Thursday, August 29, 2013


For the past three years at MIFF we have been lucky enough to have screenings of the latest Brit Marling films.  Brit Marling is an incredibly gorgeous actress who is also a very intelligent writer who often writes (or co-writes) stories with unique and interesting premises.  Two years ago we had “Another Earth”, directed by Mike Cahill, and last year came the very awesome and underrated cult-themed thriller “Sound Of My Voice” which was directed by Zal Batmanglij.  This year sees Marling reteaming with Batmanglij with the eco-terrorist thriller “The East” but can this exciting cinematic pair strike gold again?

“The East” is the name of a group of eco-terrorists who are systematically targeting large corporations who have destroyed the environment by their negligence.  They have announced to the world that over the next two years they will be targeting four of these companies with the plan that the people involved will feel the same pain they have caused.  The first “jam”, as the group likes to call them, was an oil company who spilled tones and tones of oil into the ocean killing its inhabitants.  “The East” set out to attack the CEO of that company at his home by filling it too with the oil that had done so much damage in the ocean.  The “jam” was a complete success, and “The East” are currently working out the details of their next jam which happens to be a negligent pharmaceutical company.  Meanwhile Sarah (Marling), who is an operative at a private intelligence firm has been given the task of infiltrating the group, in an attempt to first work out who the next target is going to be and then bring the group down from within.  However after being with these people for so long trying to gain their trust, is Sarah in danger of becoming sympathetic to the groups ideals herself?

The set-up of “The East” is really very interesting, as is the entire topic of the film.  Eco-terrorism is not something we see explored a lot in cinema so I was quite excited by the prospects of “The East”.  The film is at its best in the opening half when we know as little as possible about the anarchic group when Sarah is trying her hardest to first find the group and then be accepted into it.  All of the members appear as blank slates, giving nothing away as to who they really are, because they are wary of strangers which they have to be doing what they do.  The attacks that the group perform are quite brutal but they truly believe in what they are doing and believe it is for the betterment of the world.  The “jam” involving the pharmaceutical company is just sensational as “The East” covertly spike the drinks at one of the company’s functions with a drug that has severe side effects, yet is still on the shelves for sale with the company claiming it is fit for human consumption.  When the directors of the company start to suffer the side effects after their poisoning, the product is finally taken off the shelves for good.  So while you may not agree with their tactics, it is very easy to agree with the politics of “The East”.  The film is riveting during these stages, but once Sarah becomes entrenched within the group and they start to trust her, the members give up their anonymity and start talking about themselves and the film loses all of its power.  Even more disappointingly is the fact that we soon learn that there is a personal connection with most of the “jams” the groups perform.  The fact that their purpose seems less political and more personal, it made it harder to believe in what the group was doing.

As usual, Brit Marling is superb as Sarah and as gorgeous as ever, although I was initially shocked when she came on screen and her gold locks were replaced with brown, but I liked the new look so it didn’t bother me too much.  I will not deny it though that I was happy to see her dye her hair blonde after she gets her assignment to infiltrate “The East”.  Marling does a great job of making Sarah a fully rounded character as she shows different facets of the girl at different times.  When she is with her boyfriend she is someone who prefers to just lounge around in her sweats and hang out, calm as can be, except that she finds it hard keeping what she does secret from her boyfriend and thus lying to him all the time.  At work, however, she is the consummate pro; she is methodical, precise and never takes anything to chance and she is as tough as nails and quick on her feet.  At the same time though, she can become anyone she needs to be whenever she needs to, so if she needs to become the caring friend, it is no problem for her.

The members of “The East” are quite a bunch of misfits who are all intense beings in their own right.  The group is led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard, and who comes across as a very strange and private man, intense as can be and passionate to the cause he is fighting, but as we get to know him more, it appears that he is less of a team player than we originally thought and he is a bit of a wet blanket, as he is ultimately looking for love.  The reason behind why he is doing what he is actually made me roll my eyes too and did not come across as very believable.  The other standout member of the group is Izzy who is played by Ellen Page.  She seems the angriest of the group and the one who takes the longest to trust Sarah, but when she finally does it is like they are best friends all of a sudden.  Most disappointing is the fact that Izzy’s ultimate motivation has to do with the fact that she has daddy issues rather than concern for the environment.

