- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (13/3/2020)
(Reviews of Bacurau; Calm With Horses; And Then We Danced; Sea Without Shore; and Immortal Hero)
Richard Connell's short story, `The Most Dangerous Game', was published in Collier's Magazine in January 1924. Also known as `The Hounds of Zaroff', this chilling parable about a man killing his fellow humans for sport has been adapted for the screen on several occasions since Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks headlined Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel's The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Among the better variations are Robert Wise's A Game of Death (1945), Roy Boulting's Run For the Sun (1956), John Woo's Hard Target (1993) and Ernest R. Dickerson's Surviving the Game (1994). Now, two films inspired by Connell's tale reach UK cinemas in quick succession, Craig Zobel's The Hunt and Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles's Bacurau. The former is being supported by a sensationalist TV advertising, but the latter is more considered and likely to leave a more significant cinematic legacy.
As the focus a few years into the future narrows from outer space to the sertão of Western Pernambuco in the north-eastern corner of Brazil, Teresa (Bárbara Colen) passes a car accident involving a cargo of coffins, as she returns to the quilombo of Bacurau for her grandmother's funeral. Dr Domingas (Sónia Braga) causes a fuss at the wake by accusing the 94 year-old of having been a witch who spawned nothing but whores and thieves. But her son, Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), counters with a valediction that is applauded before the villagers follow the coffin to the cemetery. As she stands beside the grave, Teresa thinks she sees water seeping out from under the lid of the casket.
Plinio is the local teacher and he is surprised to discover that Bacurau has disappeared from the satellite maps online and has to use a scroll map on the wall to show his class where their home is located. He disapproves of Teresa and her sister Madalena (Eduarda Samara) having anything to do with Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a reformed outlaw who prefers to go by the name Acácio and wishes that CCTV footage of his Top 10 lethal heists wasn't fetishised online. However, he reserves his special ire for Mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), who is so detested for blocking the water supply that the streets empty when he pays a surprise visit to campaign for the forthcoming election in Serra Verde. In addition to bringing food supplies, Tony also empties a dumper truck full of books for the school. But he is greeted only with catcalls and a protest from Domingas when he bundles Sandra (Jamila Facury) into the back of his car.
As what looks like a flying saucer hovers over the road leading into the village, Plinio invites his neighbours to take their share from the foodstuffs (most of which have passed their best before dates) that Tony brought. However, Domingas drops some mood-enchancing pills into the bin and urges no one to touch them. Sandra arrives home by foot and insists she is fine. During the night, horses bolt into the quilombo from a nearby farm and Pacote is worried that something odd is going on. His suspicions are confirmed when Erivaldo (Rubens Santos) arrives with holes in the side of his water tanker, as he hadn't heard any shots and gaudily dressed bikers João (Antonio Saboia) and Maria (Karine Teles) ride in from nowhere and mooch around the store (where Maria leaves a tracking device under the pool table) before beating a retreat with the taunting lyrics of a song by guitar-plucking balladeer Carranca (Rodger Rogério) ringing in their ears.
Meanwhile, Flavio (Márcio Fecher) and Maciel (Val Junior) have ridden out to return some of the horses to the farm. Ignoring Pacote's warning to head back, they discover that the occupants have been slaughtered and they are also gunned down by Maria and João when they encounter them on the dirt road. The surveillance saucer records the incident and beams back images to base with a female voice chuckling over the footage.
The bikers make for a compound run by Michael (Udo Kier), where they are debriefed at a meeting attended by the American guests who have come to Brazil to hunt humans with vintage weapons. Terry (Jonny Mars) and Jake (James Turpin) are congratulated on the farm job, but João and Maria are castigated for taking kills to which they were not entitled. Moreover, they are taunted for not being pure whites before they are summarily executed on the spot. It's discovered from his wallet that João was a federal judge from the south.
Having found Flavio and Maciel's bodies, Pacote drives into the bush to track down the androgynous Lunga (Silvero Pereira) and his sidekicks, Bidê (Uirá dos Reis) and Raolino (Valmir do Côco), who have been exiled from Bacurau and live in the lookout tower overlooking a redundant dam. They agree to lend their assistance to the rearguard that Pacote fears will be required and are cautiously welcomed back by the villagers. While they are burying their cousins, however, some of the children wander off to play a dare game that involves walking into the darkness with a torch. One boy comes face to face with Joshua (Brian Townes), who shoots him with a silencer on his weapon and he disappears into the night, as the kids run away screaming.
No sooner do they report what has happened than the power to Bacurau is cut. In blind panic, Claudio (Buda Lira) and his wife, Nelinha (Fabiola Liper), jump in their car and drive away. However, they are spotted by the drone and they are riddled with bullets by Jake and Julia (Julia Marie Peterson), who savour the adrenaline rush of killing their quarry and even revel in being on camera as they have sex in the grass.
Back at base, Terry objects to Joshua killing a small boy and Kate (Alli Willow) and Bob (Charles Hedges) look on anxiously as he accuses Michael of being a Nazi for believing that all targets are legitimate. However, Michael takes exception to what he calls an unjustified cliché and he pops a pellet into Terry's body armour to warn him against taking liberties. He also reminds them that they are not superior beings, but are merely ordinary people who could afford to indulge their bloodlust.
The next morning, Willy and Kate sneak up on a small-holding, where Robson (Edilson Silva) is watering his greenhouse naked. He returns to the house, as the hunters approach. But he heard them coming and blasts Willy's head off, while his naked wife, Daisy (Ingrid Trigueiro), wounds Kate in the side. Using an auto-translation device, she pleads with them to help her and they give her a pill before driving her to Bacurau, which is now being circled by Michael and the others. He leaves them to it and, following a testy contretemps with Domingas outside her shack (with Spandau Ballet's `True' playing in the background), he perches on a vantage point overlooking the village.
Joshua and Julia are disturbed by the sight of bloodstained clothing hanging on a washing-line and are puzzled why there is nobody around. Bob and Jake have also been paired together, while Terry creeps into the compound on his own. He makes his way into the museum, where he notices that some firearm exhibits have been removed from the wall. However, he is hit in the back and set upon by Lunga, who decapitates him and emerges into the sunlight holding his head. Meanwhile, Michael has killed the two men who have brought a consignment of coffins in the quilombo. He also takes out Bob, causing Jake to panic. But his preoccupation with events in Bacurau knock him off his guard and he is captured at gunpoint by one of the villagers. As DJ Urso (Junior Black) reads out the names of the victims, the coffins are lined up along the street.
It's at that moment that Tony arrives and he is surprised to see the locals digging a hole in the road. He asks after the gringo tourists and tries to deny knowing Michael when he is brought before them. Realising that the mayor had been in cahoots with the maniac in a bid to liquidate his awkward opponents, the residents send Tony to his fate on the back of a mule, while Michael is sealed alive in a cage in the ground. He roars at them that this is only the beginning, but they don't hear him, as they pat down the disturbed dirt.
It there's a fault with Kleber Mendonça Filho's third feature, it's that it rather peters out after a meticulously modulated set up that promises so much suspense. Directing with Juliano Dornelles, who had served as production designer on Neighbourhood Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016), Filho allows the audience to get to know Bacurau and its residents. The local brothel sees more action than the church, while everyone is partial to a spot of capoeira and the odd psychotropic pill. But no one judges anyone, with Domingas being forgiven her drunken tirade at the funeral and Lunga being accorded a prodigal's welcome (although it's never made entirely clear why he was excluded). Consequently, the villagers are much better prepared to withstand the murderous invasion of a ragtag gang of gringos, who largely remain ciphers. Indeed, only Terry gets to explain his motives for coming on the expedition and his need to channel his rage at his ex-wife hardly feels like sufficient justification for a cold-blooded killing spree.
The fact that Mayor Tony has made such a treacherous a pact with the Americans makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is a stand-in for Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is a close ally of Donald Trump. Filho and Dornelles have distanced themselves from such speculation by insisting that the scenario had a lengthy gestation period (from 2009). They also point to Bacurau's kinship with Warsaw Ghetto and My Lai, but few will be wholly persuaded by their protestations. The recurring use of tropes from the Hollywood Western only reinforces the connection, even though Brazilian film-makers have long been appropriating genetic conventions for the cangaço brand of bandit pictures that reached its apogee with Glauber Rocha's Antonio das Mortes (1969). That said, the influence of Sergio Leone and John Carpenter is much stronger than that of such Western stalwarts as John Ford or Anthony Mann.
Such is the ensemble nature of the project that only Sónia Braga, Thomas Aquino and Udo Kier really stand out, although that might have been different had the co-directors not ditched an idea to make Lunga a trans woman. If the Americans feel a tad stereotypical to our eyes, there's every chance that Latin American audiences might find the Bacurauanos equally glib. But Filho and Dornelles stress the difference in political attitudes and leave no one in any doubt which side they are on.
On the technical side, Pedro Sotero's widescreen cinematography gives this sertão safari a sense of expansiveness. But his use of close-ups also ensures a degree of intimacy within the village that contrasts with the cantankerous crampedness of the tourist billet. Credit here goes to production designer Thales Junqueira, whose one-street setting reinforces the Western link, while editor Eduardo Serrano's use of editorial gimmicks like lateral wipes nods to the Spaghetti variation, as well as old school Brazilian cinema. As for Filho and Dornelles, they can't be faulted for their ambition in leaving Recife behind. But, their themes lack precision and a much-needed satirical edge, while the denouement is frustratingly short of suspense and spectacle.
CALM WITH HORSES.
Having attracted festival attention with the shorts, Dancing in the Ashes (2012), Slap, Out of Sight (both 2014) and Group B (2015), National Film and Television School graduate Nick Rowland has mostly been working in television prior to making his feature bow with Calm With Horses. Adapted by Joe Murtagh from a Colin Barrett story that was published in a collection entitled, Young Skins, this offers few surprises in terms of narrative. Indeed, this West of Ireland saga shares an air of inevitability with Abner Pastoll's Ulster tale, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find (2019). But the characterisation is strong, as is the sense of place.
Known to everyone as `Arm', Douglas Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) started working for the drug-dealing Devers family after his boxing career ended in ignominy. His mate Dympna (Barry Keoghan) offered him board and lodging in return for the odd bit of strong-arming and he doesn't hold back with the punishment beating meted out to Fannigan (Liam Carney) after he climbed into bed with Dympna's youngest sister, Charlie (Hazel Doupe), after a night of heavy drinking.
Although he's not the sharpest, Arm understands the concept of loyalty and is grateful to the Devers for taking him on. However, not everyone approves of his association, including his estranged partner, Ursula (Niamh Algar), who is the mother of Arm's five year-old son, Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney), who doesn't speak and has behavioural issues. Urusula has found a new school for Jack in Cork and drops a hint that she would appreciate some extra financial support. She is cross with him for trying to fob her off with the plasma TV he stole from Fannigan after his pulping and asks him to take Jack to the swings while she runs some errands.
Unfortunately, Dympna whisks Arm away to a meeting with his ferocious uncles, Hector (David Wilmot) and Paudi (Ned Dennehy), who finds Jack in the backseat of the car, while his brother is lecturing Dympna for going too easy on Fannigan. Indeed, he wants him dead and tells his nephew that he will not tolerate any failure to carry out his orders. Ursula is also furious when Arm rolls up in Dympna's car at the stables where Jack has therapeutic riding sessions. She tells him about moving to Cork and accuses him of having let the Devers turn him into their attack dog.
Following a coke-snorting session in an abandoned train carriage and a fight in the local pub, Dympna and Arm wind up in a club. The latter spots Ursula with Rob (Anthony Welsh), whom he had seen at the stables, and tries to make drunken conversation. He reveals that he was forced to quit boxing after killing an opponent and realises that it was Rob who persuaded Ursula to move Jack away. Dympna drags him into the washroom and feeds him more cocaine, as he explains that he needs him to push Fannigan off the cliffs on his way home or his uncles will come looking for them.
Leaving the garish red light of the club, Arm follows Fannigan along a remote path. He orders him to strip naked, but can't bring himself to push him over. Instead, he tells him to disappear to where no one can find him and spends a restless night worrying that he has done the wrong thing. Borrowing Dympna's car, he drives out to the stables, where Rob lets him ride a horse around the ring. They go for a burger afterwards and Arm accepts that Ursula has to do what's best for Jack. However, he persuades her to let him babysit when she goes to Cork for a job interview.
At Charlie's birthday party, Hector informs Arm that Paudi thinks he let Fannigan off lightly and wants to hear a first-hand account of his demise. Before the meeting, Arm takes Jack to the fair and he is having a nice time until he forces him to hold the gun at a rifle range. The boy begins to scream and bites Arm on the hand and, with everyone watching, he has to bundle him over his shoulder and drop him off with Ursula's disapproving mother (Ally Ni Chiarain) on her soulless housing estate. But Ursula is livid with him for upsetting Jack and she hisses that his bond with the Devers clan is more like servitude than loyalty.
On arriving at the farm, Arm and Dympna learn from Paudi that a faithful Alsatian has to be put down because its tongue has been stung by a wasp. Out in the barn, however, they see Fannigan's naked body hanging upside down from the rafters and Paudi orders Dympna to execute Arm for botching the job. He proves unable to shoot, however, and urges Arm to make a dash for the car. An irate Paudi follows and blasts Arm in the side, as he opens the door. A high-speed chase ensues along a road winding through the bleak countryside until Arm manages to give Paudi the slip. He patches his wound with gaffer tape and calls Ursula to promise he will do right by her. But his plan to rob Hector's mistress, Maire Mirkin (Brid Brennan), goes wrong and he is forced to flee empty handed after Paudi discovers his whereabouts.
Notwithstanding the formulaic nature of the narrative, Calm With Horses proves to be every bit as gripping as Francis Annan's Escape From Pretoria, which similarly rose above its limitations to engross. Despite the marked difference in tone, there are faint echoes of Peter Foott's The Young Offenders (2016) in the way in which Rowland and Murtagh explore the limited and narrowing options open to Arm and Dympna. Otherwise, the makers rarely deviate from the noir playbook, as the genial palooka is exploited by the psychotics who are too cowardly to do their own dirty work.
Unrecognisable from the dashing Victorian groom he played in William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth (2016), Cosmo Jarvis commendably buries his New Jersey accent in eliciting audience sympathy for Arm's well-intentioned, but wholly misguided blundering. For all his imposing presence, however, his best scenes reveal a gentler side, as he struggles to find the words to express his love for his lost love and their son. Niamh Algar similarly impresses in a more sketchily stereotypical role, while Barry Keoghan's swaggering sense of thuggish entitlement is complemented by David Wilmot's gauche affectations and Ned Dennehy's simmering menace. That said, viewers have to take for granted the grip exerted by the Devers mob, as there is little palpable sense of how their threat looms over the town.
Shooting in Galway and County Clare, cinematographer Piers McGrail scrupulously avoids pictorialism. His use of bleary close-ups to convey Arm's punch-drunk perspective is also effective, although the decision to bathe the nightclub in red light feels as clumsy as the bantering exchange between Arm and Dympna about the long-before-their-time TV shows, Perry Mason and A Man Called Ironside. Yet, despite such missteps and the join the dots nature of the storyline, this represents a solid debut and it will be interesting to see how Rowland handles that tricky second feature.
AND THEN WE DANCED.
In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, British audiences got to see many more films from Russia's satellite republics. However, the last titles to reach these shores from Georgia were Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines and Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross's In Bloom (both 2013), which makes the arrival of Levan Akin's And Then We Danced all the more pleasurable, even though the director actually hails from Stockholm. Following on from Certain People (2011) and The Circle (2015), this is an engrossing study of Georgian notions of masculinity and the country's attitude to homosexuality.
Merab Lominadze (Levan Gelbakhiani) is studying at the dance school of the National Georgian Ensemble in Tbilisi. He has been dancing with Mary Kipiani (Ana Javakishvili) since the age of 10 and is put out when instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) pairs her with new arrival, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), after criticising his performance for being too expressive. Outside rehearsals, Merab works as a waiter for the grasping Shalva (Soso Abramishvili) and often brings home leftovers to share with his mother, Teona (Tamar Bukhnikashvili), grandmother Nona (Marika Gogichaishvili) and troublesome brother, David (Giorgi Tsereteli), whose antics annoy their neighbour, Aurora (Eka Mzhavanadze), in a cramped tenement.
Merab and David are the sons of Ioseb (Aleko Begalishvili), a once promising dancer who now has a stall at the local market. Senior director Beso (Marlen Egutia) recalls him with fondness and, in announcing that an audition will be held to find a new male dancer for the company, he urges Merab to remember that Georgian dance represents the spirit of the nation. However, his pride takes a knock when Aleko has Irakli replace him in a key show duet with Mary and he is upset by her careless remark that he is perhaps better suited to a very macho routine.
Embittered by his own experiences with the Ensemble, Ioseb advises Merab to quit dancing and get a proper job. But he is determined to make the grade and is annoyed to discover that Irakli also comes in early to warm up. He resists his offer to help with a tricky step, but is won over when Irakli brings David home after a night of heavy drinking and they get the bus together to the studio the next morning. As they take a break, Irakli asks about Merab and Mary's relationship and inquires whether her best friend, Ninutsa (Nino Gabisonia), has a boyfriend.
During rehearsal, Aleko tells Merab to warn David that he will be fired if he misses another class. He also breaks the news that Merab and Irakli will be taking over David's duet and that they have been selected along with three others for Beso's audition. Overjoyed, the pair go out to celebrate with Mary, Ninutsa and Sopo (Ana Makharadze) and wind up dancing the night away with locals in a bar. Mary has managed to get hold of a condom and asks Merab to sneak away with her to make love for the first time in the nearby park. But he says they should wait for a special occasion and goes home with Irakli to meet his grandmother, Rusudan (Tamari Skhirtladze). After breakfast, they chat in Irakli's bedroom about who is going to pass the audition and Merab realises he is getting a crush.
The friends travel by car to Mary's birthday party in the country and Merab and Irakli bop together to Abba's `Take a Chance on Me'. They are sharing a room with David and, when the girls come to wish them goodnight, Mary and Merab have an affectionate hug. Unable to sleep on the floor, Merab goes for a smoke and returns to find Irakli missing. He tracks him down to a remote part of the garden, where a play fight over a cigarette culminates in some mutual masturbation.
Merab is worried that Irakli will avoid him the next morning. But after the menfolk sing a traditional close harmonised ballad, the boys share a pomegranate and dance with such vigour that Mary becomes a little bit suspicious. She also hears them creeping back to their room after the pair have sex for the first time after Merab dons a white papakha hat to cavort to Robyn's `Honey'. Irakli avoids eye contact in the car back to the city, but Merab is deeply in love and can barely stop himself from grinning. By contrast, Mary is distraught, especially when she hears that the dancer Beso is seeking to replace is now working as a rent boy after he was thrown out of the troupe for sleeping with another man and was then abused at the monastery to which he had been dispatched to straighten out.
Things start to go wrong for Merab on their return, however. David is thrown out of the school for criminal activities and then loses Merab his restaurant job when he is caught buying drugs on his first night on trial. Moreover, Irakli has gone quiet and there is no sign of him at his grandmother's house. Seeking solace in a wild night's dancing with a man he met on a bus, Merab arrives at class hungover and hurts his ankle when Aleko forces him to do a pirouette. Mary tries to put cold water on the swelling, but sees the joy in Merab's face when Irakli calls him to apologise for having to return to Batumi in a hurry because his father is sick. She storms out on him, but Merab ignores Aleko's suggestion that he sits out the audition and his accusation that he lacks the requisite masculinity for Georgian dance.
Arriving home after Mary had to stop Luka (Levan Gabrava) and the other male dancers from beating him up for being gay, Merab learns that David is getting married to Sopo after getting her pregnant. He tries to put weight on his foot, but the pain is too great and he is distraught at the prospect that everything he has worked for might be over. The bride and groom look thoroughly miserable at the hastily arranged wedding and Merab is surprised to see Irakli in the congregation. However, he has returned to collect his things, as he is moving back home to marry his girlfriend and look after his mother.
Having patched things up with Mary, Merab heads home. He is woken by David slumping on to his bed, with his face cut and bruised after getting into a fight with Luka over his brother's sexuality. David urges Merab to leave Georgia, as he can never be happy there. But he still has a point to prove and, with Mary watching on from the balcony. Merab overcomes the pain in his ankle to give Aleko and Beso a demonstration of agility, power and courage before slamming the studio door behind him.
Akin was inspired to make this film by the violence orchestrated by the Orthodox Church against a pride parade in Tbilisi in 2013. Based on interviews that he conducted with a number of dancers and gay men in Tbilisi, his vibrant drama feels wholly authentic right up until the moment that Merab and Irakli return to the capital after their tryst in the country. From then on, however, momentous events tumble in on each other with soap operatic erraticism to rob Merab of his fleeting happiness and the few certainties on which his life was based. Such is the commitment of the performances that it's still possible to root for Merab, Mary and David, as they muddle their way towards some sort of bearable future.
Making the most of sketchy roles in a rather predictable scenario, Ana Javakishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli and Bachi Valishvili all provide solid support. But the picture belongs entirely to the wonderfully expressive Levan Gelbakhiani. One wonders whether the actor will follow the advice given to his character, as he lights up the screen and a fine career would await him in Western Europe if he had the yen to make the move. His dancing is lithe and potent and it's just a shame that Akin had cinematographer Lisabi Fridell break Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's golden rule about full-figure framing (especially as the photography at other points is so glidingly elegant). Akin and Simon Carlgren's cutting is also overly fussy during the dance sequences, as they shift focus from head to hands to torso and feet without allowing the audience to see the grace of the lines or feel the energy of the muscular choreography.
However, Akin compensates with several memorable sequences, including two sublime instances of Georgian polyphony. He also captures the atmosphere of Tbilisi and its virile conservatism, while production designer Teo Baramidze makes telling contrasts between the cramped apartment in which Merab's family live and the large houses owned by Mary's and Sopo's fathers. The use of window light and the drums in the dance studio is also thrilling, although nothing resounds more decisively than that climactic closing door.
SEA WITHOUT SHORE.
Over a decade has passed since André Semanza and Fernanda Lippi made their feature bow with Ashes of God (2003). In fact, five years have elapsed since the founders of the Anglo-Brazilian physical theatre company, Zikzira, completed their sophomore project, Sea Without Shore. But it has only just reached UK cinemas and, for all its many merits, this ambitious dance picture seems set to reach only a niche audience.
Lovers known only as Woman in Lace Dress (Lívia Rangel) and Woman With Long Black Hair (Fernanda Lippi) enjoy a clandestine romance in a remote house on the banks of a 19th-century Swedish lake. When not cycling through the woods, making garlands with wild flowers or floating on the surface of the water, the pair recline on a sofa and talk. We don't hear their voices, however. Instead, the words of British poets Katherine Philips, Renée Vivien and Algernon Charles Swinburne are spoken in Swedish over widescreen images of the women delighting in their locale and their company.
Suddenly, however, Lace Dress finds herself alone and she rolls around the wooden floor of the unlit sitting-room, with the spirit of Black Hair watching through a crack in the door. In what must be a reverie, the women are found lying in the woodland snow by a woman (Ankie Hermansson) leading two black horses and he carries them back to civilisation. They are now dressed in black instead of white and Black Hair guides her companion between the trees to the frozen lake. Lace Dress dances on the ice, as snow drifts down slowly.
The scenes similarly start to swirl, as more shots of the women and the horses are juxtaposed with hazy sunlit images of them wheeling their bikes through flower-filled fields. We also see Black Hair in distress in an alley between two buildings and Lace Dress running to assist her and meeting with some resistance. In another sequence, Lace Dress resists the efforts of Black Hair to wrap her arms around her from behind in a woodland glade surrounding the frozen lake. But, back in the house, she allows her to guide her to the sofa, where she lies back after some vigorous gyrating.
Following a scene in which a Forest Woman (Anna Mesquita av Sillén) seems to stalk Lace Dress in the whitened woods, the latter sits on a table facing a wall and gesticulates as though being racked by memories. She dances with equal fervour in semi-darkness in a clearing, with Black Hair watching her from a distance before mirroring her actions and her grunting noises. As the movements intensify, Lace Dress lets out a howl of anguish that reverberates through the night.
The next morning, a floating camera appears to approximate Black Hair's gaze, as she passes through the woods. Inside, Lace Dress dances in her parlour and she brushes past her lover. as she swoops and waves. A closing image shows her remove her coat and walk into the distance across the snow.
For anyone who hasn't the first inking of how to interpret modern dance, this is going to be a bit baffling. Yet, even complete novices should be able to glean that this is a supernatural love story that sometimes feels like a dance variation on the tragic tensions in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966). It has to be admitted that it's not always easy to tell the difference between Black Hair and Forest Woman, as they are both dressed in black and tend to be filmed from a distance in murky dusk or nocturnal light. But precise understanding isn't at issue here. This is a film about emotion and screen dance's ability to convey it with kineticism, eloquence and poignancy.
In addition to choreographing the action (which was originally intended for the stage), as well as co-directing and performing it, Fernanda Lippi also reads the poetic extracts with Marcela Rosas. But André Semenza is far from idle, as he selected the passages for the screenplay and edited the footage, using fades to black instead of conventional cuts. Marcus Waterloo's widescreen photography achieves striking contrasts between the interiors and exteriors and the landscape in the changing seasons. The crunch of ice and crack of undergrowth that accompanies the winter scenes is evocatively provided by Glenn Freemantle, whose sound design perfectly complements the score by The Hafler Trio.
It's a demanding watch and there are moments when the pace slackens and the repetitions feel strained. But this is a bold conceit that explores passion, memory and bereavement (on both sides of the void) with haunting sensitivity and hypnotic style.
The recent trickle of Christian-themed releases suggested that God moves in mysterious ways when there's a film camera around. But the likes of Jon Gunn's The Case For Christ, Kevin Sorbo's Let There Be Light (both 2017), Andrew and Jon Erwin's I Can Only Imagine (2018) and Robert Fernandez's The Pilgrim's Progress (2019) look like masterpieces beside Hiroshi Akabane's Immortal Hero, which fictionalises the life of Ryuho Okawa, the Japanese founder of the Happy Science spiritual movement, which purportedly has 12 million members in 100 countries. Scripted by his daughter, Sayaka Okawa, this 80% truthful tale was created to provide hope for a troubled world. Such motives are admirable, but the movie is not.
Successful self-help author Makoto Mioya (Hisaaki Takeuchi) is being driven to work when he falls ill. Doctors Momoyama (Ryo Tamura) and Torakawa (Ryuichi Oura) diagnosed heart failure and a pulmonary edema and inform Makato's wife, Isoko (Tamao Sato) that he won't make it to the night. She summons their three children - the rebellious Eiichi (Shio Abe), the devoted Tamami (Kei Kinoshita) and the neglected Tsuruo (Takafumi Suto) - to say their farewells. But their father insists that his willpower will enable him to fight the ailments and promises his daughter that he won't die.
Raised by nurturing parents, Makoto had studied hard and landed a good job in finance. However, recurring visitations by guardian spirits had persuaded him to write a self-help book and, when it became a bestseller, he had founded his own publishing house in order to share his inspirational wisdom with others. Among those convinced by his tomes was Isoko, whom he had met by accident following a mix-up at a matchmaking agency.
Their life had seemed idyllic until Makoto fell ill. But his insistence on recovering in his own way troubles Isoko and the sceptical Torakawa. However, Momoyama has no problem with his patient returning to health through force of will and wishes him well with his next book. Loyal assistant Saori is also delighted that her boss is on the mend and admires his vow to die for the Truth. Having been shaken by her husband's seizure, however, Isoko believes that he should take advantage of his second chance by devoting more time to his family.
While visiting his mother, Miki (Yoshimi Ashikawa), Makoto relieves her knee pain and this convinces him that he has a messianic duty to bring healing and harmony. He is further buoyed by the news that his old friend, Robert (Mark Chinnery), has been cured of cancer after reading his books. Undaunted by a journalist (Gamon Kaai) dismissing his ideas as bunkum, Makoto begins speaking out against religious intolerance and travels to London to address an important conference. While he's there, Robert is injured in a terrorist attack and Makoto delivers a passionate speech in halting English about his vocation and the significance of his message.
On the plane home, however, he feels a pang and returns to discover that Tsuruo has locked himself in his room after being bullied at school. Isoko is furious with her spouse for globe-trotting when he is needed at home and is dismayed when Makoto avers that he loves everyone as much as his family. As she rants, Isoko seems possessed by an evil spirit and she collapses after it leaves her body.
While he is concerned for her well-being, however, Makoto knows he cannot compromise and accepts her decision to leave. But his children back him to the hilt, as does Saori and they are all in the audience a year later when the first film produced by Makoto's movement has its premiere. There is reason for hope, however, as while Makoto gazes intently at the screen, Isoko takes her seat in the auditorium.
Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and, with 2500 books to his credit, Ryuho Okawa is certainly not averse to sharing his. Moreover, this is the 17th feature released by Happy Science Productions and one can only guess at the quality of the others after watching this earnest, but slipshod effort. Clearly shooting on a modest budget, Hiroshi Akabane has to make do with some amateurish supernatural effects. But his style largely consists of pointing the camera at actors who deliver their lines as though they were in a telenovela.
Utterly lacking in charisma, Hisaaki Takeuchi struggles to convey Makoto's magnetism or the potency of his message. The London speech is particularly cringe-inducing, while Makoto's dismissal of his wife's wholly valid concerns is resistibly chauvinist. Indeed, Isoko's depiction as a shrewish naysayer proves consistently discomfiting, as is the dissing of modern medicine. No doubt the film will speak to some, but you'll need more than `a bright and positive mindset' to find much of value here.