma berates David on how he's just as costumed as she is. As David criticises Jorge for acting like a child, Jorge reminds him that, in the comics community, David's the freak. And Jorge's deduction about what's going on here is outrageous.
Performances are sparky, but only slightly heightened, as these fast-talking characters circle around each other with intent. While along the way, there are remarkable moments of deeper emotion that are beautifully played without breaking the film's rhythm. Rey and Efe make a terrific duo, placing a remarkably engaging bromance at the story's core, two men with little in common who need each other. And each is a fascinating character on his own. Echegui is also superb as a fierce cop with a colourful private life.
The plot powers along without pausing for breath, even as it stirs in evocative connections between even the smaller side characters. Several laugh-out-loud moments are marvellously well-played with a straight face, while other scenes provide some unexpectedly powerful emotional kicks. Each sequence contributes hints about the killer's identity and intentions, generating suspicions and proper suspense along the way. And the final act is a grounded twist on the usual superhero climax, complete with some refreshingly snarky bombast and a terrific post-credits sting.
See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL
© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows
on the Wall
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