While this is a step-up in scope from “Sound Of My Voice” for Zal Batmanglij, “The East” is ultimately a step down in execution.  What initially starts off as a very interesting thriller, soon starts to drag its feet while losing its identity along the way.  To be truthful, I was very disappointed by the second half of “The East” after its very strong opening.  Visually, the film has expanded from “Sound Of My Voice”, with “The East” taking place over more locations than the earlier film and this is one aspect of the film that Batmanglij succeeds in because the film does look great, with its dark and dingy production design and its appropriately bleak cinematography.

Overall, “The East” ended up being a bit of a disappointment due to the film not living up to its brilliant opening half.  While I was expecting the film to be biting and full of anger, with a strong political bent, it sadly devolved into more of a human drama that was nowhere near as satisfying.  The longer the film goes on, the less interesting it got, to the point that it limped to its unsatisfying conclusion.  I love Brit Marling but this was the worst of the three films she has co-written and starred in, although ironically, it was the one with the most potential.  “The East” is not a disaster but it is a disappointment and was not the best way to end MIFF for 2013.

3 Stars.


Billie and Laura are the best of friends; they have known each other all of their lives and would do anything for the other.  The two girls are so close to each other that in their conversations no topic is taboo, nor do they have any secrets……except one: Billie is madly in love with Laura’s boyfriend Danny and the two of them are sleeping together behind her back.  One day after Billie’s mum takes in Isaac, a Tongan teenager who is on his last chance with the law, it upsets the balance between the two girl’s friendship as Laura starts to take a liking to Isaac and begins to spend time with him.  This upsets Billie greatly, who starts feeling betrayed by her best friend (ironic considering she is sleeping with her boyfriend) which causes an anger to build within her.  In an attempt to not have to deal with her problems, Billie becomes more and more reckless with her life, often in conjunction with the use of drugs and alcohol.  One night while at a party totally plastered, Billie decides to it would be cool to steal a car and go for a joyride.  Fearing the worst, Laura grabs Isaac in an attempt to talk her out of it, but instead they end up in the car with Billie and Danny.  As predicted, the mix of alcohol and speeding doesn’t turn out to be a good thing, and Billie ends up rolling the car.  Thankfully everyone survives the crash (which is miraculous considering Laura is thrown from the car) and are even able to run from the wreckage, but the consequences of this night and this single reckless act are going to haunt the group forever.

This was actually a beautiful little film dealing with a lot of complex human emotions, mainly told from a female perspective.  The characters are all at an age (they are in their final year of high school) where it is time for them to grow up and become responsible for their own lives, as well as the consequences of the decisions they make.  It is at a time in their lives when the world suddenly seems so big, and they so small and they have to find their place in it.  While some welcome the future with open arms, others prefer to live in the glow of the past and refuse to move on.  The friendship between Billie and Laura is the absolute heart of the film, and the way it has been depicted feels so completely real.  Obviously I have never been a teenage girl, but from an outsider’s perspective every nuance displayed within this relationship feels honest and true.  Just little moments like the girls lying on each other, or playing absentmindedly with each other’s hair, or even talking in a kind of short hand; it just felt genuine, even when it came to the negative aspects of the relationship such as the jealousy within the friendship, or when the two of them are having an argument and the other uses things they have been told in secret against them.

The two actors who play the roles of Billie and Laura are both fabulous and do justice to their complex roles.  Ashleigh Cummings and Lily Sullivan play the girls and they have a real chemistry together that is vital for the film to work on any level.  There is no doubting through these performances that these girls have been friends for their entire lifetime; they just sell it perfectly.  Cummings ends up with the more difficult role as Billie is the one that slowly unravels as her actions become more and more reckless to herself and those around her.  She suddenly becomes dangerous to be around and she doesn’t take into account the consequences of her actions.  Cummings does a brilliant job of portraying a girl on the edge, a powder-keg ready to explode; she has so much bottled up inside that eventually it is all going to come out which it does when Billie hits rock bottom after a tragedy befalls the group of friends.  While Sullivan has the less showy role, she is just as good as her counterpart.  She gives Laura a much quieter presence than Billie, but makes it obvious how much she loves her friend whilst at the same time being hurt by her.  There is a moment late in the film when she confronts Billie and lets her know just how hurt she is by her actions, which is just masterful acting.  She doesn’t rant, rave or scream, so just quietly lets Billie know that she knows, but the hurt is all behind her eyes.

