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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 2.May.21

Cliff Walkers  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
Cliff Walkers
dir Zhang Yimou
scr Quan Yongxian, Zhang Yimou
prd Pang Liwei, Luca Liang
with Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Yu Hewei, Ni Dahong, Li Naiwen, Yu Ailei, Fei Fan, Lei Jiayin, Sha Yi, Wang Naixun
release Chn/US 30.Apr.21
21/China 2h00

Is it streaming?

Gifted director Zhang Yimou brings his eye-catching visual style to this tautly entertaining historical spy thriller. Because of the way the film cuts around between characters who are initially under-defined, the narrative is difficult to crack into or get properly involved with, but it's still worth the effort. Especially for the gorgeously staged set-pieces that bristle with wit and suspense, as well as some terrific nods to classic cinema.
After training in the Soviet Union, four Chinese Communist operatives are dropped into snowy Manchukuo in 1931 to track down a witness to an atrocity committed by the Japanese occupiers. Team leader Zhang (Zhang) splits up the couples, assigning his wife Yu (Qin) to work with the younger Chuliang (Zhu), while he partners with Chuliang's girlfriend Lan (Liu). Both duos quickly discover that there's a traitor undermining their mission, preventing them from contacting each other. And the city is overrun with aggressive secret police and double agents who are either helpful or murderous.
Amid continual snowfall, Zhang finds stunning ways to capture the action in a variety of eye-catching settings. A scene on a train, where the four spies pretend not to know each other while ingeniously exchanging messages, is superbly played. Fight sequences are inventively choreographed to make them gripping and often surprising. A desperate car chase through crowded, icy city streets is jaw-dropping. And each standard spy movie element is deployed with riveting twists.

The terrific cast layers personal feelings into intense situations, which adds a kick to the action moments. The four central characters are elusive but engaging, revealing personalities in their eyes rather than through the script. Each has an involving role to play in the larger story, and each shines, particularly Zhang in the most gruelling sequences, Yu Hewei as a pivotal double agent, and Qin and Liu as women who are unusually complex for the genre. Meanwhile, Ni marauds through the background as the villainous Chief Gao, using horrific torture without a second thought.

Indeed, the violence gets genuinely nasty. And deeper emotional angles also emerge among soldiers who may not live to see the revolution they're fighting for. In addition, Zhang and Yu have their own mission to find the two children they left behind. All of this adds depth of feeling to the spectacular imagery and escalating spy shenanigans. As they are fighting in the name of Communism on an operation called Utrennya (Russian for dawn), the loaded question is whether everything will be fine when the sun rises.

cert 15 themes, violence 28.Apr.21

The Columnist   De Kuthoer
Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
The Columnist
dir Ivo van Aart
scr Daan Windhorst
prd Kaja Wolffers, Sabine Brian, Ronald Versteeg
with Katja Herbers, Bram van der Kelen, Claire Porro, Medina Schuurman, Jessica Zeylmaker, Harry van Rijthoven, Rein Hofman, Genio de Groot, Firy Beuk, Achraf Koutet, Thomas Hoppener, Gillis Biesheuvel
release Ned 8.Jan.20,
UK 12.Mar.21, US 7.May.21
20/Netherlands 1h26

fright fest

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Infused with pitch-black humour, this Dutch thriller is a witty take on the idea that you should never read anonymous online comments. The film is directed and played with a straight face, even as the plot becomes increasingly silly. And the violence is often absurd. But there are deeper issues underpinning the story, adding sharply provocative kicks along the way. It's gruesomely entertaining, even as the point becomes muddled.
Amid a barrage of negative online trolling, author and columnist Femke (Herbers) tries to encourage people to agree to disagree. Eventually she gives up, abandoning social media altogether. On a deadline to submit her novel, she's distracted by the anonymous bile still pouring in, which becomes grotesquely violent in nature. Some of the worst posts come from her bigoted neighbour (Hofman), whose continual noisy construction projects are making her even more crazy. So she decides to take matters into her own hands. Then she starts tracking down her nastiest critics to deliver grisly vengeance.
As her murderous spree kicks off, Femke begins a relationship with successful author Steven (van der Kelen), whom she doesn't really respect. And her teen daughter Anna (Porro) is clashing with her headmaster (van Rijthoven) over opinionated editorials in the school paper. Anna also begins to make some connections with news headlines, even as the police fail completely to put the clues together. This stirs some offbeat suspense into the movie, especially as Femke seems to be so indiscreet.

