Jul 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of June 2023

1. New Religion (Keishi Kondo, 2022)

Utterly hypnotizing in its portrayal of grieving process and its transformative potentials, Keishi Kondo’s crowdfunded feature debut comes across as an impressive calling card not only for its author, but also for a bunch of newcomers in his team, from the entire cast to cinematographer Sho Mishina. (According to IMDb, only colorist Dmitry Kuznetsov and co-editor Aleksandar Milenković have several short films under their belts.) Right from the experimental prologue soaked in deep reds (later turned into a leitmotif) and brooding drones (that dominate the haunting score), ‘New Religion’ pulls the viewer into its disjointed reality – one akin to a dream in which a dreamer is dreamed... perhaps by a moth.

Kondo could be quoting a couple of lines from Cronenberg’s defining body horror ‘The Fly’, yet his keen sensibility is much closer to that of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brand of ‘slow terror’, as well as to David Lynch’s penchant for the unknowable, cryptic symbolism and bizarre characters... such as a presumably non-human photographer who speaks through an electrolarynx. Both his direction and editing are assured and precise, as he employs meticulously composed imagery, and uncannily immersive sound design to create a dense and heavy atmosphere of bleak melancholy, understated eeriness and deliberate disorientation. Lingering below the ostensibly desensitized surface of his puzzling psychological drama is a creeping sense of madness and dread in the face of a child loss, with the elliptical story unfolding from the unreliable perspective of a heroine, Miyabi (Kaho Seto, admirable at micro-acting). The horror underpinnings may prove too subtle for the hardcore genre aficionados, and the ever-present irrationality will significantly limit the audience, but if you’re looking for something refreshingly off-the-wall, just let ‘New Religion’ convert you... 

2. Kerr (Tayfun Pirselimoglu, 2021)

The echoes of COVID-19 isolation hang on decrepit walls of a small, purgatorial town in Pirselimoglu’s absurdist dramedy that sees its clueless, hapless hero (superbly cast Erdem Şenocak) lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare – as metaphysically inescapable as it gets. Injected with measured doses of wry, deadpan humor, ‘Kerr’ gives no answers to a lot of its questions, putting the viewer in the protagonist’s shoes that go with a dark coat of bewilderment. On the other hand, the embodiment of mystery wears a yellow coat surrounded by a ‘double agent’ aura, and even though her screen time is limited, she heads a weird bunch that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch’s psychological thriller. The same could also be said for a jazzy theme that pays a loving homage to the genius of Angelo Badalamenti, as well as for a dimly lit nightclub, its backstage hidden behind a red curtain. Ever-growing despair is emphasized by the wintry weather, as the loudspeaker announcements warn of rabid dogs prowling the streets, and seemingly bottomless holes appear all around, out of nowhere, sucking in most of the possible meanings. There’s also a murderer on the loose, yet neither the police, nor the people seem to give a damn, their provincial mentality paralyzing Şenocak’s unnamed character. Deliberate pacing intensifies the cold, thick atmosphere of detachment, and the quiet denouement comes across as another ellipsis in this beautifully framed mindfuck of a film.

3. Toldi – A Mozifilm / Toldi – Movie (Marcell Jankovics & Lajos Csákovics, 2022)

Marcel Jankovics (1941-2021) didn’t live to see the feature film version of his 2021 TV series ‘Toldi’, but Lajos Csákovics did a fine job in channeling the visionary brilliance of the late fellow animator. Based on the first part of the epic poem trilogy by Hungarian literate János Arany (1817-1882), and narrated by the ghost of the poet himself (as seen in the sketch portrait by his friend Sándor Petőfi), the film chronicles early exploits of legendary medieval hero Miklós Toldi (cca 1320-1390). He is depicted as a strapping, impulsive young lad whose blonde hair lights up every time strong emotions overwhelm him, turning him into a ‘Son of the White Mare’ look-alike, though a comparison with a super-powered anime character wouldn’t be out of place either. However, the animation style is closer to Dreamworks classics, with certain parts, such as flashbacks, created in the vein of the Codex Manesse illustrations, at once conveying the period setting and adding an extra oomph to already stunning, highly expressive visuals. Beautifully complemented by György Selmeczi’s energizing score, as well as by superb, versatile voice-over from Tamás Széles only, the imagery of Jankovics’ swan song stimulates one’s imagination and awakens the inner child, no matter how heavily it sleeps.

4. Gohiki no shinshi / Cash Calls Hell (Hideo Gosha, 1966)

My first encounter with the work of Hideo Gosha – a noir-anomaly in the chanbara-dominated phase of his career – leaves a strong impression, primarily thanks to the artful framing by cinematographer Tadashi Sakai, and highly memorable set pieces that make great use of locations, from back alleys to industrial sites such as a water purification station. Equally engaging is Masaru Satō’s groovy ‘crime jazz’ score that impregnates drama with a sense of melancholy, and emphasizes both the secrecy and smuttiness of the night when the action usually kicks off. On top of that, Tatsuya Nakadai brings charm and finesse to the role of an antihero, Oida, seeking absolution, and transforming into a savior throughout a story of karmic justice. 

5. Under the Skin (Carine Adler, 1997)

Not to be confused with Glazer’s acclaimed, 16 years younger sci-fi horror of the same name, Adler’s first and unfortunately only feature is a harrowing character study with an outstanding central performance from Samantha Morton. Portraying an extremely vulnerable if not utterly sympathetic young woman, Iris Kelly, who processes her grief through sexual escapades, Ms. Morton is a force of nature! At once raw, subtle and uninhibited in the soul-tearing role, she finds an anchor in Claire Rushbrook’s gentler, complementing take on Iris’s ostensibly balanced sister Rose. Her heroine’s dirty, bumpy fall down the rabbit hole of sanity has a ‘detached poetry’ vibe about it, emphasized through both the hectic movements of Barry Ackroyd’s camera, and Ewa J. Lind’s ‘jumpy’ editing. The film’s soothing resolution comes across as a welcome relief, mental and emotional alike, baring Adler’s empathy for Iris, even at the cost of thwarting her indomitable spirit...

6. Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972)

Pervaded by a strong anti-colonialist sentiment, and set at the dawn of the Angolan War for Independence, ‘Sambizanga’ is the pioneering feature produced by a Lusophone African country. Its female perspective provides insight into behind-the-scenes of the struggle, highlighting the solidarity between women, as well as the boldness and practicality of their actions. Unaware of her husband’s involvement with the revolution, the wife of a political prisoner comes face-to-face with the government officials or rather, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, all the while male dissidents operate in secrecy, gathering info to find out who of their brethren has been arrested. Non-professionals – many of whom were members of the resistance movements – lend a documentary-like authenticity to the proceedings, with bright-red blood effects not unlike that of the giallo cinema reminding us that we’re watching a piece of fiction. Maldoror demonstrates keen understanding of the rise against oppression, and directs her social(ist) drama from the standpoint of a righteous poet, using local flavors of the music, and palpable textures of 16mm cinematography to set the atmosphere of freedom at hand, and portray the emotional landscape of a country and its people.

7. Sebastiane (Derek Jarman & Paul Humfress, 1976)

One of the boldest and most provocative feature debuts, ‘Sebastiane’ revels in amping up homoeroticism that is obvious in most, if not all of classic art representations of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom; its soul residing within the ecstatic, liberating act of subversion. Opening with an extravagant scene of orgiastic celebration comparable to the likes of Bene, Russell and Fellini in its lurid, anachronistic stylization, the film takes an ascetic, naturalistic turn after creating a (glory) hole in the fourth wall, and comes across as a Pasolini’s wet dream. Imbued with deep devotion, this Latin-spoken apotheosis of male body and gay desire blurs the line between spirituality and soft-core pornography, emerging more consecrated than the great majority of cine-hagiographies.

8. Kärlek 65 / Love 65 (Bo Widerberg, 1965)

Godard meets Antonioni in a reserved drama that refuses to be Bergmanesque, giving off slight ‘8 ½’ vibes, and anticipating New Hollywood naturalism at certain points in the story of a film director suffering creative block and facing a marriage crisis. Most of the characters are named after the (superb!) cast, with a few kite-lifting scenes channeling their desire to break away from the hold of cinema, or is it reality they’re all trying to escape? 

Thematizing love, lies and lust for life, Widerberg goes as far as to involve his own daughter Nina – one of the sweetest child actors ever captured on the big screen – to conjure up the mystery of his personal inner workings, and edits it into a fragmented self-portrait with proto-remodernist details. It may appear cold, but it is visually entrancing, with three cinematographers operating as one, and framing the (broken) state of things in starkly beautiful B&W.

9. Akame shijuya taki shinju misui / Akame 48 Waterfalls (Genjiro Arato, 2003)

Consistent in its hermeticism and almost otherworldly in its eccentricity, ‘Akame 48 Waterfalls’ felt like an arduous journey through a cinematic limbo towards a goal (enlightenment?) that can’t be put into words. It may be the cultural and spiritual differences, but this arthouse drama – the second of three features helmed by the producer of Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Taishō Trilogy’ – left me completely defenseless and mystified, stuck in a cognitive or rather, soul-searching haze...

10. Les félins / Joy House (René Clément, 1964)

Alain Delon, Lola Albright and Jane Fonda star in a pulpy thriller set in French riviera, with an old mansion built in Neo-Gothic style treated as a hub of fishy goings on, as well as a character in its own right. A petty gigolo on the run, a bereaved widow and her flirty young cousin get entangled in a love triangle without any actual love involved, each one of them driven by their own agendas. Not to be taken seriously, ‘Joy House’ is one of those tongue-in-cheek flicks that effortlessly bridge the gap between art and entertainment, and turn out to be a perfect viewing choice for a hot summer evening, seducing you with the great synergy of its attractive cast, groovy jazz score and slick B&W visuals. 

11. Et Dieu… créa la femme / ... And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956)

Sexual revolution starts a decade earlier in Roger Vadim’s radiant directorial debut – a breezy pre-New Wave drama – that makes it easy to imagine Brigitte Bardot as Liberty in some erotic, pop-art-esque re-imagination of Delacroix’s famous painting. She is the embodiment of seductiveness in the role of a free-spirited hussy, Juliete, with three Romeos played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, Christian Marquand and Curd Jürgens (all of them superb, yet under the influence of Ms. Bardot’s magnetism) vying for her affection. In a way, the film anticipates the camp glory of ‘Barbarella’, finding perfect matches for its star’s sex appeal in St. Tropez summer setting – a fascinating character in its own right, as well as in Paul Misraki’s energizing score, and bold colors of Armand Thirard’s handsome cinematography. 

12. Golgo 13 (Jun’ya Satō, 1973)

Ken Takakura epitomizes sheer coolness as a mysterious and reticent assassin Golgo 13 in the eponymous 1973 Iranian-Japanese co-production that makes brilliant use of locations, from Tehran of the time to ancient ruins of Isfahan, suffering slight pacing issues...

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