When it comes to the male characters of the film, they are significantly underwritten compared to the girls, but really this is not their story.  They happen to be a part of the story, but it isn’t really theirs.  However when it comes to the performances, they are still very good.  Isaac is played by newcomer Aliki Matangi who gives the troubled boy a calm and quiet presence who understands just how lucky he is to have gotten this final chance with the law and is determined to make his life better.  However he is also a guy who would do anything for his friends which ultimately seems to get him into trouble.  Matangi also does a great job of exposing Isaac’s shyness around this girl he really likes but is unsure whether the feeling is mutual.  Toby Wallace’s Danny is another troubled boy because he is a man that wants everything while trying not to hurt anyone and as such he is constantly trying to dodge the consequences of his actions by not coming clean to Laura.  He also has a scene late in the film where he breaks down and lets everything out that he has been bottling up, which is also quite impressive.

Another part of the film that is so good is the photography by Stefan Duscio who gives Canberra a beautiful sun-drenched look about it.  All of the shots have a real crisp and fresh look to them, and the use of the widescreen is just expert and I love the way he has lit the girls; they look gorgeous.  Something else that is outside the norm (the first being that the film is located and set in Canberra), is the presence of a giant bushfire in the film.  The fire itself is never front and centre in the film, but it is always felt and forever in the background.  Many a time smoke is seen in the distance, with news reports on the television constantly talking about the dangers of the fire.  The kids never think about the fire once, but it is always there, and via Billie’s voice-over we know that the town where the film’s story takes place, is going to be a victim of the bushfire after the film is done.  It gives a feeling of dread to the film as well as making the character’s realize that life is not infinite and we are only on this world for a short time, so use that time wisely.

Overall I was very impressed by the way director Rhys Graham sensitively handled this beautiful story of two girls and their friendship, as they finally start to realize that their actions can have serious consequences.  The performances in “Galore” are all wonderful, but a special mention must be made to Ashley Cummings and Lily Sullivan for their brave and flawless performances as the two girls Billie and Laura.  A funny anecdote regarding “Galore” was that the stars of the film were all present at the screening I attended, and as I was passing Cummings after the conclusion of the film, she turned to a friend and said “Aww, everybody hates me!” (in regards to her characters irresponsibility) which I thought was both cute and funny.  “Galore” is a fantastic Australian drama that deserves to be recognized for how great it is.

4 Stars.


Sitting around the dinner table with her family, Soon-Yi receives an unexpected phone call that sees her drop everything and immediately head back to the family home where she lived almost fifty years ago.  Upon returning to the house, she is flooded with memories about her time there and particularly of an abandoned boy they found living on the property, that the family took in and made one of their own.  For the next two hours we are witness to Soon-Yi’s memories of the boy who they initially civilized, teaching him to read and write and behave in public, before Soon-Yi and the boy start to fall in love.  This love is the boy’s ultimate downfall as when Soon-Yi is threatened he unleashes the animal within him that sees the townfolk and a group of scientists attempt to hunt the boy down to either kill him or to experiment on to find out just exactly what he is.

“A Werewolf Boy” has often been called the Korean “Twilight” which is just not the case and sells the film considerably short.  While its target market is the same as the “Twilight” franchise and the film does feature a werewolf within it, that is really all it shares with the massive vampire franchise.  Actually that is not entirely true, because one other thing “A Werewolf Boy” shares is the fact that it is an enormous hit in Korea; it has become the most successful Korean melodrama of all time.  However as big a hit as it has become at home, it has barely been noticed on the international scene.  The reason for this baffles me, but I assume it is due to the fact that the film is aimed towards young teens when most of the films from Korea that do well overseas tend to be of the darker and violent variety like “Oldboy”.

Basically “A Werewolf Boy” is a love story that is full of melodramatic moments.  While it is a well made film, that is competently acted, I am clearly not the target audience for the film and as a result the film just did not soar for me.  The story was nice, and the ending was incredibly sad and beautiful all at once, but really that is it.  These types of films are not ones that I particularly enjoy, and at the end of the day, “A Werewolf Boy” is quite the cliché.  The werewolf has always been a tragic figure in cinema, and this holds true in this film, but personally I feel that nothing new was done with the story; it didn’t appear fresh, rather it had a been there done that quality to it.

The extreme mainstream quality of “A Werewolf Boy” is so prevalent that I was stunned when I found out that Jo Sung-Hee was the director behind this smash hit.  Two years earlier he directed the very dark and strange post apocalyptic thriller “End Of Animal”.  That film was extremely low budget and about as far away as what you get with “A Werewolf Boy”.  It was visually dark, mysterious, very surreal at times and every little moment was not explained, so the audience was really forced to work while watching the film.  I thought that “End Of Animal” was fantastic and assumed that Jo Sung-Hee would follow a directorial path where he would stay on the fringes of the Korean cinema mainstream.  Never in my life did I expect him to follow up his debut with a film as mainstream as “A Werewolf Boy”, not because it is beneath him, but I just didn’t think it would suit his sensibilities as a filmmaker.

