From Up On Poppy Hill (David Larsen) I’m not sure whether this counts as a boast or a confession, but when I’m sure I’m going to watch a film, I usually try to know as little as possible about it beforehand. I knew for sure I was going to watch From Up On Poppy Hill as soon as I heard it existed, because 1) it’s from Studio Ghibli, and 2) it’s from Studio Ghibli. It was therefore counter-productive to do further research, and I was fairly aggressive about preserving my ignorance. (A film can only take you by surprise if you give it the chance).
This included reading as little as possible of the festival programme notes, which is to say I didn’t read them at all, except for glancing at the director’s name, to make sure it wasn’t the son of Hayao Miyazaki, the guy responsible for Tales From Earthsea. That would have been grounds for serious lowering of expecations. So I checked that the younger Miyazaki wasn’t at the helm for Poppy Hill, which is to say I glanced at the director’s last name, which is embarrassing to admit, because the name in question is of course a Japanese one. This is indeed the second film by Miyazaki Goro, or in standard Western form Goro Miyazaki.
Brief backstory: Miyazaki Snr is the beloved reigning genius of Ghibli, and his son’s initial directorial outing lends itself all too readily to a “children of creative geniuses shouldn’t try to be their parents” narrative. Ursula Le Guin gives a restrained account of her disappointment with the film’s treatment of her work here which is worth reading, particularly for authors mulling the sale of film rights.
From Up On Poppy Hill lists the elder Miyazaki as one of two screenwriters, and also gives him a credit for “planning”. I want to know more about this. I’ve watched all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, some of them many times, and much as I enjoy the other Ghibli works, none of them has struck me as anywhere near the level of My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away. This does. Goro Miyazaki has gone straight from making Ghibli’s worst film to making one of its best. Just how much “planning” did Dad do?
The setting is Yokohama, 1964. Umi, a 16 year old girl, lost her father in the Korean war; her mother is away on business, and Umi is running the family boarding house, while at the same time attending an elite private school. She falls in love with a boy whose name, Shun, was presumably not chosen for its English homonym, but whom, as it turns out, she may need to shun all the same; meanwhile, the delapidated old house where the school’s various clubs are all based is in danger of being torn down. Umi becomes central to the campaign to save it.
I’m writing this in a rush – more festival films to go to; it’s a hard life – but even with more time to find the right words, I despair of capturing the mood which transforms this quiet, domestic story into such a sweet viewing experience. The film was released in Japan midway through last year, so clearly it was in production long before the 2011 earthquake, but a film better calculated to ease the spirits of a traumatised nation would be hard to imagine. For one thing, 1964 was the year of the Tokyo Olympics, a major landmark in Japan’s recovery of pride post-WWII, and the sense of a country determined to pull together and achieve great things runs strong beneath the surface. The club house story is full of ridiculous, loveable characters, desperate to live up to the legacy of their honourable predecessors and keep their clubs alive, even when, as with the Philosophy Club, they’re reduced to a single member, haranguing passers-by about the life of the mind; the film wants us to laugh, but it also wants the idea of honouring the past to have weight. The students’ willingness to challenge their teachers and appeal to the school’s Tokyo chairman is balanced by the chairman’s benign disposition and reasonable attitude. At the same time, Umi is discovering that even when her feelings lead her in what seems to be the wrong direction, she can trust them. This is a deeply reassuring story, riding high on animation which is up to the usual Ghibli standards, but even more potent for being entirely realistic: the recurrent scenes of food preparation and ships passing close to land are as beautifully evocative as Ponyo‘s, but there’s no deep sea wizard here. The Ghibli film it most resembles superficially is The Whisper of the Heart, another realist story about teenage love in complex circumstances, but I found it warmer, funnier, and altogether more winning.
