Life and Death and Japan
It's always an extra little thing to worry about when the column hits a significant anniversary: I still feel a distinct pang when I recall that we had to go with a review of the dreadful Hampstead for the 500th edition, for example. Yet here we are at 600, with the prospect of some of the earliest columns being old enough to drink and vote before this year is out. (No doubt the editor will make a comment along the lines of 'this is the first time anyone has done the same thing 600 times on the internet.') So I trust you will indulge me if I waive (slightly) my normal no-revivals rule and talk about two really good films I saw at the cinema this week; the alternative would have been hideous (see 'Also This Week', below).
I'd never heard of Hirokazu Kore-eda before the success of Shoplifters last year, but then that's not an enormous surprise: my knowledge of Japanese film directors doesn't extend much beyond Kurosawa, Shusuke Kaneko, and various other alumni of the Godzilla franchise. But now the wider world seems to have woken up to the talents of this man, with a selection of his older works turning up on UK screens, including After Life from 1998.
What appears to be a small team of social workers assembles in a dilapidated old school or hospital; they tidy up their office, gossip about people they've met on the job, listen to motivational speeches from their manager while awaiting the arrival of a new batch of clients. When they eventually turn up, the truth of the situation becomes clear: the new clients are recently deceased people, and the team's job is to help them move on to the next phase of the afterlife. This involves their choosing one memory which is most important to them, which will then be recreated on film. This is the only memory they will take forward with them into the rest of eternity.
The early parts of the film include a lot of interviews with the clients as they discuss their lives and the memories they recall most vividly; some of these are scripted but others are genuine contributions from non-actors. It's a thought-provoking framing device for what almost feels like a rather odd documentary, but an affecting story about the relationship between two of the processing team gently manifests itself as the film progresses.
There is something genuinely marvellous and beautiful about this gentle, understated film. You can imagine what the English-language remake would be like – swelling string-sections, ham acting, over-saturated colour and Important Life Lessons as far as the gut can spew. Kore-eda includes none of these things, and the sheer low-key naturalism of the film accounts for much of its charm – there's something rather shambolic about his conception of the next world which is genuinely appealing.
Obviously the film sort of touches on various big themes – life and death, memory, happiness, guilt and regret – but it doesn't labour any of them and it doesn't feel like it's pushing a particular line. The film seems mainly interested in kindness and compassion, and those are things which if anything feel even more important now than they did twenty years ago.
Also showing this week was a more recent Japanese film, Shinichiro Ueda's One Cut of the Dead (first released in 2017). This apparently holds the distinction of being the most profitable film in history, and deservedly so, because it's brilliant.
Trouble is brewing on the set of a low-budget zombie film, mostly due to the tyrannical tendencies of the director (Takayuki Hamatsu), but the real trouble starts when actual zombies turn up and start chowing down on the cast and crew. But is there something else going on?
Well, there is – this isn't simply a film about zombies attacking a film about zombies. It's a film about people making a film about zombies attacking a film about zombies. What could be simpler?
The film in question – well, several of them – are called One Cut of the Dead, and if I mention that most of the cast are basically playing themselves you may get an inkling of what a playful, witty film this is: it's a comedy, rather than a horror movie, albeit one drenched in unconvincing fake blood.
At the heart of things is the film-within-the-film, a bravura 37-minute single take marvel of energy and invention (the Japanese title of the film is Don't Stop the Camera!). You wonder how the rest of it can possibly match up to this (it opens the film) but then we see flashbacks revealing the origins of this deeply suspect project, and then a look behind the scenes at how the thing was made. Miraculously, this just makes all the jokes from the start of the film even funnier when they are repeated at the end, and you genuinely find yourself rooting for the characters as they struggle to finish the movie in the face of many ridiculous, painstakingly foreshadowed problems.
Above all else, it is simply very, very funny: maybe especially so if you enjoy bad horror movies and can appreciate the deconstruction and satire of genre tropes going on here, but funny nevertheless. I have not laughed as long or as loud at any film in a very long time; this was one of the highlights of the year so far.
Also This Week…
…art-house doyenne Claire Denis takes the sci-fi movie to a place it's never been before in High Life, although to be honest it's not a place you may actually want to follow her to. A load of death-row inmates are launched into deep space to perform experiments on black holes, but nearly everyone proves incapable of keeping their sex drive under control and there are tears (and every other bodily fluid you care to mention) before, during, and after bedtime.
Clearly intends to be a bold, bleak statement on the human condition, bust just ends up as a grotty, repulsive, impenetrable film with no awareness of how ridiculous its plotting is. Betrays an awareness of the heritage of the SF film (there are echoes of Silent Running, amongst others), but it seems to have no message or big ideas worth mentioning. Memorable, but in all the wrong ways.
…Keanu Reeves returns as short-fused hitman John Wick in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum. An astonishingly violent thriller, and completely absurd from start to finish, but thankfully the film is fully aware of this and good fun ensues, always assuming you're okay with the astronomical body count. Full review next week.