That all said, Jo Sung-Hee does a fantastic job in making “A Werewolf Boy” as compelling a film as it is.  He has a bold visual style that is full of blown out lighting that is extreme in its use of contrast.  As opposed to his debut film, “A Werewolf Boy” is full of colour and sunlight and there is a complete sense of fun within the film, with the tone of the film being relatively light.  As I mentioned above the film is melodramatic, especially during its tear filled finale, which tends to be manipulative (in regards to the audiences emotions) by its nature, however Jo Sung-Hee is smart in the way he attacks these scenes, by not putting undue emphasis on certain moments, so you never feel overly manipulated.  Although the scenes that have to do with Soon-Yi’s lung ailment probably could’ve been helped with a lighter touch.

In terms of acting performances, I thought Park Bo-Yeong was great and really cute as Soon-Yi.  I liked the scenes early when they find the boy and she wants nothing to do with him, but becomes to like his company when she realizes that she has the ability to train him.  She starts the film as a very sad girl, who never smiles (due to her lung problems) but as the boy becomes more important in her life, she remembers how to have fun and importantly how to smile again, and her outlook on life completely changes for the better.  She starts to muck around again and be a kid once more, and it appears that she becomes younger as she is no longer worried about the weight on her shoulders from her health issues.  Unfortunately I felt Song Joong-Ki, who plays the wolf boy of the title, was just average in his performance because every decision he choose seemed to be the most obvious one.  The animalistic twitches, the grunts, even the look in his eyes, just didn’t really convince me of the wolf inside of him, and when he finally becomes the wolf, he is far too young looking to be scary.  Where I did think Song Joong-Ki got it right, was that he seemed to understand the tragic nature of his character perfectly, and he is really great in the poignant finale. 

Overall, “A Werewolf Boy” is a well made film but it has nothing new to say, regularly relying on cliché to tell it’s story.  While the film is well shot and quite beautiful to look at, it just didn’t connect with me much at all.  The fact that I am not the target market for the film may be the reason for this, but this crowd pleasing smash hit from South Korea turned out to be nothing more than a pleasant distraction from the real world.  For me, it is nothing more than that and I doubt I will ever revisit the film in the future.

3 Stars.


We now reach that moment that happens at every MIFF where we get the chance to view the latest film from prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike.  Miike’s films have been a regular inclusion at MIFF for as long as I can remember with many times the director having two films screening at the festival.  While it was a bit of a surprise that “Shield Of Straw” did not make it into this year’s MIFF (I am guessing it will now be on next year’s roster), Miike’s previous film “Lesson Of The Evil” was always a sure thing.

At a local Japanese high school, a meeting is taking place amongst all of the teachers of the faculty in an attempt to curb cheating during the exam period.  The problem they are having is the use of mobile phones during exams and they are trying to come up with a successful and legal way to stop the cheating.  The person who seems to be most in charge and concerned about the student’s wellbeing is Mr. Hasumi.  Hasumi is relatively new to the school but is everything you look for in a teacher.  He is kind and considerate, unassuming and thoughtful, and he is very good at his job.  He is a favourite amongst the staff and particularly the students, who seem to trust him more than they do the other teachers of the school, mainly due to the fact that he doesn’t talk down to them and treats them like friends rather than students.  To say that he has a great rapport with the students is an understatement.  However all is not right with Mr. Hasumi because behind his visage of kindness and normality, the man hides a horrible and shocking secret – Hasumi is secretly a homicidal maniac and anyone who upsets him or gets in his way has a habit of living a much shorter life than expected.  Until now though, Hasumi has been able to keep his secret just that, but after another teacher starts snooping into some of the strange occurrences that happened at the previous school Hasumi taught at, it forces Hasumi to bring his alter ego out from the shadows in an attempt to silence his critics forever.

The way that “Lesson Of The Evil” was marketed, I thought I was going to be seeing a different film than I ended up seeing.  I assumed that the film was going to be about a good teacher who, due to the political correctness of the times, finds it hard to do his job properly.  He continues to get more and more frustrated when bullying becomes a part of his school and after not being able to properly punish these kids who are destroying the thrill of learning for everyone else, he eventually snaps and decides to dish out a brand of punishment that these kids understand and that is a violent one.  It turned out that “Lesson Of The Evil” was nothing like that because Mr. Hasumi turned out to just to be your regular homicidal maniac who gets a thrill out of killing people.  The film I thought I was seeing was full of subtext and social commentary and looked at how hard it is to teach in today’s world and I thought it was going to be something really interesting, when in reality “Lesson Of The Evil” has no depth to it at all.  What you see is what you get, and it turns out to be a very shallow exercise in bloody violence.  That said, what is on screen is actually quite entertaining, it is just a shame that it means nothing.

Something that I really did not like about the film is that it really put teachers and schools in such a bad light.  From this film, you would assume that all any teacher wants to do is to bed any of their students they can, and that none of them have the ability to say “no” if a student has a crush on them.  So many of the teachers in this film are having sexual affairs with their students, that it is not funny.  While I have no doubt that this does happen from time to time in the real world, this film makes it come across as commonplace, to the point that these scenes are presented so nonchalantly as if they are the norm.

The film really has two halves with the first half surprisingly being the more interesting which is where we see Hasumi at his best; where he is the brilliant teacher that everyone looks up to and loves.  During the meeting it is his suggestion in a bid to stop the cheating that the school uses signal jammers as well as searching students when entering the room for mobile phones.  When he is shot down over his suggestion because these things are illegal and would take away from the student’s rights, he doesn’t become undeterred by it, instead he sets up listening devices in a number of the rooms (and the signal jammers) in secret where he starts to learn of the worst aspects of the school like the bullying and the affairs between a number of teachers with their students.  At this point in the film we assume that Mr. Hasumi is going to turn these people in, because all we have seen from this man is kindness and a focus on the student’s wellbeing and studies, and that he will clean up the school for good but it is actually quite shocking to see this man do the opposite.  Mr. Hasumi uses this information as blackmail material and eventually as grounds to kill when he wants to.  The second half of the film is when Mr. Hasumi totally loses control and commits one of the most brutal massacres ever seen before in a film.  While this part of the film is shocking in its content, watching school kids being constantly eviscerated by a shotgun can become hard to take after a while, it lacks the complexities of the opening half and the film ends up becoming much less interesting.

The performance from Hideaki Ito as Hasumi actually mirrors the film’s two halves because I thought that he was fantastic in the opening half playing this thoughtful and caring teacher, where his performance became a total over the top cliché when Hasumi becomes the psycho he does.  He becomes so broad as a performer which is a shame because he gives Hasumi incredible depth early on in the film where he is so charismatic too.  One part of the second half that I did love was when he was totally gone, from a mental point of view, and he was talking to his gun, which in his eyes was fused to his hand, in some sick Cronenberg-like way.  In fact this was the only part of the second half that didn’t come across as generic.  There are so many small and bit characters in the film, that it is only Ito’s performance that commands attention although I will say that I loved to seeing Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido on screen together even though it was only brief (they were the stars of Sion Sono’s “Himizu”) and I also thought that Mitsuru Fukikoshi (also from “Himizu”) was hilarious as the teacher who starts the investigation into Hasumi.

“Lesson Of The Evil” is always going to be remembered for the school-set massacre that happens at the end of the film and for good reason because it is extremely bloody with Takashi Miike leaving nothing to the imagination.  Time after time we are witness to kids being shot at close range and watching their soon-to-be lifeless bodies recoil in agony.  To give you an idea just how much blood is shed in this finale, Hasumi actually wears a plastic raincoat the whole time that is covered in the blood from his dirty work.  However the massacre goes on for far too long that eventually the audience becomes desensitized to the violence on screen (which should never be possible when it comes to kids being gunned down in cold blood) to the point that it becomes so repetitive that we ultimately become bored.  In fact, the length of Takashi Miike’s films of late has become something of a problem as the majority of them are all over two hours, which for the most part is far too long.  “Lesson Of The Evil” falls into this category, and if Miike was able to trim back about twenty minutes from the film, I am sure it would’ve been beneficial to it.

Overall, “Lesson Of The Evil” is a typical Miike film in the fact that it is extremely well made, but the film itself is less than the sum of its parts.  It is a film of two halves with the first half being much more interesting than the second bloodier half.  Sensitive viewers need to be wary of “Lesson Of The Evil” because the scenes of the children being unceremoniously massacred are incredibly bloody and confronting and I am sure that there are many people who would find them very hard to watch.  At the end of the day though, Miike’s “Lesson Of The Evil” is a competent film, an entertaining film but ultimately it is a hollow film which is a little damning.  It also appears that the film will have a sequel sometime because the film ends with the words “to be continued…….”.

3 Stars.