The Wall (Hugh Lilly) Overdubbing—recording new dialogue tracks for a film so it can be effortlessly understood by (for the most part) English-speaking audiences—is one of the worst crimes distributors and post-productions houses can commit against a film. I’m even against the ‘Disney-fication’ of Studio Ghibli films, mostly because the dialogue (and therefore the subtitles) in them is pretty damn simple to begin with. In the case of Julian Pölsler’s philosophy-leaden sci-fi clunker Die Wand (The Wall), however, I’d strongly advocate for an English overdub (by, say, Catherine Keener, or maybe Susan Sarandon).
The film—which, c’mon, really ought to have been called Cabin in the Woods—opens on a woman (Martina Gedeck, The Baader Meinhof Complex; The Lives of Others) with closely cropped, strawlike hair sitting in a dark, creepy-looking cabin writing out what she calls her ‘report’ on a period of extended solitude—i.e., the story we’re about to hear. This is where her narration begins. It does not end. The Wall is one of the only occasions where I’m on board with people who say things like “I don’t go to the movies to read.” (I don’t usually agree with people who are that unenlightened.)
We flash back every so often, somewhat unnecessarily, to see that, yes, she’s still writing, and we’re still seeing how difficult (yet always bearable, even sometimes happy) her life has been these past few seasons. Long story short: she awakes one morning (with long hair; we never do find out how or why she cut it) to find that she’s trapped in this alpine forest by an invisible, impenetrable dome-like glass wall. In order to survive, she magically teaches herself to gather hay to feed the lone cow trapped in there with her (which she works out, also magically, how to milk), and so on—generally becoming a) at peace with her sort-of hermetic fate, and b) at one with nature. Some of the more mournful of Bach’s solo-violin partitas are her story’s sporadic musical accompaniment—perfect to impress upon the viewer the film’s creeping sense of despondent isolation.
An overdub would be benefit the film for two reasons; primarily because Pölsler’s script, an adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 German novel, features (no pun intended) wall-to-wall narration. Secondly, the never-ending subtitles required to convey every nuance of this narration get in the way of the film’s extraordinary vistas (captured, according to the film’s IMDb listing, by six different cinematographers). So the problem isn’t the plot, or the film’s layout or base construction—it’s that this woman insists on telling us every single thought she has, and that all of her thoughts happen, annoyingly, to be in German. Putting a new dialogue track on the film wouldn’t necessarily destroy the wonderful work done by the actress, because the few scenes where dialogue isn’t present—when Pölsler chooses to show what happens rather than have his protagonist ponderously philosophically pontificate—her performance, like the tremendous cinematography, shines through.
Himizu (Hugh Lilly) There are some pieces of music that, by having been overused, have lost basically all meaning. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which appeared perhaps most famously in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, is one such piece; another is the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th, which the prolific Japanese filmmaker Shion Sono used in his four-hour-long 2008 opus Love Exposure. Sono also makes use—not once, but twice (!)—of Barber’s once-moving Adagio in his disappointing new film, Himizu.
Part horror-thriller, part reluctant coming-of-age romance, the film’s first 90 minutes are concerned with the day-to-day life of a potentially suicidal 14-year-old student who leaves school to work in his parents’ boat-rental shack (in their absence: his father, who hates him, leaves, while his mother was probably never there to begin with). Pestered by a female classmate, we see wild murder-spree fantasies he has—perhaps as a means of escape from the doldrums of living next to a muddy lake. By film’s end, we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.
Initially set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Sono modified his script after last year’s earthquake and tsunami, filling it with ideas about national identity and bolting on references to nuclear radiation. All of this is fine; the major problem with the film isn’t its setting, themes, acting, or anything of that sort, but rather its third-act insistence on audience identification and empathy. You can’t set up a ludicrous (but enjoyable) character in the first portion of the film only to later say “OK, now please feel bad that he’s had all these things happen to him.” Forced pathos of this sort—especially via Barber’s now-emotionless Adagio for Strings—will only ever feel hokey, if not outright bizarre.
