Aug 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of July 2023

1. Anmonaito no sasayaki wo kiita / I’ve Heard the Ammonite Murmur (Isao Yamada, 1992)

“The angle of the amethyst crystal lattice has some peculiar characteristics, doesn’t it? Dreams melt away in such circumstances.”

Inspired by the relationship between novelist and poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and his younger sister, Toshi, ‘I’ve Heard the Ammonite Murmur’ is an enchanting mood piece / experimental drama unfolding almost dialogue-free in a surreal interzone between memories and dreams where the past, the present and the future co-exist and overlap. Its sublimely lyrical (non)narrative is anchored in stunningly composed imagery which effortlessly evokes the spirit of Shūji Terayama (1935-1983) with whom the author collaborated as a member of the artistic crew in both theatre and cinema. Reaching all the way to the viewer’s subconscious or rather unconscious self, Yamada’s feature debut opens a doorway towards a universe of quietude that welcomes you with the gentlest of embraces, and suspends you in time, with each precious moment spent there bearing a quintessence of eternity...

2. Utopia (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1983)

Penned with a strong anti-capitalist sentiment, directed with a clockwork precision, and photographed with a rigorous sense of mise en scène that evokes Fassbinder, ‘Utopia’ is nothing short of a devastating, highly distressing masterpiece further elevated by admirable central performances from Imke Barnstedt, Gundula Petrovska, Gabriele Fischer, Johanna Sophia and Birgit Anders who portray prostitutes working under a fascist, misogynistic pimp, Heinz (Manfred Zapatka, absolutely terrifying in his role). The oppressiveness of the film’s atmosphere – as tangibly nightmarish as it gets – is emphasized by the elegant, yet claustrophobic setting that is an apartment adapted into an exclusive brothel, a prison of tortured souls...

3. Khane-ye doust kodjast? / Where Is the Friend's House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Directing a simple, yet meaningful and deeply humane coming-of-age odyssey with an admirable ease, in a rural setting that couldn't be more authentic, Kiarostami captures one of the purest performances by a child actor whose facial expression feels like a reflection of innocence, kindness, confusion, dilemmas and wide-eyed curiosity contained within the boy's universe...

Not a single word is spoken in Samuel Tressler’s bold, dazzlingly beautiful feature debut which transmutes the Leda myth into an ethereally uncanny nightmare, part surrealistic period piece and part highly poeticized gothic psychodrama. Decidedly elliptical in its storytelling or rather ‘storyshowing’, this superb indie flick comes across as a cryptic, sensorial mood piece delicately touching upon a childhood trauma, rape, madness, loneliness and pregnancy. Densely atmospheric, in equal measures ominous and soothing, it unfolds in a deliberate pace towards a subtly visceral epilogue that further amplifies the all-pervasive ambiguity. Tressler and his co-writer Wesley Pastorfield keep pulling the rug from under the viewer’s feet, and each time they do so, you find yourself falling deeper into the rabbit hole of Leda’s dreams, memories and hallucinations. All the while, cinematographer Nick Midwig lulls you into a dreamlike state with eloquent B&W imagery immersed in a hauntingly minimalist score by Andre Barros and Björn Magnusson.

Highly recommended for the fans of ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943), ‘Angel’s Egg’ (1985), ‘Under the Skin’ (2013) and ‘November’ (2017).

5. Erosu purasu gyakusatsu / Eros + Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)

In real life, no human has escaped death; in cinema, no character has been liberated from the frame. Yoshida emphasizes these inevitabilities, particularly the latter, by imprisoning his protagonists within windows and doors, trapping them inside mirrors, and hiding them behind sliding panels, shooting them through branches, and drowning them in bright light or in the void of darkness, always looking for a new, usually twisted angle. Frequently, he obstructs their bodies and/or subjects them to negative spaces, as if mocking their attempts to attain freedom, paradoxically lending them eternity by virtue of geometrically rigorous compositions. His formal radicalism and the story – a poeticized biography of Japanese anarchist Ōsugi Sakae (1885-1923) paralleled by the (superficial?) modern-day examination of his theories – seem to co-exist in a dysfunctional marriage, and yet they feel like a perfect match. The audience is left to their own devices in figuring out the way through Yoshida’s labyrinth where every word should be taken with a pinch of salt, and every image could be accepted as sublime...

6. Siembra (Ángela Maria Osorio Rojas & Santiago Lozano Álvarez, 2015)

A fiction debut for documentarians Ángela Maria Osorio Rojas & Santiago Lozano Álvarez, ‘Siembra’ is a powerful social drama set in Afro-Colombian community, and dealing with forced migration, loss and grief. Beautifully shot in silvery black and white which emphasizes the all-pervading sense of nostalgia, the film marries the veracity of grim realism (not unlike that of the Yugoslav Black Wave) to pure, heart-wrenching poetry (influenced by Pedro Costa?), as it chronicles the sorrowful story of an aged farmer, Turco. Expelled from his land at Pacific coast into a life of poverty in the city of Cali, and losing his hotheaded, street-dancer son, Yosner, to a bullet, this wretched soul (portrayed with stoic poignancy by folk musician Diego Balanta) wanders the limbo of despair in search for the last glimmer of hope. Dignified in his mourning, Turco sheds no tears until the cathartic conclusion – one of many highly expressive close-ups – that sees him singing a moving elegy for Yosner. Speaking of songs, music plays an important role for people of ‘Siembra’, both in their festivities and final farewells, elevating the conspicuous humane aspect of the directorial duo’s taut screenplay. Rojas & Álvarez make the most of the economic 80-minute running time to plunge us into the bleak world of their protagonists (largely played by non-professionals), convey the mood and emotions by virtue of visuals rather than dialogue, and utilize some genre-bending and smooth tonal shifts to great effect. 

7. Saules aveugles, femme endormie / Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Pierre Földes, 2022)

I am not familiar with Haruki Murakami’s short stories the film is based upon (I’ve only read ‘Dance Dance Dance’ several years ago), but I will surely be keeping my eye on composer turned filmmaker Pierre Földes. Addressing the stresses of everyday life and attempts of ordinary people to find its meaning (if any), ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ is a finely nuanced amalgam of light philosophical musings and quirky flights of fancy. Magic realist at its core, it introduces an anthropomorphic, Nietzsche-and-Hemingway-quoting frog as one of the guides in interconnected existential crises of three people stuck in their dead-end job, marriage or solitude. At once detached and compassionate, this fantasy-drama flows like a slightly disorienting dream in which almost each encounter gives off a Schrodinger’s cat vibe, and the cat has both the first and last name – Noboru Watanabe. The employed technique of animation similar to rotoscoping goes well with the liminal realities of the narrative, with Földes’s piano-heavy score conveying the brooding, yet comforting feeling of chronic melancholy.

8. The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

The slick performance from Constance Towers, beautiful cinematography by Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter), and Samuel Fuller’s no-nonsense direction pose as driving forces of what is arguably one of the most slyly feminist 60’s B-movies with a sharp auteur edge. It is almost everything that you expect from a film which opens with a bald prostitute beating her pimp with a handbag, only to unveil all of the provincial hypocrisies later on...

9. Легенда о ледяном сердце (Эльдар Шенгелая & Алексей Сахаров, 1958) /
The Legend of the Icy Heart (Eldar Shengelaia & Aleksey Sakharov, 1958)

A feature debut for both Shengelaia and Sakharov, ‘The Legend of the Icy Heart’ is inspired by a Kirghiz folk tale and Wilhelm Hauff’s 1827 fairy tale ‘Das kalte Herz’. Set in what was the present back then, it tells a love story of a beautiful opera singer, Aynakan, and a young shovel operator, Meerkan, kept apart by an evil theatre director, Kambar, and guided by an ashik narrator whose character introduces the elements of metacinema. Quite impressive in terms of production design, art direction, cinematography and music, this charming modern fantasy brings to mind Powell and Pressburger’s works from the late 40’s, with some of the lighting schemes anticipating the 60’s Bava. The directorial duo elicit superb performances from the cast, helming with lighthearted touch and awaking the inner child in this viewer who understands but a few words of Russian, yet needs no subtitles to enjoy the beauty at display. 

10. Thérèse Desqueyroux (Georges Franju, 1962)

Unfolding at a leisurely pace which underlines its bleakness, ‘Thérèse Desqueyroux’ is a brooding character study of a despairing woman portrayed with a remarkable subtlety, mystery and sympathy by Emmanuelle Riva. The magnetic central performance is beautifully matched by Franju’s tactful, disciplined direction, and the expressive B&W cinematography (Raymond Heil & Christian Matras) that is particularly befitting of the depressing second act. A haunting psychological drama with a feminist edge.

11. Obaltan / Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

A cinematic equivalent of desperation, ‘Aimless Bullet’ is an unsparing portrayal of grim reality in post-war South Korea. Taking cues from neorealism and film noir, its author makes sure the viewer deeply feels the oppressiveness of pitch-black shadows, and the coldness of walls in existential prison, impossible to escape from. Extremely powerful, and not recommended for people suffering depression and anxiety.

“Inside the unknown, you’re alive, really alive. It’s the most beautiful place to be.”

Soft shades of Pygmalion and Orpheus myths permeate a largely non-verbal story of a grieving artist, Oliver Black (Xander Berkely of ‘Candyman’ fame), whose gradually liquefying reality is gorgeously captured in dreamy, illuminated cinematography (Hanuman Brown-Eagle) of hyper-saturated colors, and misty, ethereal score (Heather Schmidt) of whispery piano, sobbing strings and euphonious chants. Treated with gentleness and poise, the themes of loss and the healing power of art make way for a tone poem-like reflection on both life and the great beyond, challenging our perception of the physical universe, and inviting us to peak into a subliminal dimension. At times, Balderson (Firecracker, 2005) teases the possibility of metaphysical horror, and provides some goosebump-inducing moments, yet his film remains within the constraints of a chamber psychological drama subtly seasoned with humor – the courtesy of John Waters’s regular Mink Stole in the supporting role of an art dealer, Alex. ‘Alchemy of the Spirit’ does stumble here and there, but its honest heart and transcendental qualities far outweigh its flaws.

If you’re looking for a decidedly incoherent film that feels like a possessed fever-dream sequence drenched in colorful neon-lights all the way to its very cores, both demonic and angelic one, then you will have a trippy field day with Arcane and Erskine’s feature debut. Employing hyper-stylized visuals (think N.W. Refn by way of Cattet and Forzani’s fetishism), and haunting soundscapes of heavy breathing, whispery voices, echoing screams, darkly ethereal tunes and foreboding drones, ‘Crucify’ locks you deep inside a subconscious mind of a haunted house and throws the key out of the window... 

(Short) honorable mention: 

A perfect appetizer for the likes of Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (1989) and Shozin Fukui’s ‘Rubber’s Lover’ (1996), this 14-minute short looks, feels and unfolds like a surrealistic nightmare in which body horror applies not only to human flesh, but to inorganic matter as well. Created in what appears to be stop-motion technique, with each (originally, live-action) frame rendered in gritty, photocopy-like B&W, ‘Haruko’s Adventure’ is decidedly weird, wondrously unnerving and at times wryly humorous in its raw poeticism and absurdist ambiguity.