The 24th Helsinki International Film Festival

Just like last year, I recently attended the biggest film festival in Finland, Helsinki International Film Festival. It’s held annually in September and this time it started on the 15th and ended on the 25th. My stay at the festival was limited to 5 days, but I managed to see 10 films before I left. I’ll do my best to summarize my thoughts on each film in this article.

Cold Fish

Released in 2010, only a year after Love Exposure, Sion Sono continues his provocative yet intriguing style of film making in Cold Fish. It is centered on a dysfunctional family that runs a humble tropical fish shop. The mild-mannered has remarried, which has left the rebellious daughter disappointed. One faithful night, they meet an energetic and generious man who offers his seemingly innocent help – only to involve the entire family in a seedy business; the consequences of which are ultimately tragic.

Like Sono’s other recent films, Cold Fish has its own set of allusions to Christianity and antagonists with traumatic upbringing, but he manages to bring a fresh approach to the similar elements. The father’s descent is portrayed in a very dedicated, moving manner and the result is very disturbing. The major turning point of the film will surely divide audiences, but I’m sure everyone agrees that the development up to that point is solid. The characters are well-rounded, but thematically the film is a bit of a mystery. While the main point of the film is quite obvious, the ambiguous last scene leaves me puzzled even after the second time. It’s almost as if Sono was aiming for something a lot more ambitious, but didn’t know how to express it.

Formally it’s a regular Sono film. It runs wild and it’s messy on the surface, but in the long run it works incredibly well. Sono has his own way of sneaking under the audience’s skin and, visually, Cold Fish is even less restrained than his earlier films. There’s a distinct rawness to the action, which might be a result of the lack of comic relief. While there are a few funny moments dropped in here and there, the film is quite brooding in general. A significant part of the atmosphere stems from the phenomenal acting, especially from Mitsuru Fukikoshi’s and Denden’s lead performances.

By sheer luck, Cold Fish was my opening film for the festival and I don’t think there would have been any better choice. I had seen it before so I was ready for the shock and it made it possible for me to react reasonably to whatever the other films would have in store for me.

Robot

The most expensive Indian film ever made, S. Shankar’s Robot, became a sort of a cult hit in the West when trailers and sneak peeks showed up on the Internet. Ridiculously weird but badass action, glorious special effects and random musical sequences sparked interest. I can guarantee you that Robot is loved and praised in India for a good reason: because it’s damn entertaining in its own right. The premise doesn’t sound that special: a scientist builds an impressive robot, gives it human emotions and chaos ensues. With goofy side characters, a love interest (for both the scientist and the robot),and a smug antagonist; Robot mostly treads the ground that dozens of other films have – but none of them have done it with the same vigor and creativity.

First of all, the action scenes are simply unbelievable. The huge budget is used for CGI that actually matters: the choreography is insane with the robot delivering epic moves one after another at a tireless pace. Since the film is over 3 hours long and a majority of it is action it’s obvious that it doesn’t get much better for action buffs. The final fight is long but very imaginative and never boring at all – you need to see it to understand that it’s one of the best setpieces blockbusters have offered in a decade or two. Along with the action, a great deal of the film is filled up with humor that seems silly at first, but the comic timing is simply impeccable. I found myself laughing throughout the film. Rajinikanth’s double performance (as the robot and the scientist) is simply stunning: his line delivery is always spot-on and he shows considerable skill in switching between very different characters. Moreover, he proves himself to be a good dancer in the wild musical numbers that often come out of nowhere, but fit to the overall mood of the film.

However, I do have a few quips against the film: its form is a bit all over the place. In individual scenes it’s a mess, but it somehow works out in the bigger pictures. Well, it would if the film wasn’t so long. Near the end I started to wonder just how it will last – even though the action scenes had me pumped up I was irritated by the baffling visual treatment of the story. A. R. Rahman’s s futuristic soundtrack worked very well although I can’t remember anything of it afterwards and I certainly wouldn’t listen to it on its own.

My Neighbours the Yamadas

As a fan of Studio Ghibli’s work, I always take every chance I get to see their films on the big screen. The organizers of the festival seem to be in good terms with the studio as there’s always at least one Ghibli film included in the schedule. This year there were two of them and the first one I saw was Isao Takahata’s, My Neighbours the Yamadas, one of the very few Ghibli films I had not seen before.

The film consists of unconnected sketch-like scenes of a typical Japanese family. Each character is crafted with care even though they are quite caricatureesque. For a film that lasts only for 90 minutes this sort of story structure works although I have to admit that during the last 15 minutes the movie felt a little too long. However, the climactic wedding scene was so hilarious that I managed to forget that for a while. Above all, the film leaves you in a good mood and it’s certainly a film that you can watch at any given time – it’s a film that endures repetition.

Unlike the studio’s other films, the art design isn’t quite complicated or breathtaking, but the animation is nevertheless quite fluid when it’s needed to be. The simple design works only in a film like this because it enhances the film’s ”free” and experimental atmosphere. Akiko Yano’s charming soundtrack is perfect for a film as carefree as this.

Even though I saw it in an unpleasant outdoor cinema My Neighbours the Yamadas was a refreshing experience. It might not be Ghibli at its best, but it’s very good in any case.

I Saw the Devil

Having read great things about Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, I had high expectations for the film. It was compared to the likes of Park’s Vengeance trilogy (which I’m a fan of) although considered even more violent. Universally praised during its festival run. However, it turned to be the biggest disappointment of the festival this year. I admit that I saw it under bad circumstances: the screening started as late as 11 PM, I was a bit sleepy and my feet were tired from walking and the theater was my least favorite in Helsinki. Nevertheless, the movie was terrible no matter how I’ve looked at it in hindsight.

First of all, the film is sold as a gripping and clever revenge story. A cop’s pregnant wife is raped and murdered in a disturbing way. Cop wants revenge and sets out on a brainless and bloody journey to get his revenge. The film is torture porn from beginning to end. Whatever it tried to do with blurring the line between good and evil is utterly lost. It repeats the same dull point over and over again without much development. The gross imagery is so overdone that I had to consider walking out of the film midway through the film. In the end I didn’t, but I wouldn’t have missed much if I had done so.

Apart from a few intense action scenes I found it to be disappointing as a thriller: the cheap jumpers and overtly grotesque scenes of torture are mind-numbing after the first shock. While some of the calmer shots looked pretty the film was formally incomprehensible at times. The music was corny as hell, too.

Almost as if the film wasn’t irritating enough, the very final sequence went even beyond. A needlessly prolonged scene of senseless violence with an ending that was incredibly childish. As a result many walked out during that scene even though they knew it was the climax. It was just unbearable. Korean film makers should know that violence for violence’s sake is a terrible idea. Lee tried to lighten up the mood by bits of pitch black humor, but it was rarely funny. I can only remember laughing at one single moment which really isn’t enough in a film as grim as I Saw the Devil.

The Borrower Arrietty

It’s always fascinating to see Ghibli films not directed by Takahata or Miyazaki because they are bound to be at least a little different. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Borrower Arrietty was even more so because it hugely determines the future of the studio: can it keep going on without the old masters? The answer is a resounding ”yes”.

Adapted from Mary Norton’s novels, The Borrower Arrietty is about small people, ”borrowers”, who make they living by ”borrowing” things from human beings (or human beans, as the borrowers say). The film is set into motion once the daughter of one borrower family, Arrietty, meets a young boy and puts her entire family in danger. As can be expected from a Ghibli film, the characterizations are strong and there’s a sense of adventure even though its scope is quite small. There’s also a surprisingly gloomy tone in thefilm because it gives an uncertain prediction of the future of the borrowers as a race.

Visually it’s stunning just like any other Ghibli film. The borrowers’ small size is tangible thanks to the clever framing, the animation is fluid and the background art is so rich and detailed. The film’s sound design is quite simple, but very effective.

Even though it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into the film and that the staff is the same as usual, the film leaves you wanting more. It’s less polished than Miyazaki’s masterpieces, but I’m looking forward to seeing more films directed by Yonebayashi. The Borrower Arrietty is a great debut which makes me believethat Yonebayashi can take Miyazaki’s place once he stops making films.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I picked Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame on a whim even though I hadn’t seen anything else from the director before. I was in for a pleasant – albeit confusing – surprise. Just as the first female Empress is about to advance to the throne a string of mysterious deaths occur and the nation’s best (yet distrustred) detective is asked to investigate the case. In midst of this twist-filled epic you’ll find gorgeous imagery, talking stags and great action sequences.

As the grand story goes on, more and more characters are added and at some point I found it difficult to understand the relationships between all the characters and, on one occasion, who was who. However, the film remains quite entertaining throughout the film thanks to the actors who pump life into the messy screenplay. Who needs coherence when you have an awesome scene in which Andy Lau fights against rampaging deer? And the aforementioned deer sound like sheep, for some reason.

Visually the film is a blast. Hark has spent a lot of cash on the impressive scenery shots, incredible CGI and the exquisitely stylized clothing. The film might operate like a regular blockbuster, but it has more elegance than any other big budget film I can even think of. There is one problem though: the quality is hugely inconsistent. The editing stumbles in a few key action scenes, the CGI looks awkward once in a while and I would have left a few over-stylized shots out of the film.

Even though I can equally criticize and praise the film, the superb climax redeems the film to a degree. It’s a huge and complicated setpiece and Hark pulls it off nigh perfectly – if the final conclusion wasn’t such a cop out I would be kinder to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Guilty of Romance

The film I was looking forward to the most was Sion Sono’s brand new Guilty of Romance. I had managed to avoid all the hype and spoilers about the film and knew only that it was Sono’s film and that the festival reports of it were mixed. I would watch anything Sono directed, but I was even more fascinated by how perplexing the film seemed to be even for the director’s loyal fans.

Guilty of Romance is led by three women. A housewife looking for a change to her monotonous life, A professor leading a secret life as a prostitute during the night, and a detective investigating the bizarre murder that happened after the other two characters met each other.

I saw the international cut of the film which apparently lacks quite many scenes from the detective’s storyline and her part is indeed quite useless: she’s just there stating a few facts without getting her own character development and she has no meaning for the thematics either. In other words, her role should have been completely left out of the film, but I would like to see the original cut in case it would explain why Sono included her in the film in the first place.

However, the other two characters are hugely interesting because Sono is not afraid to use them for his creepy vision. He develops an idyllic, comfortable routine with the housewife’s daily chores that start to fall apart one by one, before all hell is gradually set loose. Sono’s journey through sex, power and love is grim and rewarding, but the problem is that he doesn’t have that much to say in the end. He’s bent on repeating a few motifs and one perspective over and over again. While the first half works very well despite its length the second half is awfully long-winded. The problem reaches its own climax in the final sequence that feels almost completely redundant apart from one twist that takes the film’s themes to its natural, even if slightly unexpected, conclusion. It would have worked a lot better if the film was only about half of its current length, with a re-written and stronger ending. That way it would have the desired impact that Sono clearly intended.

Formally the first half of the film is surprisingly clean and ”warm” for Sono, but his usual trademarks begin to show up later on in the film. While it’s consistently good there’s hardly anything remarkable about it. Sono recycles music and visual motifs from his earlier films in a slightly lazy manner, but they work nevertheless. Probably the best thing about the entire film is the acting from the leading ladies: Megumi Kagurazaka’s pitch-perfect performance isn’t outshined by Makoto Togashi’s ravaging, all-over-the-place tour de force.

In overall, Guilty of Romance is a bit disappointing for me. As a fan of Sono’s work I was expecting more from it. For those not familiar with the director it might be better to steer away from the film at least until you have seen Love Exposure.

Milocrorze A Love Story

Out of all the impulsive choices I’ve regretted, this one has to be the worst. I decided to include Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s Milocrorze A Love Story in my festival schedule just because it was a Japanese film being screened at the right time. Before I move onto my actual rant, I’ll provide you with a short plot synopsis. The film is split into 3 different stories all of which revolve around weird characters and the theme of impossible love. A kid falls in love with a grown-up woman. An eccentric man gives even more eccentric love advice to troubled young men. A man falls in love with a lady whose boyfriend is a gangster and who is eventually sold as a slave and so forth.

The first story (which is told in two parts at the beginning and end of the film) is entirely narrated by a corny female voice. Moreover, the narrator is obsessed with oddities, such as the ridiculously long and uncommon names (Ovreneli Vreneligare) which are repeated over and over again. The sets try to mimic the wild anime aesthetic with painted backgrounds and awkward costumes and colorful hair. The hyperactive pacing and schmaltzy musical score make it even worse. At first it’s funny, but when you have to endure it for the first 20 minutes it’s totally unbearable. The second story is treated with even less sensibility, although it’s actually funny at times.

No matter how problematic the film was up to this point I was still somewhat satisfied with it. What really irritated me was the third story that took up most of the runtime. It might have an awesome lead actor who played one of the assassins in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, but he can’t do anything about the poor comedy that is thrown in pretty much every scene even though the end of the story tries to be as genuinely sentimental as possible. The story simply goes on and on, trying to portray the pain of the lead character on his long journey, but it holds no rewards for the viewer. There’s one epic fight scene shot in one take – except it’s completely in slow-motion so that the audience can laugh at the ”funny” faces they make while fighting.

I laud the director for his courage to bring his vision to the big screen without holding back at all. As an effort it is impressive, but the result is completely muddled. It’s funny at times and often quite sympathetic due to its naivety, but it’s a waste of time no matter how you approach it.

Poetry

After a string of rapidly paced films Poetry’s tranquil and slowly burning meditation on life offered a refreshing change of pace. Directed by the Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong, Poetry is about an elderly woman, named Mija, dealing with her recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s dsease, a no-good grandchild, a distant daughter, a part-time cleaning job and a passion for poetry.

The movie proceeds at the main character’s calm pace, with everything being introduced in a carefully nuanced way. Despite being slightly guilt-ridden by the conflicts Mija faces, she moves forward with confidence – all the while trying to write her own poem. I’d like to keep my take on the screenplay short so that I won’t spoil anything. Poetry’s magic is in its curiously understated yet hard-hitting writing that explores guilt, morality and the simple act of enjoying life. The characters are very down-to-earth, each one holding his or her own set of issues which they avoid in a humane way. Around the 2-hour mark I started to wonder if the understatement was a little overdone, but in the end I realized that Lee was holding it all back until the very final sequence. It will forever be etched in my memory because it’s so haunting and gorgeous on top of being fittingly ambiguous and mysterious.

Lee’s form is beautiful although it doesn’t shine in every single scene. The vivid colors provide an interesting background for the peacefully floating camera. Lee’s direction is minimal, but not in an exaggerated or lifeless manner. Every scene is full of life and optimism due to the tranquil atmosphere. Yun Jeong-hie’s lead performance is a delight. Somehow she manages to deliver a combination of both world-weariness and childlike innocence.

Without the magnificent ending Poetry would be easily forgettable, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I can’t pinpoint its faults, but it doesn’t deliver a ”wow” moment big enough to turn itself into a modern classic.

13 Assassins

I was terribly lucky to be able to watch Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins as the last film at the festival. Its big scope and adrenaline pumping action would have made it impossible to watch any other film with a clear mind. I’m a big fan of Miike’s work and I constantly look for more of his films. Whether it’s surprisingly meditative like The Bird People in China or outrageous and provocative like Visitor Q, Miike usually delivers. He has made many great films, but I’ve been wondering when his big masterpiece would come along and when 13 Assassins was announced I felt like it was the time for Miike’s magnum opus. While 13 Assassins didn’t turn out to be his magnum opus it might be the most impressive film he has ever made.

It is obvious from the get-go that Miike is really confident with this project even though it might be the largest production he has worked with so far. The characters are introduced in a brilliant way: the richness of the first impressions save the film from becoming a confusing mess later – since some of the characters remain quite insignificant and thinly characterized to the end it’s easy to remember most of them since the build-up is so brilliant.

Having not seen the original film I don’t know how much Miike has changed the plot elements. I’m pretty sure the antagonist is all Miike: he’s both comic relief and a perfect villain at the same time. His sadism and thirst for excitement make him unforgettable. The ridiculously long battle scene is pretty much the most awesome action sequence filmed in a long time. While it sometimes may seem a bit repetitive there’s a fierce and surprisingly sentimental tone that elevates it high above other blockbusters. Miike subdues his trademark violence to great effect: 13 Assassins feels tangibly real although in a slightly exaggerated way. The very final duel is great and proves why Kaji Yokusho is by far the best actor to have worked in Japan in the past 20 years. His strong fighting spirit and utter dedication to his character are simply stunning and his line delivery is earth-shattering where it matters the most.

Even though I don’t know how well 13 Assassins fares when I’m going to see it for the second time I can confidently say that Miike has made a momentous film that ranks among the finest that he will ever make.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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