Leeds Film Festival 2009 - Day 3

First Squad - The Moment of Truth (Jpn/Rus) (site/wiki)

The first anime of the festival, First Squad played as an unusual mix of faux live-action documentary mixed with traditional animated action-adventure. Set in Russia during the time of the second world war, we meet Nadia, one time member of the Sixth Division, an experimental Soviet psyops group of teenagers banded in response to the Ahnenerbe, an SS-subdivision that was looking into the occult (yes, as well as the US Army in Thursday's The Men who Stare at Goats, the Germans were crazy enough to spend time and money doing it too). Nadia was the only one left alive after a German ambush on their training camp and has ended up a wandering stray, doing cheap tricks amongst the troops to earn her living.

First Squad's hinges around the notion of 'Moments of Truth' - periods in history where decisive decisions were taken that massively affected the outcome, and if someone were able to 'see' such a moment coming, they could hold sway in battle. Thus Nadia is brought back into the army to try and ressurect the other members from the world of the undead so they can help in the fight against the Nazi's, who themselves have decided to raise Baron Von Wolff, a crusader knight killed by the Soviet sword and looking for revenge.

In among segments of the main story, we have short bursts of the afore-mentioned talking heads, where actors playing soldiers from both sides give semi-factual accounts of the things going on at the time, which gives it the impression of trying to back up the supernatural goings-on you just saw animated at you. I think perhaps budgetary issues crept in as well, since the film had an anime series feel to it; fewer frames of animation to keep costs down, and a ridiculous use of panning and tracking over static images to give the impression of action, although there were some genuinely beautiful scenes as well.

It was a distracting hour or so of bang-crash, with some real-world tethering to keep it interesting and to stop it becoming too silly. 6.5/10

Turn It Loose (US) (site)

Welcome to the world of BBoys, which sounds as if it has something to do with Thailand and tucking genitals between your legs, but is actually a form of breakdance-off between contestants. Sponsored by Red Bull (who seem to have their fingers in several sporting pies at the moment), the BC-One has run from 2004 and brings together in tournaments the best 16 contenders from around the world. In 2007, when the film was set, it was held in South Africa in an abandoned power station.

This documentary looks at the lives of several of the contenders, who mainly come from the poorer parts of the places they represent, often citing the dancing as saving them from going off the rails and into drugs and guns. Flipping back and forth between visiting them in their home towns to get a little of their backstory, and the footage of the event itself, (taken with high-quality slow motion and stereoscopic 3D cameras, so you get to see some fantastic moves in intricate detail) the film tries to focus on the human element behind the confrontational WWF-style face-offs and baying crowds. You might not expect for example the players to be so friendly with each other off the floor, and even gentlemanly on it. One early round between two players sees one of them make a mistake during one of their moves, landing badly and not recovering well enough to hide it. The slow-mo cameras catch both the moment of failure and the look of anguish on his opponents face, who immediately goes over and consoles him.

My only criticisms of this film are that the cameras were a little too intrusive in places; there were clearly times when contenders met up before the competition and they had nothing to say in front of the camera, and shuffled uncomfortably at the attention they were getting; there also seems to be a little direction here and there, becoming more prevalent in documentaries these days, unfortunately. But those are not enough to spoil a surprisingly great film. The dance-offs are fantastic to watch, the backstories give a warmth and humanity to the film, and the overall positive vibes can't be avoided. 7.5/10

Gandahar / Light Years (Fra) (wiki)

Rene Laloux directed three main animated films in his career, and this one made in 1987, was his last. Laloux is often credited as a source of inspiration by some of the leading animated filmmakers down the ages, including anime legend Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki's themes in Nausicaa and Laputa both pre-date this film, and I wonder if the admiration wasn't mutual, as there are several similar themes echoed here.

The country of Gandahar is pretty peaceful, its people happily pottering about, living in peace with the animals and plants. Jasper, the central city of privileged inhabitants is in the form of a huge stone head on a cliff, the cliff side carved into the body. One day, an outlying settlement is attacked. Strange beings turn the inhabitants to stone and are carried off.

Syl, a warrior is nominated as the one who will find out what is up, and finds a world of Kryten-like robots, a race of hugely deformed Gandaharians, and a huge bloated mother brain, all it seems the result of botched genetic experiments by Gandahar inhabitants from years before. Syl must do battle with the brain, named Metamorphosis, but is it wholly to blame for the advancing hoards on Jasper, and what about the mysterious gate where stone people go in and more robots come out?