Tabu (David Larsen) I wish I’d seen Tabu when I wrote about voiceover last week. The latest film from Portugal’s Miguel Gomes is a strange and in some respects frustrating beast; the only people I’ve spoken to who enjoyed its still, chill first half found its exuberant second half a let-down, and on the other side of the fence, I have yet to arrive at a reading which lets the second half gain much from the first. But that second half!
We meet Aurora as an old woman, living a life of frustration, paranoia and compulsive gambling. The one scene in the first half which has any zest – other than a bizarre, hilarious introductory sequence set in Africa – is an account she gives to her neighbour of the dream which inspired her latest gambling spree. The dream is also set in Africa. So it comes as only a qualified surprise when the film shifts, halfway through its length, into a flashback account of her life in Africa as a girl and young woman. The real surprise is the accompanying shift in register. The first half of the film is conventional, rather drab narrative cinema, marked out only by its not especially distinguished use of black and white rather than colour. The second half is like a silent film: we hear no dialogue, though we frequently see characters talking. We do, however, hear everything else. Two people walk through long grass, conversing. We hear every rustle, every footstep. But we don’t hear their voices. Instead we hear the calm, implacable narrative voiceover of Aurora’s former lover, telling this most flaboyantly romantic of stories as if allowing any emotion into his voice would cause him to lose control. It creates a remarkable effect, a species of visual/audio counterpoint I’ve never met before; it would be worth seeing the film simply to experience it, but the story itself is compelling. I don’t purport to have a full handle on Gomes, but this is the kind of boundary-extending film you will only meet at festival time.
Room 237 (Hugh Lilly) Geoff Dyer found it difficult, in his recent book Zona: a Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, to detail his obsession with Tarkovsky’s Stalker without resorting to painful (for the reader, but also maybe for the author) sometimes deeply personal reminiscences of his drug-addled, cinephilic youth.
In his film Room 237, a hurriedly compiled document of five people obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining, overeager first-time director Rodney Ascher attempts to eliminate his subjects’ personalities altogether—by never showing their faces. This lack of talking heads, he’s said, helps stave off any preconceptions or prejudices we might have about, for example, the way his interviewees might look, the rooms they’re in, or the clothes they’re wearing. Unfortunately the void left by not showing his interviewees is filled by oftentimes low-grade clips from an array of sources aside from just the film in question. (Even some of the Shining clips are boring to watch, particularly a mutated one in which we track through a scene almost frame-by-frame to reach a beyond-moronic, unfunny conclusion.)
By allowing the aesthetics of Internet video to invade the cinema screen, Ascher’s documentary becomes not about lending these people’s wild theories any weight or credence but about laughing at how stupid they are. This is fun, but only for about ten minutes. (The ‘film’ runs for an arduous 102 minutes.) Making matters worse is Asher’s bizarre decision to fragment his subjects’ interviews: we hear from someone rambling about the film’s recurrent use of the number 42 (which must mean 1942, which must mean WWII, which must, duh, mean the Holocaust) and then from someone else on a totally different topic, like how, if you squint, you can almost see Kubrick’s face composited into the clouds in an establishing shot (you can’t) or how, when you overlay the film playing forwards and in reverse, one dissolve sorta makes it look like there’s a giant groundskeeper sweeping the lawn next to the maze (it does!).
Later, Ascher randomly returns to the Nazi-obsessive without so much as an on-screen title telling us who’s speaking. The audio being sometimes heavily compressed makes matters even worse, as these crackpots almost meld into one. (Hmm, perhaps this was intentional.) These comingled audio-only interviews quickly become not only discombobulating, but also really bloody boring. (Disappointingly, Ascher couldn’t get the one guy I was hoping to hear from—online, he calls himself “The mstrmnd.”) Formally, Room 237 is much closer to something that would find a happy niche online, or perhaps as a DVD supplement; it basically doesn’t deserve the title ‘feature documentary.’