Herbers is excellent as a woman who feels like everything is conspiring against her. Her casual, calm approach as she takes grisly action is both amusing and eerily resonant as she adds to her body count. She doesn't have much of a connection with anyone else, barely acknowledging either Anna or Steven. Porro and van der Kelen play them with grounded realism as people dealing with their own issues before they notice what Femke might be up to.

There are a range of big issues at play here, from sexism to right-wing prejudice. This adds strong texture, even if the script never really digs into the topicality. Although, despite the similar narrative about an in-control woman on a revenge spree, this is far more of a pastiche than Promising Young Woman. When Femke confronts her trolls about their vile comments, they try to insist that it was a joke. And her insistence that she's not a monster rings just as hollow.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 26.Apr.21

Homeward   Evge
Review by Rich Cline | 4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Nariman Aliev
prd Vladimir Yatsenko
scr Nariman Aliev, Marysia Nikitiuk
with Akhtem Seitablaev, Remzi Bilyalov, Dariya Barihashvili, Viktor Zhdanov, Veronika Lukyanenko, Akmal Gurezov, Larysa Yatzenko, Anatoliy Marempolskiy, Oleg Moskalenko, Arseniy Zurov, Oleksiy Yerko, Danylo Chornomorets
release Ukr 7.Nov.19,
US 19.Nov.19, UK 23.Apr.21
19/Ukraine 1h36


Is it streaming?

seitablaev and bilyalov
Beautifully observed, this sensitive Ukrainian drama explores powerfully resonant themes as it sends a Crimean Tatar father and son on a momentous cross-country journey. With his first feature, Nariman Aliev skilfully directs scenes to cut to the heart of the matter, capturing subtly jagged textures in the interaction as these men grapple with each other and themselves. The simple idea is strikingly developed to get deep under the skin.
In Kyiv, Mustafa (Seitablaev) greases bureaucracy to claim the body of his son Nazim, killed in the war. His younger son Alim (Bilyalov) is studying journalism in the city, but Mustafa insists that he travel with him to deliver the body to Crimea. Before leaving, they stop at the flat Alim shared with Nazim and his shattered widow Olesya (Barihashvili). But Mustafa refuses to let her come with them. As father and son hit the road, they continually get into trouble because the hot-headed Mustafa is sidestepping regulations about transporting a cadaver.
Mustafa is a bundle of rage, blaming everyone else for the fact that Nazim and Alim left their homeland and abandoned Islamic traditions. Although his stubborn control-freak ways reveal the reason, as does an encounter with his estranged brother and sister-in-law (Gurezov and Yatzenko). Through a series of small adventures, Mustafa and Alim are forced to truly see each other for the first time, and each has a lot to learn. All of this is expertly shot by Anton Fursa and seamlessly edited by Alexander Chorny.

There's astonishing honesty in this father-son interaction, played with open emotion by Seitablaev and Bilyalov. Their scenes are a terrific mix of begrudging affection and resentment, so it's moving when they connect on a deeper level. A scene in which Mustafa teaches Alim how to fight with a knife, photographed in an extended long-shot, is stunning. Side roles are equally authentic, sharply well-played as people intersect with the central story and make important comments on larger issues.

Aliev is a filmmaker to watch. Mustafa's status as an outsider in his homeland, now occupied by Russia, is fascinating. He spent his life building up his farm for his sons, but now his wife and eldest child have died, and his younger son wants a life far away. These larger issues about legacy, family and identity bring the film to life in an intensely personal way, especially in the exceptionally moving final act. As Alim's uncle asks, "Who will need us if we don't need each other?"

cert 15 themes, language, violence 14.Apr.21

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