My final post on the 2011 London Film Festival was one of the hardest ones I’ve written, due to a minor meltdown experienced at two screenings as I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing. Jiang Wen’s Let The Bullets Fly and Daisuke Tengan’s Dendera were baffling artifacts, so tied in with the culture and history of China and Japan that to an outsider they appeared impenetrable, and attempts to parse them were fraught with the risk of insensitivity and misunderstanding. This blog has been only sporadically updated since then, with most of the reviews focusing on nerd cinema; these are the things I feel comfortable talking about.
Which meant this year’s festival was bound to create a similar problem, as the line-up of films included a number of films from Japan, South Korea, Spain and France that would throw up the risk of foolish misinterpretation. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to make of Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a film by a filmmaker with a bold style I have never experienced due to philistinism, centred on a performance of a Jean Anouilh play I haven’t read which reinterprets a myth I only half remember from childhood. Writing about that will likely be an exercise in being as vague as possible in order to cover my own ass (“Great performances!”).
The American and British films I selected felt like surer bets that would give me the confidence to keep going through this exercise; I know these cultures, I understand the history, I can relax while talking about Argo or Seven Psychopaths or Sightseers or John Dies At The End because they will be more on my wavelength. So consider me deeply nonplussed to walk out of Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s Beasts of the Southern Wild with a massive question mark filling my head like an inflatable lilo. What the hell did I just see? How much of the symbolism made any sense to me? How was I going to be able to write about it? The doubt that gripped me after Dendera came back with an unwelcome rush.
I think I know what my problem is. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a small and defiantly isolationist community living in what is known as the Bathtub, a fictional patch of land on the wrong side of a levee. The protagonist is a young girl called Hushpuppy (played with wonderfully bratty enthusiasm by Quvenzhané Wallis), whose tempestuous personality clashes with that of her similarly aggressive father Wink (excellent work from Dwight Henry). The people of The Bathtub live in horrifying poverty, adapting to their surroundings by cobbling together bits and pieces, turning the area into something akin to a bayou-based version of a Mad Max frontier town. There is much carousing and celebrating of life.
A storm changes everything, and Hushpuppy struggles to comprehend the vastness of the events around her. The Bathtub floods, and Wink falls ill, forcing her to translate these moments through a kind of child-logic that allows her to create a narrative for what is happening, involving Aurochs (ancient beasts thawed from the ice that has melted at the polar caps), alien-like interlopers from the other side of the levee, and a trip across what resembles the river Styx to “find” her dead mother in the hopes of making right a world that has gone horribly wrong. Or is it her interpretation? Is this world really ours, or is this a window into a magical parallel universe (not a question asked in the film; this is my own question to myself that is ultimately irrelevant)?
This all seems pretty straightforward when written down, but the discombobulation I experienced was overwhelming. The story is told in such a ramshackle, unconventional manner that it feels like Zeitlin and Alibar are painting outside the lines of what we expect from a narrative. Scenes unfold with seemingly no rhyme of reason, usually involving raucous celebrations around food and booze, fractured and essentially pointless but also crucial in building up a sense of the tight community. Whenever it moves beyond these scenes it feels less a three-act McKee placation vehicle, more a quest narrative (reminiscent of the first half of Winter’s Bone), only this time one in which the protagonist takes a long time to figure out what she’s looking for. Once Hushpuppy and her three companions show up in “Elysian Fields” the movie’s structure comes into a much clearer focus.
The other reasons for confusion are more technical. Apologies for bringing up such churlish complaints, but the low budget and the stylistic choice to capture the performances in a chaotic style make following the movie a headache in more ways than one. Zeitlin chose not to look at dailies until the shooting was over, and I can’t help but wonder if he should have. At times Ben Richardson’s 16mm photography catches mesmerising images that shoot straight to the heart; a fireworks party and a lesson in how to catch fish are quite beautiful. However, many other scenes look like they were shot by attaching a cameraphone to the back of a cat and then setting off a firecracker behind it. The image whips back and forth, reducing the movie to an incomprehensible smear. If you’ve ever complained about shakycam before, be warned.
Even more frustrating is the voiceover by Wallis which, through no fault of her own, is drowned out by the (excellent, emotive) score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The mixing on the movie is not great, which is a shame as there is some fascinating sound design to be found under the thunderous score. As Wallis’ voiceover is crucial in explaining the details of Hushpuppy’s complicated self-constructed mythology, losing pieces of it here and there lead to frustration. These are technical problems that seem too small to complain about, and harping on such things seems antithetical to a review of the movie’s artistic intentions, its emotional successes and failures, but meeting it on its own terms felt impossible when my ears strained for details and a million whip-pans reduced the film to the equivalent of a landscape flashing past a train window, gone before the audience can register where they are.
But then should I be viewing the movie as a mood piece, allowing the many peculiarities of the plot to trickle over me as if I were experiencing Hushpuppy’s dream, ignoring the concerns of the real world as I know them and giving myself over to her viewpoint? Maybe so, and things improved once I stopped thinking about how the events of the movie would be impossible in our world; a confusion caused by the profusion of real, recognisable things and themes in what is essentially a fantastical place. This is as strange a land as anything found in any of Neil Gaiman’s children’s fantasies, but is formed of such unrecognisable and original story beats that it trumps the products of Gaiman’s repetitive fantasy template hands down.
Nevertheless this was a frustrating experience, simply because falling into the dream-state was stymied by the execution. Call that the complaint of a pampered film buff unable to accept that low-budget movies don’t have infinite resources to draw upon; I won’t argue. But despite the challenging structure, the obvious and commendable ambition, and the high-levels of original detail here, without being able to sink into the world depicted here because of the frustrations of the way it is filmed, it is merely a movie I can admire and be grateful for, filled with lovely moments and a memorable atmosphere, without ever really wanting to revisit or ponder. And that’s a crying shame. We need more films like this, desperately, to break the grip of formula. We just need them to be made more clearly, and (literally) with more focus.
BotSW has been highly praised all year, which means I stand outside the critical consensus. The extension cord for the electrical charge that lit up those other critics just didn’t reach me, or the voltage was DC and I’m AC, or something. #MetaphorBreakdown Perhaps this was down to seeing it on the wrong day, because just a few hours earlier we watched Mamoru Hosoda’s Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (aka Wolf Children), and compared to that, Zeitlin and Alibar’s movie didn’t stand a chance. While critics were captivated by the grimy shanty town fantasia, this anime, the first from Hosoda’s newly formed Studio Chizu, gripped us both from the very first scene. It slotted into my brain with a click like a N64 cartridge, and nothing I saw the same day could compete.
It’s very rare for it to happen, for a movie to transport me so quickly from my seat into another world, but within just a few minutes I found myself struggling to control my emotions. Hosoda’s previous film, the excellent genealogy/cyberpunk drama Summer Wars, was sweet and clever and sentimental, but didn’t move me the way this deceptively simple and emotional tale did, to the point that I found myself battling tears for the majority of its running time. His mastery of tone and pace were so confident and complete that it was hard not to start yelling praise at the screen whenever he did something perfectly right. BotSW was an interesting, sometimes impressive movie, but I felt like an observer. Watching Wolf Children felt like being wrapped inside a warm duvet, like being hugged by a loving parent. It was simply overwhelming.
That absurd, over-the-top analogy has some connection to the film, at least; I’m not going mad. Hosoda and co-screenwriter Satoko Okudera’s tale depicts the life of a young student, Hana, who meets and falls in love with a mysterious man who is the only living descendant of the now-extinct Honshū wolf, and can transform between two states of being. They have two children, Yuki and Ame, before tragedy befalls them and Hana is forced to raise her unruly hybrid children without attracting the attention of those who would fail to understand her predicament. Soon she is forced to abandon her studies and leave the city to make a life for her family in the country, and much of the film shows her struggle to bring up her children and make a living in a new environment, finding a place there in a way that is reminiscent of Summer Wars‘ focus on community and family.
It’s a straightforward narrative, following the first few years of Yuki and Ame’s lives as they learn how to control (or not control) their animal natures as their mother tries to raise them correctly from a position of confusion and ignorance, before they reach an age in which they can make decisions for themselves. The fantastical elements are slight compared to similar movies about raising children and their first steps to freedom, such as Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and the Toy Story trilogy, which touch on similar subjects from a weirder place. But that relative directness, that gossamer-thin metaphorical veneer, doesn’t diminish Wolf Children‘s emotional charge. The result is a work of incredible honesty, blunt simplicity, and devastating power.
The imagery used by Hosoda is of such clarity that it felt like it was formed of some bizarre psychological trickery designed to cut right to my core. The first moment we see Hana’s lover transform into a wolf is so matter of fact and yet simultaneously magical that I began to weep at its uncomplicated, stark beauty. Ditto his final scene, a wrenching moment which clearly sets out the solitude Hana has to endure from then on; it pole-axed me for the next half an hour in which I desperately tried not to fall apart. By the time Yuki and Ame experience snow for the first time, I was a wreck. And the last fifteen minutes? The only things in recent memory that have hit me as hard are Up and Toy Story 3. I’d happily place this masterwork in their esteemed company.
I almost feel bad for the makers of Beasts of the Southern Wild, that I should come to it with my face still hot from the meltdown I had just experienced. Their movie shows a world in decay, with people struggling to find their place and protect it, with all the attendant strife that goes with it. The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is well-drawn but grating, as both father and daughter stubbornly resist each other, leading to exhausting conflict which builds to an earned denouement. Hana, on the other hand, is a strong woman who sacrifices everything to raise her two wolf children, and her quiet dignity, and her pain over the loss she has experienced, is depicted with little fanfare that nevertheless tore me up inside; a scalpel compared to BotSW‘s chainsaw.
It is all parenthood distilled into a bittersweet experience, and though I wouldn’t expect everyone who watches it to react the same way, the two other people I know who have seen it — Daisyhellcakes and friend-of-the-blog Anne Billson — were similarly reduced to sobbing wrecks. Praise is due to Hosoda and Satoku Okudera, and especially Takagi Masakatsu, whose glorious, delicate score has instantly become my favourite of the year and should have him mentioned in the same breath as the incredible Joe Hisaishi (I’m listening to the soundtrack now and am blubbing all over the keyboard). Their work here is worthy of awards; how wonderful it would be to see them at least nominated for a Best Animated Feature Academy Award, though I doubt it’ll happen.
If this all seems too hyperbolic, or obviously the words of someone in the grip of some kind of personal crisis, feel free to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s okay, I won’t be offended. But this is a movie everyone should see; you owe it to yourselves. Criminally it has yet to be released worldwide except in a few markets (including France, oddly enough). Hopefully it will receive some attention now, and international distribution will follow. It’s easily the highlight of the festival so far, and one of the very best movies released this year.