Wednesday, February 20, 2013

JDIFF - 19th February Round-up

Love is in the Air

Abbas Kiarostami's Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love is amongst the least condescending films I've ever seen, and accordingly one of the most singularly bewitching cinema experiences I've enjoyed recently. Riffing on some of the the same ideas and styles that he explored to equally fetching effect in Certified Copy, the director's latest crafts a remarkably assured pace and tone through a series of extended dialogues and quietly observed character moments. With the addition of some dreamy visuals - very often long-takes set entirely in small apartments or cars - the film invites rather than tells you to get on board with its utterly distinctive mood. It's an invitation worth accepting.

The plot, if we could call it that, follows a distraught, exhausted college student / call-girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi) as she ignores the phonecalls of her visiting grandmother to reluctantly attend to an elderly client / retired Professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). However, Takashi is seemingly uninterested in Akiko's usual services, and when Akiko drifts off to sleep before dinner he doesn't disturb her. The following morning, Takashi drops Akiko to her university where they encounter Akiko's boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase). This may not sound like particularly riveting stuff, and until the concluding fifteen minutes there's nothing traditionally 'dramatic' about the film. But there's something uniquely compelling about the way everything plays out at its own relaxed pace. The film's beautiful second sequence - where Akiko listens to a series of increasingly heartbreaking voicemails in the back of a taxi - is particularly transfixing, and a perfect primer for what follows.

Eventually the characters begin to shapeshift and engage in lies and mistruths to deal with the situations they find themselves in, with Takashi particularly almost taking on the role of spiritual grandfather to troubled, directionless Akiko. Kiarostami is, as ever, a master director that admirably allows the viewer to interpret many of the character subtleties on their own while leaving many details floating ambiguously - he retains a great trust for the audience, refusing to utilise shortcuts to articulate what he is trying to say. The few cheeky hints he does provide - such as the recurring ballad Like Someone in Love playing softly in the background - serve the engaging character dynamics without overwhelming them.

But this is a film that's all about the mood and feeling, so it's hard to articulate what makes the whole thing so hypnotic. Even when some of the film's vaguer, uncertain scenes leave you feeling a touch perplexed, this is still beguiling filmmaking from the Iranian master.

A non-traditional relationship also forms the core of the extremely atmospheric Lithuanian sci-fi romance Vanishing Waves (dir. Kristina Buozyte). From the off it becomes evident this this is a bold visual statement. The stark digital cinematography and special effects are full-on remarkable for a film that clearly must have struggled with limited resources. From the metallic walls of the laboratory where much of the action takes place, to a crimson eclipse, through to the consistently inventive lighting choices, the film's visual identity cannot be faulted. It's a purely cinematic vision from the sophomore director and her collaborators - even in hazy dreamscapes the shifting focus and dynamic camera movements ensure that every camera action is exhiliratingly motivated by the events on screen. A strange, atmospheric score enhances the images and further builds upon the film's suitably uneasy atmosphere.

The story being told I was less certain about. Scientist Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) is taking place in an experiment to mentally connect with comatose patient Aurora (Jurga Jutaite). As their strange psychological connection grows increasingly intense, Lukas' 'real-life' begins to get consumed by his obsession with his mind mate. It's hard sci-fi meets tragic romance with bursts of mental anguish - kind of like Eternal Sunshine crossed with the novel The End of Mr. Y, although much more oppressive and discomforting than either of them. While there's no doubt a steady stream of captivating surrealism, disturbing character developments and psychosexual mayhem, emotionally I struggled to connect with events. The 'real world' sequences particularly are captured with a sterility that makes it a challenge to engage fully with Lukas' various dilemmas. Indeed, the volatile lead-up to violent, tragic catharsis almost feels too easy and predictable.

Still, I don't want to significantly undermine what is mostly a provocative, intelligence and deeply distinctive production. And Byozyte manages to pull off something truly unforgettable with a couple of radically stylised concluding sequences that tie everything together with a suitably terrible beauty. Rarely has an extended three minute tracking shot of a bare arse illuminated by flashlight seemed so strangely poetic.

(Note: I won't be attending any films on either the 20th or 21st due to other commitments. Will be back to cover the concluding three days of the festival. Potential highlights include the acclaimed Beyond the Hills, the ever risky Surprise Film, Sundance favourite The Summit, and of course the much-anticipated visit of the King of the Geeks himself Joss Whedon)

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