Before you go into a Laloux film, it's clear you need to leave your beliefs, logic and any ideas of what things should be like in the world at the door. These films contain both a very individual animation style, and the output of an imagination left completely to go where it will, and in Laloux' case, this includes crazy plants and animals, and a lot of nubile wenches with everything on display. Bosom and nipple overload await. It should be said however, that these novelties soon become just the normal thing, and the viewer can concentrate more on the story rather than the visual quirks. As an animation milestone, it is pretty much required text, and fortunately as a story, it also has enough to it to be both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. 7/10

Fantastic Planet / Savage Planet (Fra) (wiki)

Rene Laloux's first major film from 1973 was shown next. (the in-between Time Masters will be shown tomorrow but I can't make it unfortunately) Being a good decade or so earlier, it has a definately rougher feel to it, but still displays the same themes (and bosoms) and messages of environment and war that were present in Gandahar. There are also some scenes here that would be later adapted for use in Miyazaki's beautiful Nausicaa.

Ohms are human-like creatures, but instead of being the dominant species, are inches high compared to the Draags, a humanoid race of beings who occupy the place on their planet that we do on earth. Ohms are treated in a similar manner to dogs, some are kept as pets (and teased/poked/made to fight) and others are deemed to be wild and little more than infestations of vermin. When an Ohm baby's mother is killed by the innocent play of a passing Draag child, she takes the infant as her pet. Not considered intelligent enough to be a threat, she doesn't mind Terr (as she names him) accompanying her in her lessons, and so Terr picks up on a lot of Draag knowledge. Several years later Terr manages to escape and finds his way to an encampment, bringing with him a set of Draag headphones used to impart the lessons. This becomes a catalyst for unification between warring Ohm settlements and the beginnings of an uprising, to which the Draags respond with their equivalent of rentokill traps. Will either side work out that neither can win until they start treating each other with more respect?

Fantastic Planet, though showing its age even more than Gandahar, was still a thoroughly absorbing film, cleverly placing the human characters at the mercy of a more powerful alien race with all-too human behaviour leads anyone to question how they treat those around them, and the as the situation escalates as a result of the Draag-Ohm decision making, the ever-relevant parallels to current world events can't help but pour out of the screen at you. 7.5/10

Les Escargots (The Snails) (Fra)
This 1965 short film by Laloux was shown after Fantastic Planet, a comic tale of a farmer whose crop's just won't grow, until he realises that his tears contain the secret ingredients to supersize them. The morning after leaving house-sized lettuces the previous night, he finds a nightmare scenario: the snails that munched on the lettuce have also grown, and are now on the rampage! 6/10

Departures (Jpn) (site/wiki)

Respect for the dead runs even higher in Japan than most other countries, but times have altered the proceedings slightly. When a person died, they would be dressed and cleaned and prepared for the farewell ceremony by a relative, but recently this has been passed to a niche business market of preparers and dressers, who perform the rites and observe correct protocols on the familys behalf, in a process known as 'encoffinment'. The body is carefully cleaned, given a shave and placed in funeral wear by the dresser in front of the family, taking care to give the body as much dignity as possible when removing clothes by skilful use of a sheet to avoid any bared skin. It is a thankless job, and one looked down on in Society, despite its obvious requirement. A film about the ups and downs of one of these workers obviously treads on some of Japan's cultural taboos.

Daigo is a competent but unremarkable cello player. Bad luck strikes when his orchestra disbands just as he gets what must be the worlds most expensive cello to play in it. This puts him as the non-earning half of his relationship to Mika who smiles sweetly on the bits of news he tells her, not aware of the level of debt as Daigo neglected to mention it.

To ease their burden, they move to Daigo's late mother's house which still contains his estranged (and hated) father's record collection. There they make the best of it until a mysterious job advertisement comes along for work with 'departures'. Good money, full time job, no experience required. So Diago unwittingly ends up as a encoffinment dresser, something he initially balks at, and keeps secret from Mika (who understands it to be something to do with wedding ceremonies given his carefully selected wording) until she inevitably learns the truth in the least noble way possible.

Encoffinment larks don't sound like ideal source material for an Oscar-worthy film, but that's what you have here. Departures won the 2009 Foreign Language Oscar, and rightly so in my opinion. It's one of those films that creeps up and surprises the viewer with it's effectiveness at putting you through all the major emotions. As Daigo learns his craft, he gains an appreciation and satisfaction from witnessing the final farewells of different families and how they handle the loss, and takes us with him. It is a deeply human film about death and facing up to it, but full of positives and deep life truths; it doesn't even come into it that it is a different culture to this western audience, as I looked around and saw everyone enthralled with what they saw, many letting slip the odd tear in some of the more powerful scenes. The best film of the festival so far. 8.5/10

Film Count: 10/150

No comments: