Parky At the Pictures (29/5/2020)
(Reviews of Only the Animals; Paths of the Soul; Krabi, 2562; Mike Wallace Is Here; and Cassandro the Exotico")
Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
ONLY THE ANIMALS.
German-born French director Dominik Moll may not be particularly prolific, but he tends to make an impression. Having followed the short, Le Gynécologue et sa secrétaire (1987), with his debut feature, Intimé (1994), Moll won the César for Best Director for the Hitchcockian thriller, Harry, He's Here to Help (2000), which was also nominated for the BAFTA for Best Foreign Film.
His follow-up thriller, Lemming (2005), premiered in competition at Cannes. But Moll failed to convince with his 2011 version of Matthew Lewis's 1796 Gothic saga, The Monk, which had long fascinated Luis Buñuel before he allowed Greek friend, Ado Kyrou, to make La Moine from the screenplay that he had written with Jean-Claude Carrière in 1972. Moreover, British audiences didn't get to see Moll's 2016 comedy, News From Planet Mars. Nevertheless, he has reunited with co-scenarist Gilles Marchand for an adaptation of Colin Niel's bestseller, Only the Animals, which is the perfect thriller for lockdown, as its twisting, nonlinear narrative demands the viewer's full focus, as every detail matters - eventually.
Following an opening shot of Rolex (Cheick Diakité) cycling through the outskirts of Abidjan on the Ivory Coast with a goat tied over his shoulders, the scene cuts to the snowy wilds of the Causse Mejean in southern France. Social worker Alice Farange (Laure Calamy) is having an affair with one of her clients, Joseph Bonnefille (Damien Bonnard), who suffers from anxiety issues. As she drives home, Alice sees an abandoned car and is surprised to hear on the TV news that it belongs to a missing Parisian woman named Evelyne Ducat (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Farmer husband, Michel (Denis Ménochet), is too wrapped up in making ends meet to pay much attention, while Alice's father (Fred Ulysse), who has his own cottage on the estate, urges her to get a divorce from a man he has never considered worthy of his daughter.
Alice is taken aback when client Madame Calvet (Jenny Bellay) asks if she loves her husband and relieved when the old lady explains that the news had claimed that Evelyne was estranged from her husband, Guillaume (Roland Plantin). She remains on edge, however, after finding Joseph in a state because someone had killed his dog and she pretends to know little about him other than the fact he was bereft after losing his mother when Gendarme Cédric Vigier (Bastien Bouillon) calls to ask whether she has noticed anything unusual on her rounds. Michel gives the cop short shrift. But, when he returns later that night with a bloody nose, Alice is convinced that he has been in a fight with Joseph over her and that Michel had attacked her lover's dog. When her husband goes missing, she confides her suspicions in Vigier.
A flashback shows Joseph finding Evelyne's corpse wrapped in a rug just before Alice turned up for a booty call. He had hidden the body behind the woodpile and been distracted throughout the visit. As soon as Alice had departed, Joseph had driven into the forest to dump the cadaver. But he had had second thoughts and had spent the night moving hay bales in his barn to create a tunnel network in order to keep the body away from prying eyes. As he had kept his mother's corpse until it had started to rot, Joseph treats Evelyne as a surrogate and even shoots his own dog after he catches it trying to pull her into the open.
Alice had turned up not long afterwards and Joseph's jumper had still been covered in straw after having dozed off beside Evelyne, whose presence drives away the voices he had been hearing in his head. Concerned that Alice will cause him trouble, he had ordered her to leave and had carried Evelyne on his backpack to the nearby quarry. Having tipped her body over the ledge, Joseph had sat for a while in the early morning light before plunging into the chasm himself.
Another flashback takes us further back in time, as the bisexual Evelyne goes on a business trip to Sète and has a fling with a waitress named Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). Despite the 20-year age difference, Marion is besotted and hitches to the Causse Mejean, where the Ducats have converted a farmhouse into a luxury retreat. En route, she flags down Michel and Alice, but he pulls away as she gets close to the car. Evelyne is peeved by the intrusion and tries to give Marion the money she needs to stay in a nearby hotel. Instead, she takes a cheaper caravan at the campsite and bombards Evelyne with phone calls pleading with her to meet.
They walk in the hills with Evelyne's dog, Fantomas, and she admonishes Marion when she puts a curse on Guillaume for standing in the way of their happiness. Marion is dismayed when Evelyn tells her that her husband has come to stay for a few days and is scared one night when she catches a face at the caravan window. However, when she finds an envelope full of money attached to the door, Marion is furious and vows to win Evelyne's heart. But, when Evelyne pays a late-night visit to explain that she likes the sex but needs to be alone, Marion pleads with her to let her love her. Unwilling to be emotionally blackmailed, Evelyne slaps Marion's face and storms out to her car - unaware that she is being followed.
Marion goes into a daze and remains huddled in her bed until Vigier comes to question her about her relationship with Evelyne. He tells her that the site janitor had heard them arguing and asks if he had been in touch with the missing woman since. Realising she is all alone, Marion throws up and starts packing to leave. She is frightened when Michel appears at the door and addresses her as `Armandine'. When he pushes his way into the caravan, Marion kicks him in the face and he reels away into the night.
A sudden cut takes us back to Abidjan, where twentysomething Amand (Guy Roger 'Bibisse' N'Drin) works as a `brouteur' or cyber-scammer, who adopts a fake identity in chatrooms in order to dupe lonely people into parting with their cash. Posing as `Amandine', he lures in Michel (who employs the handle `Zorro')and uses a photo of Marion to keep him chatting on his laptop in the barn, where he spends most of his time since his marriage to Alice started to go stale. Needing the blessings of the spirits. Amand consults shamanic gangster Papa Samou (Christian Ezan) and has to spit the blood of some entrails on to photos of Michel and Marion to show his fealty.
With a little help from a striptease video clip, the pact with ancestors seems to work, as Michel buys Amandine's sob story about needing €1000 to attend her father's funeral and buys tokens to wire to Africa. Suddenly flush, Amand buys new clothes for himself and his pals and hits a nightclub to strut his stuff. He bumps into Monique (Marie Victoire Amie) and she rides on the back of his motorbike to the love nest that has been bought for her by a French executive. Amand asks to see his daughter, Flore (Perline Eyombwan), and he is so smitten by the prospect of them becoming a family that he buys Monique a diamond and keeps fleecing Michel with stories that Amandine has been beaten by her relatives and needs the air fair to get home.
Michel suggests they meet in person and, having learned that the lovesick farmer has hidden money away from Alice so he can start a new life, Amand teases him into believing that they have a future together. That night he is troubled by the voodoo voice of Papa Sanou warning that chance can do strange things and this coincides with Michel swerving away from Marion at the layby. He returns to confess that his fortunes have turned and that he has lost his `zamou'. But Papa Sanou informs him that he has offended the spirits by not making good his promise to pay a percentage of his earnings and Amand is appalled to discover he is now €4000 in debt.
He is also confused by Michel's messages about seeing Amandine on the road, leaving her an envelope full of cash and spying on her in the caravan. Realising he needs to act quickly, he tells Michel that Amandine is both in debt and danger. This prompts the farmer to drive to the campsite, where he sees Evelyne slap Marion across the face and stalk out of the caravan. Rushing to his car, he follows her and cuts across her on a remote stretch of road. She is frightened when he upbraids her for threatening Marion, but he grabs her before she can get back in her vehicle and he throttles her against the boot. Wrapping the body in a rug, he dumps it on Joseph's land to pay him back for cuckolding him with Alice.
It's then that Amand is arrested and Michel gets a call from the Abidjan cyber-crime unit informing him that he has been scammed. Confused by the news, he drives to the campsite to confront Marion and she fights him off. More bemused than ever, Michel realises that he has murdered an innocent woman and he gets up in the night, stuffs his pockets with cash and takes a last look at the cowshed before parking his car in the middle of nowhere. The next morning, Alice and Vigier find his abandoned vehicle and have no idea that he has skipped the country and flown to Abidjan.
Michel searches everywhere for Amand and bribes one of his former co-workers into shopping him. Having learned that Monique is leaving for France with Flore, Amand puts up little fight when Michel follows him home and seizes him by the throat in pushing him against a wall. But the farmer knows there's no point in killing again and allows Amand to escape. Back in his hotel room, he stares morosely at the wall, but breaks into a smile when Amandine sends him a message. While he wallows in the dubious joy of being reconnected, Guillaume pulls up outside his rural retreat and carries the bags inside, as Monique gets a first look at her snow-covered new home and pulls her collar up against the cold.
This is possibly the slickest piece a film-making we have seen in this downright peculiar year. Yet, without its Rashamonesque structural intricacy, it's also a fairly standard slice of human interest melodrama about the kind of lonely people who populated `Eleanor Rigby'. That's not to say it isn't compelling and poignant, as Moll scatters the whodunit clues while exploring Papa Sanou's contention that `Love is giving what you don't have.'
Abetted by a superb cast and deeply indebted to editor Laurent Rouan, Moll slips between time frames and perspectives with a Chabrolian blend of sophistication and cruelty that compels viewers to accept the script's occasionally far-fetched contrivances and coincidences without (much) hesitation, as they are lured ever more deeply into the labyrinth of dashed hopes, yearnings and dreams. Patrick Ghiringhelli stark camerawork and Benedikt Schiefer's beckoning score also play ther part, as Moll posits that what used to be six degrees of separation is now only five in our digitally diminished world of unsuspected connections.
Playing against type, the usually genial Valeria Bruni Tedeschi reeks of the same sense of entitlement that drives her detestable husband to move his mistress into her home before her body has been discovered. Clearly the resourceful Guy Roger 'Bibisse' N'Drin isn't able to prevent the `colonial debt' from increasing in this regard, but he shows no mercy in playing the hulkingly embittered Denis Ménochet for all he's worth. His betrayal of the equally adulterous Laure Calamy is never properly explained, although it would appear to be rooted in the same agricultural ennui that Raymond Depardon identified in his Profils Paysans trilogy (2001-08).
Indeed, there are echoes of two more triptychs, Krzysztof Kieslowski's `Three Colours' (1993-94) and Lucas Belvaux's `Trilogie' (2002), in the way that Moll and Marchand recycle trivial details to give them seismic significance when viewed from another angle. Naturally, it's easier to sustain such a conceit over 117 minutes than three features. But, even though the convoluted framework mitigates against genuine suspense, the set-ups and rug pulls are executed with a discreet legerdemain that makes this tangled treatise on actions and consequences seem so deceptively effortless. All that's missing is the bleak wit that has characterised Moll's best work, some two decades ago.
PATHS OF THE SOUL.
Having graduated from the Central Academy of Drama in 1992, Zhang Yang is not ranked among the Sixth Generation of film-makers who emerged from the more prestigious Beijing Film Academy around the same time. Moreover, in ploughing a parallel furrow since debuting with the vignette collection, Spicy Love Soup (1997), Zhang has avoided being associated with the `Urban Generation' of independent directors that includes such arthouse favourites as Jia Zhang-ke, Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai. Like them, however, he has addressed the problems arising from the shift to market socialism and has earned a reputation as the Chinese Frank Capra for such feel-good explorations of generational differences and the importance of home in an age of dispersal as Shower (1999), Quitting (2001) and Sunflower (2005).
Some critics detected traces of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Xie Jin in the picaresque Getting Home (2007), which accompanied Zhao Benshan on an arduous trek from Shenzhen to Chongqing to return a dead friend's body to his family. Following Driverless (2010) and Full Circle (2012), Zhang returned to the notion of a journey in Paths of the Soul (2015), a subtle change of tack for a master of the sentimental dramedy that follows some ordinary Tibetans on their 1200 km pilgrimage to the holy Buddhist city of Lhasa. Making for intriguing comparison with Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth's recently released Camino Skies, this is one of the few Chinese films set in the Autonomous Region to have been given an official seal of approval.
In January 2014, yak herder Nyima Zadui agrees to escort uncle Yang Pei on a pilgrimage along Road 318 from Mangkang county in Eastern Tibet to Mount Kailash (aka Kang Rinpoche), a holy mountain outside the capital, Lhasa. As his brother had died before he could make the trip, Yang is determined to leave his village for the first time and visit his relative, Lama Thubten during the lucky Year of the Horse. Over supper, Seba Jiangcuo asks if he can tag along with his pregnant wife, Tsring Chodron, and they start to make preparations to make the wooden hand pads and stiff aprons they will need for the road ahead.
News of the expedition spreads and neighbours Rigzin Jigme and Mu Qu ask if they can join the party, along with their young daughter, Gyatso. They also begin gathering their belongings, while Nyima makes sure that his animals will be properly cared for in his absence. As mothers tend newborns in the fields, the villagers gather to watch the pilgrims depart. Nyima climbs aboard the tractor that will pull a trailer filled with supplies, tents and bedding and, as those walking the 1200 km route begin the daunting task of kowtowing every three steps, the hilllside resounds with the sound of the tractor engine, prayerful chanting and the clack made by the wooden hand planks as they hit the tarmac.
Having pitched the tent and camped for the night, the entourage sets off again the next morning on a winding mountain road that is used by fast-moving trucks. As she is so much smaller than everyone else, Gyatso lags behind and starts slipping in a few extra steps before each prostration. They spend a night beside a frozen river and have to cut into the ice to get water. Before bedtime, three of the men nip out into the moonlit chill to take a leak and they are silhouetted against the spectacular scenery. But the Dongda Mountains are also forbidding and the pilgrims trudge into a biting wind the next day that makes their progress all the more exhausting and all the more worthwhile as they seek benisons or do penance for such misfortunes as the death of two workers building a family home and a lifetime of butchering yaks for profit.
During the night, Tsering experiences abdominal pain and Seba and Tsewang Dolkar joins her in the trailer, as Nyima drives the tractor to the nearest hospital. She gives birth to a son and they name him Dingzi Dengda, which means `happiness and longevity'. Seba's father, Renqing Wangyal. comes to meet his grandson and the child is given a warm welcome when Tsering returns to the trail. As they wend their way through a landscape that's as implacable as it's beautiful, they are invited to take tea by some labourers building a house at the side of the road.
A little further on, Gyatso complains of a headache from all the bowing. Mug Qu promises to get her some medicine at the next town, but the girl is ticked off further along the route by a busybody who accuses her of taking too many steps before going prone. He also criticises another pilgrim for wearing red and ticks off another for not touching the road with his forehead. However, when Nyima's tractor begins to leak oil because a screw has bounced loose, the stranger offers the travellers sanctuary at his farm.
As the snow starts to fall, the menfolk offer to help him plough and plant a barley field and he tells one of the older pilgrims that he used to be village chief and grumbles about the fact that the young are always in such a hurry to get things done that they no longer perform the traditional rituals associated with the task. Lonely because his own family is heading towards Lhasa, the old man chatters nineteen to the dozen and commends Wangyal for giving up drinking and making the trek to atone for his sins. He also gives Tsering his old apron so that she can join the pilgrimage the next day and the party leaves refreshed from the brief stay over.
While passing through a canyon, some melting snow causes a rock fall and Jigme hurts his leg in trying to protect Gyatso. He wonders why bad things happen to decent people and Nyima agrees to pause for a few days while his injury heals. They offer tea to a pilgrim who has been on the road for almost eight months. He explains that his wife pulls the cart when the going is easy because they treat their donkey like a member of the family and don't want to work him too hard.
Passing through a rare stretch of verdant countryside, the group change into their spring outfits because the weather is improving. However, they soon need more dry clothes when they decide to kowtow their way through a shallow ford and get soaked in the process. In the tent that night, the old man leading the way with a prayer wheel commends them for showing such commitment and they all show off the bumps they have got on their foreheads from hitting the ground. But further hardships follows, as a motorist swerving to avoid a lorry rams the tractor and breaks its front axle. Nyima decides to abandon the vehicle and suggests that the men pull the trailer behind the women and, while they rest, go back and retrace their steps on their knees.
No one complains, they just bash on because they are so close to journey's end. When they come to Mount Mila, they abandon prostration in order to band together and push the trailer up the slope. They sing to lighten the burden and the camera cuts from close-up of Dengda gurgling in his swaddling clothes to long shots of the tiny specks heroically sticking to their Sisyphean task. At the top, they pause beneath the colourful prayer flags stretching across the road and toss small squares containing handwritten orisons into the air so that they catch the wind and fly where they will.
Such is the elation at reaching the crest that the pilgrims break into a run on the downside and one of the men clambers on to the back of the trailer to hitch a ride. When they camp on a grassy riverbank, they dance in a circle and sing in relief that they are through the worst and that Lhasa is in now in sight. The pause to pray when the spot the Potala Palace and go inside to pay their respects. On reaching the city, they call on Thubten, who presents them all with white silk scarves and gives Dengda a special yellow one before dandling him on his knee and giving him his blessing.
However, having come so far, the villagers have run out of money and can't afford to continue on to Mount Kailash. Their landlady allows them to stay for free in return for the women performing her quota of bows, while the men find odd jobs at carwashes and building sites to replenish their coffers. A teenage member of the party gets a crush on a hairdresser near their lodgings, while Gyatso helps Dengda learn to walk. After a couple of months, they have saved enough to buy a new tractor and they resume their pilgrimage.
Snow covers the foothills and makes kowtowing more difficult than ever. But they struggle on, even though Yang Pei has developed a nasty cough. One morning, Nyijma wakes to discover that his uncle has died in the night and he sends Jigme to fetch the Lama. While they wait, he praises his efforts in staying unmarried to raise his dead sister's children and hopes that his karma will forever be associating with the holy mountain. Having taken their offering to three monks chanting and playing damaru drums in the shadow of the peak, the villagers build a stone memorial to Yang Pei and not only wrap his scarf around it, but also leave his boots beside it. Turning to go, the pilgrims begin kowtowing again, with the implication being that they will do so all the way back to Mangkang.
One of the key features of the Fifth Generation cinema of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou was their use of the Chinese landscape and the insignificance of the individual against it. Zhang Yang and cinematographer Guo Daming certainly allude to this stylisation in the way they frame the 11 hardy souls traversing some of the most spectacular and unforgiving scenery in this part of Asia. There are also echoes of such Tibetan odysseys as Lu Chuan's Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) and Du Jiayi's Kora (2011). But it's most tempting to suggest the influence of John Ford and Winton C. Hoch in the way the rocks and sky dominate the longer shots as what could be mistaken for a wagon train creeps along on the horizon.
The visuals are simply stunning, but sound designer Yang Jiang and location mixer Yang Hao also play a key part in allowing Zhang to locate the kowtowing, chanting pilgrims in what they rightly still consider to be their domain. Similarly, the performances of the non-professional cast (who worked on the project for a year) reinforce the docudramatic nature of the narrative, as they strive to demonstrate their devotion to Buddha and sense of communality. Literally making it up as he went along, Zhang captures small moments of human drama that should resonate all the more keenly as the lockdown seems set to be relaxed. Faith is very much to the fore, but it's not forced upon viewers, many of whom will be wondering why it has taken five years for this remarkable film to reach UK screens.
Having respectively solo directed Mundane History (2009), Breakfast Lunch Dinner (2010) and By the Time It Gets Dark (2016), and Two Years At Sea (2011), A Spell to Ward Off Darkness (2013) and Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), Anocha Suwichakornpong and Ben Rivers's decision to team up on Krabi, 2562 feels like match made in avant-garde heaven. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction in furthering a documentary debate that was started a century ago by Robert Flaherty, the Anglo-Thai twosome have produced an engrossing, if elusive treatise on the moving image and the extent to which the past is forever impinging upon the present.
After witnessing a playground full of school children take the oath of allegiance and sing Thailand's national anthem, we see a location scout (Siraphan Wattanajinda) check into a hotel and be greeted by a tour guide (Primrin Puarat). The camera roves around the waterfront at Krabi, a well-known southern resort and film location to show how it looks in 2562, which is the Buddhist calendar equivalent of 2019.
A diversion takes us to a wooden house on stilts in the forest, where an off-screen police interrogator invites a 70 year-old man (Chalee Srimad) to reminisce about his career as a boxer. He recalls travelling extensively around the southern provinces and laments losing the sight in his right eye, in spite of only having lost one of his 131 bouts. Down on the beach, a commercial director (Olivier Laxe) is shooting an advert for a drink featuring an actor standing in the sea dressed as a caveman (Arak Amornsupasiri). He fails to recognise the female assistant (Munyapa Waenpetch) holding an umbrella to protect him from the sun, even though they have worked together several times before. Meanwhile, the director fails to persuade one of the crew to come along to a karaoke evening because she doesn't enjoy singing.
The guide takes the location scout to Phra Nang Cave, where she tells her the legend of the childless couple who had promised a naga (or sea serpent) that he would be rewarded for helping them conceive with their daughter's hand in marriage. However, the girl chose another groom and the naga took human form to gatecrash the wedding and turn everyone to stone. As they explore, the guide informs the scout that Guy Hamilton and Roger Moore as James filmed a scene for The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) on a nearby island, while Phi Phi Island was the location for Danny Boyle's adaptation of Alex Garland's The Beach (2000), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The scout says she isn't working on that kind of picture, but can't reveal more.
Left to her own devices, the scout rides in a tuk tuk with some schoolchildren and quizzes them about their favourite parts of Krabi. As they chatter, she notices an abandoned cinema and makes a note of it before returning to her hotel. Finding the receptionist (Arunya Kardkun) a little too inquisitive, she tells her that she's on a market research trip and heads off to her room. The desk clerk is interviewed about her psychic powers and she confides that she once saw a spectral figure wandering around the hotel before explaining that she had stopped speaking about her gift after she had spooked a couple by asking about the third person she had seen getting out of their car.
Meanwhile, the actor nips into the woods for a wee and bumps into a real Neanderthal (Nuttawat Attasawat), whom we later see roasting a fish in a cave over a fire being stoked by his female mate (Achtara Suwan). Later, in his hotel room, the actor dozes off on the bed and gets the impression that the Neanderthal is watching over him. While he wrestles with his imagination, a POV tracking shot takes us along winding roads into the countryside, where the location scout asks the boxer if she can look around the house where he was born and which he has shared solely with his son since his wife died.
We see a tree trunk lit by changing coloured lights and some people in white hazmat suits combing the ground around some life-size replicas of elephants and tigers. Later we are shown a slide being prepared from what looks like a severed finger in a forensics lab. However, we also witness the tour guide reporting the disappearance of the location scout and we cut back to their kayaking trip when the guide had mentioned the recent arts biennale. A monochrome clip follows from Chulayamnon Siriphol's seemingly controversial contribution to the event, Birth of Golden Snail.
As a boat drifts along a waterway, the sunlight ripples on the pale stone of the rocky inlets and mangrove trees droop down to touch the water. We see the back of the location scout's head as she sits in the prow as the boat drifts into a cave. Cutting away, we watch the Neanderthal spear fishing before we join the scout looking at images on her laptop in her hotel room. She takes a phone call in English before venturing out to explore the Majestic Cinema. The projectionist (Lieng Leelatiwanon) is interviewed by the police about the encounter, as he seems to have been the last person to see the scout before she disappeared.
He explains that the cinema had been closed since 1997 and shots inside show a poster for a horror film entitled, I Have a Name, It Will Not Be Revealed, and the misspelt sign proclaiming, ``Comming Soon'. The projectionist had taken the scout on to the roof and she had admired the view of the Kaew Temple. But, as he was bowing at the rooftop shrine, the scout had climbed through the trapdoor and vanished.
At the tideline, amphibious fish known as mudskippers slip out of the water to walk and breathe on the sand. We see people bathing and enjoying the beach before we join the commercial crew in a local bar. As the actor is also a musician, he is coaxed into performing one of his songs on the karaoke machine. Back at the cinema, the projectionist (who has a long white strip of moustache only on the left-hand side of his face) tells the interviewer how the programme had run continuously when the venue first opened in 1982 and he had joined after learning his trade by doing odd jobs in another picturehouse after coming to Krabi in 1968. The film suddenly runs through the gate and we cut to what seems to be a projected image of birds on the big screen. But, in fact, they are bats screeching and fluttering around the auditorium.
Following a shot of the boxer sat in the doorway surveying the scene on his land, we see a marching band lead a parade through the streets. The receptionist and her son head home on a motorbike to their shack on the edge of town, while the projectionist and his daughter slurp iced drinks with their helmets on. Nearby, the guide is having a meal at an outdoor café when she is asked to help an American couple place an order. They sit at her table and she tells them the legend of Phra Nang Cave (she never misses a chance - earlier she had been to meet a beekeeper who promised to reward her if she steered tourists towards his honey store).
After eating, they pose for selfies beside the phallic totems at the cave shrine where women pray for fertility before the woman goes for a dip in the Andaman Sea. The weather doesn't hold, however, and the Neanderthal couple shelter in their cave from a downpour. She grooms her mate until they are disturbed by a sound outside and he creeps out to investigate.
Is this what happened to the missing scout when she got lost in the caves or did she fall victim to the boxer or the projectionist? Or did she simply go home. We shall never know, but this isn't the kind of film to deal in cliffhangers. That said, it isn't quite in the mould of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura (1960), either. Instead, Rivers and Suwichakornpong delight in teasing and intriguing through a series of vignettes that challenge conventional methods of screen storytelling and are held together by the snippets of daily life captured by the Super 16 cameras of Leung Ming Kai and Rivers himself.
Reinforcing this sense of immediacy is Ernst Karel's sound design, which includes a couple of militaristic interludes that remind the audience that this tropical idyll was under the governance of the euphemistically named National Council For Peace and Order until July 2019. Art director Parinda Moongmaiphol and editor Aacharee Ungsriwong also merit mention, along with an ensemble whose naturalism keeps up the conceit that this is life caught on the hoof. But the key creative forces are undoubtedly Suwichakornpong and Rivers, as they trace the faultlines between the ancient myths that retain their relevance, the spiel that is dished out to the tourists and the propaganda that is swallowed by the locals whose livelihoods depend on keeping up appearances pertaining to the past, the present and the future.
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE.
There were many alarming aspects to Dominic Cummings's performance in the Downing Street rose garden on Bank Holiday Monday. Perhaps the most dismaying, however, was the paucity of the questioning by the assembled media and the failure of the press pack to land a single wounding blow between them makes Avi Belkin's archival documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, all the more timely, fascinating and significant.
As the chief inquisitor on the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace became one of the most famous and influential people in America. No wonder, in the opening clip, Fox News attack dog Bill O'Reilly tries to dismiss him as `a dinosaur', while also claiming not only to have learned everything he knows from Wallace, but also to being his heir. Ironically, O'Reilly fell from grace in 2017 over sexual harassment allegations. But Belkin opts not to mention the similar complaints made about Wallace down the years, perhaps because he has constructed his profile exclusively from found footage and he was unable to find clips of the veteran interviewer discussing his misdemeanours on camera.
Selectivity will always be the issue in actualities of this kind, but Belkin and editor Billy McMillin do a fine job in piecing together a patchwork that conveys both the essence of Wallace's screen personality and the role that he played in moving television journalism away from nuanced deference towards haranguing interrogation. They also record how the news magazine programme evolved in postwar America and gradually became more partisan, as networks nailed their colours to the political mast.
Wallace didn't always succeed in picking a path through the minefield, however, and it's surprising that Belkin didn't make reference to his infamous confrontation over Nigeria with Louis Farrakhan, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Instead, Belkin includes relatively genial exchanges with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and shows Wallace allowing the berobed Eldon Edwards, the 7th Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to make a noose for himself on live television. He also focuses on the $120 million libel suit brought by General William C. Westmoreland after his integrity was called into question by the 1982 CBS special. The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which Wallace had narrated.
But those unfamiliar with the American media in general and Wallace in particular will be frustrated by the decision not to identify the faces in the passing parade until the closing crawl. Hollywood legends like Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand will be readily recognisable (with the clips with all four being amusingly frank), but broadcasting stalwarts like Morley Safer, Barbara Walters, Ed Bradley and Maury Povich will ring fewer bells than the likes of Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.
Wallace was a regular guest on the chat show circuit and Belkin makes adroit use of these appearances to trace his progress from relatively humble origins and a severe bout of acne in Brookline, Massachusetts through his post-naval service breakthrough as a radio announcer and part-time actor on such serials as The Green Hornet and The Crime Files of Flamond. He adopted the name Myron Wallace when he debuted on television as the star of Stand By For Crime, but resumed his familiar moniker to host quiz shows and appear in a range of commercials. But he discovered a talent for interviewing while fronting the short-lived Night Beat (1955-57) on the WABD channel in New York and The Mike Wallace Interview on ABC (1957-58), and he followed this by co-hosting PM East (1961-62) for Westinghouse Broadcasting.
The accidental death of his 19 year-old son, Peter, in Greece in 1963 shook Wallace, however, and he determined to concentrate on serious news gathering. He spent the next three years with CBS Morning News and admitted to being intimidated by working alongside such titans as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. In 1968, however, producer Don Hewitt found the perfect format for Wallace and he remained with 60 Minutes for the next 37 years. Such was the impression that Wallace made on presidential candidate Richard Nixon that he tried to persuade him to become his press secretary. However, as interviews with White House aide John Ehrlichman and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee reveal, Wallace played his part in following up the Watergate revelations.
He had a further brush with history when he flew to Tehran during the US Embassy hostage crisis in order to interview Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and gave the founder of the Islamic Republic the opportunity to denounce Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who had branded him `a lunatic' and was assassinated by fundamentalists a couple of years later. Wallace also attempted to depart from the agreed questions when meeting Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, when he tried to flatter the Russian leader by complimenting him on his English. He had no need to butter up Donald Trump, however, as the property tycoon was all too evidently eager to massage his ego the moment the camera started rolling.
Despite having been sponsored by Parliament cigarettes early in his career, Wallace had no qualms about taking on the tobacco lobby and was all set to interview Brown & Williamson whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. However, as was recalled in Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), threats of litigation turned the attention on to other issues and the story failed to break with the intended fanfare. Such setbacks doubtlessly contributed to the bouts of depression that Wallace suffered and he confesses to Safer that he was lucky to have survived a suicide attempt in the mid-1980s. He also lived with a heart condition during the last 20 of his 93 years, but he remained up for the joust until his retirement in 2006.
Flicking between famous faces and revealing episodes with slickness and deceptive depth, this is an intriguing portrait of the kind of celebrity interrogator that British television has lacked since the heyday of Robin Day. Wallace may well have introduced a more combative element to interviewing, but he rarely had raise his voice in asking leading questions of such diverse notables as Salvador Dalí, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lillian Roth, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Rod Serling, Diana Dors, Jean Seberg, Oriana Fallaci, and Arthur Miller.
Among the more memorable clips are his cross-examination of murderous mobster Mickey Cohen and his gentle coaxing of Vietnam veteran Paul Meadlo, which resulted in the famous `And Babies?' anti-war poster that combined Wallace's question about the shoot to kill policy and an image taken of the My Lai Massacre by combat photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on 16 March 1968. He also left Panamanian politician Manuel Noriega speechless when he asked him what he earned and reduced `queen of mean' Leona Helmsley to tears by referring to the death of her son. His discussion of depression with former Eisenhower assistant cabinet member Thomas P. Pike similarly turns the spotlight back on himself.
Yet, while this mostly makes for compelling viewing, it can sometimes seem more like a greatest clips recap than an in-depth profile of Wallace and the image he created for himself in his determination to be taken seriously by a press cadre that tended to regard him as a showbiz novelty act rather than a hard-nosed reporter. Even though he had nothing to do with son Chris Wallace (now a fixture on Fox News) until he was 16, Belkin also takes heed of Wallace's assertion that his private life is irrelevant to an understanding the approach and attitudes that led some critics to dub him `Mike Malice' and `the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition'. But, in these days of fake news and sweeping social media falsehoods, American broadcast journalism needs a Mike Wallace committing to the truth from a neutral corner. Come to think of it, so does Boris Johnson's Britain.
CASSANDRO THE EXOTICO!
French film-maker Marie Losier has been based in New York for two decades and has created pieces with such avant-garde luminaries as George and Mike Kuchar, Tony Conrad, Richard Foreman and Guy Maddin. Also among her shorts is Bim, Bam, Boom, Las Luchas Morenas! (2014), which profiled a quartet of luchadores, Cynthia, Esther, Alda and Rossy Moreno. Now, following on from her collaboration with former Throbbing Gristle frontman Genesis P Orridge on The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011), Losier has focused her second feature, Cassandro the Exotico!, on Mexican wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, who bills himself as `the Liberace of Lucha Libre'.
Armendáriz wrestles under the name Cassandro and became the first `exótico', or gay wrestler, to win a world title in 1991. Loitering in his dressing-room, Losier watches his meticulous preparations for a tag bout, as he applies his make-up and ensures that his bouffant hair is lacquered to perfection. In the ring, Cassandro is muscular, but lithe and enters into the pantomime of the performance, while also exhibiting his sporting skills.
He recalls seeing Lucha Libre pioneers like El Santo, the famous enmascarado (`masked fighter') in monochrome movies on the television. But the thrill of attending a bout and being able to channel one's emotions and frustrations into cheering and booing appealed to him. As a gay youth, the sight of all the beautiful men was an added bonus, although Armendáriz was frequently beaten up by fellow fans, as Mexico was very much a macho society. His body has also suffered plenty of punishment in the ring and footage of reckless leaps from the rafters and `suicide' jumps through the ropes of the ring go some way to explaining the scars that Armendáriz points out to the camera.
Roving around his home, Losier notes the trophies and family photos on the walls. She also discovers that his therapist gave him a large teddy bear after he spent a decade fighting alcohol and drug dependency and Armendáriz shows her the collection of key fobs he has acquired from Narcotics Anonymous over the last 11 years. He regrets that his mother didn't live to see him clean up his act, but brings a mariachi duo to her graveside to serenade her while he tends to her flowers.
Back home in Ciudad Juárez, Armendáriz hangs out his spangled leotards and capes on the washing line in a dusty garden. Losier follows him to his bedroom, where Armendáriz shows off some of his favourite costumes, including one with a long train that was inspired by Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he adores. Following a rigorous training session with some fellow fighters, he reveals that he has been hospitalised eight times with concussion.
On a trip to his childhood home of El Paso, he also tells Losier that he was abused as a six year-old child, but she keeps the camera trained on the beads of his car key ring rather than showing the location outside the window. At a family barbecue, Armendáriz rejoices in the fact that he has repaired his relationship with the father who had disowned him when he first came out as gay. He also dotes on the junior members of the clan and looks very comfortable in his own skin.
A fast-cut montage of ring photos and X-rays makes this feat all the more remarkable, as it's clear that Armendáriz's body has been through the mill. But he sets off for a European tour in high spirits, even though he knows that he is in the twilight of his career, as his forties slowly click by. He poses for souvenir snaps with pals in Antwerp lighting votive candles in the cathedral and heading to the arena to choreograph the night's performance. The cabal bounce around on hotel beds in Paris like a bunch of big kids before touching down in London. The crowds here are large and enthusiastic and Cassandro is treated like the Lucha god he is. Students at his masterclass hang on his every word, as he teaches the his trademark moves, and he is genuinely moved by the reception.
Losier uses this to send a fully costumed Armendáriz on a mystical march though the desert and he fetches up by a road sign to a place called Truth or Consequences. During the journey, Losier intercuts footage of Cassandro wrestling in front of a small crowd in Texas and of Armendáriz Skyping to inform her that he has had a dizzy spell in the ring and has realised that the time has come to call it a day after competing for 27 years. Naturally, he's upset, but he is determined not to fall off the wagon and embark upon the next phase of his life with a clear head.
Shorn of his pompadour, Armendáriz explains how his hair was torn out by a young opponent in one of his final bouts and he reveals that he feels a bit like Samson in that he has lost his invincibility in the ring. He recalls seeing an enmascarado lose the will to fight after being stripped of his mask and he shrugs and promises not to let the shorter hair get to him. We see him wafting incense with a variety of feathers and provide drum accompaniment to a shamanic ritual dancer. But Losier also shows Armendáriz struggling on crutches after his latest surgery, as he seeks relief from hot spas because he is reluctant to take powerful painkillers in case it kickstarts his addiction.
Despite raking in the cash from hosting exhibition events and training workshops for kids, Armendáriz seems to be finding the transition a struggle. He holds what appears to be a wake for his stage persona, as he lies on a bier surrounded by flowers and candles and some of his closest friends stand around like mourners. But, rather than go out on a downbeat image, Losier records him making up as Cassandro for a series of photos in his costumes and, following a few reminders of his glory days in the ring, the film ends with Armendáriz smiling with a healthy head of blonde ,hair against a pink backdrop, as if to reassure fans and himself that he's ready for whatever comes next.
Filmed on 16mm over five years, this is very much an alternative sports biodoc, as Losier speeds up some of the wrestling sequences to 18 frames per second to give them a gravity-defying feel whose ethereality is reinforced by the non-contiguous nature of some of the audio. As a one-woman crew, Losier can often be heard chattering and chuckling in the passenger seat of Armendáriz, as he sings along with the stereo. But she uses herself more as a sounding board for her garrulous subject to bounce off in both his upbeat and more disconsolate moments. As a consequence, the portrait is both intimate and tender, playful and profound.
Editor Ael Dallier Vega does a splendid job of mosaicing the images to convey the sights and sounds of Cassandro's peculiar world. She also superimposes his face on a firework display in a composite that feels like it owes something to Kenneth Anger. Yet Armendáriz's sexuality is barely discussed and we learn precious little about the `exótico' category and how it dovetails with the rest of the Lucha Libre circus that Cassandro excitedly informs us also finds room for women, transsexuals and dwarfs. But we come to appreciate his athleticism, theatricality and commitment to passing the sport on to the next generation. Moreover, we get to like him and find ourselves hoping that the gods to whom he prays will keep an eye on him as he resumes his life as Saúl.