Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 8

Becoming Who I WasQuality Time, and Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Well, I was going to do another one of my lengthy, indulgent, personal anecdotes about my time at the festival so far to kick off today’s piece, since I’m under embargo for one of the films I saw today until its premiere finishes tomorrow night.  However, I did not get back into my lodge until 9:30pm and, despite having been able to get the free time required to write up my thoughts on the first of the films in today’s coverage beforehand, I have only just finished writing the content people actually care about at 11:10pm.  I need to be awake at 7:00am if I am to make it into Central London for one of the two The Killing of a Sacred Deer screenings that are on at 9:00am tomorrow morning (the second is for the inevitable overfill that will come from the first one), and I don’t fancy being shut out of that.  So, a lengthy intro about trying to overcome my anxiety by talking to strangers at the Festival will have to be booted to another day.  Sorry.  In my defence, the film I stayed out for tonight was outstanding, but we’ll get to that later on.

Anywho, after narrowly avoiding being dicked over by The Tube, I did manage to make it to the day’s first screening on time, South Korean documentary Becoming Who I Was (B-).  Taking place in the tiny, isolated village of Ladakh in North India, our subject is 10-year-old Buddhist monk Padma Angdu, who is believed, by himself and his village, to be the reincarnated spirit of a former religious teacher, as in keeping with the Buddhist tenants of reincarnation.  This gives him the title of Rinpoche, and means that he is currently awaiting one of his former disciples from his old monastery in Tibet to come and return him to his rightful home, so that he can continue to impart his teachings and experiences to others.  In the meantime, he’s growing up in Ladakh, committed to the education provided by his Larna, Urgyan – who considers it an honour that he has been called upon to assist a Rinpoche, seeing it as a reward for good karma in a past life – helping provide blessings to his village, and also generally just being a 10-year-old boy, albeit one with a spiritual temperament well beyond his physical years.

If your eyes rolled in 360°-like directions or your cynicism alarms were set ablaze during any part of that last paragraph, Becoming Who I Was is not going to be for you.  Director Moon Chang-yong, and co-director Jin Jeon, wisely take the reincarnation concept at face-value, since the film editorialising and directly questioning it would both be incredibly disrespectful and take the focus away from the personal story of Padma himself.  Besides, it’s not like Padma doesn’t have times where he starts to doubt the veracity of his beliefs, brought upon by both the occasional (un-shown) moments where random people come up to him yelling of how he is a false Rinpoche and by the continued absence of any of his former disciples to come and take him away.  But he never seems to fall into despair over it, instead growing closer with his guardian Urgyan – he visits his mother from time to time, but she had to give him up to the monastery at a young age.  And lest you get the wrong impression, there’s nothing unseemly or untoward in the relationship between Padma and Urgyan, either.  It’s just a sweet, nurturing, innocent one, where Urgyan brings books to Padma’s school when the latter forgets them, and they have snow fights whenever the weather allows.

That’s Becoming Who I Was in a nutshell, really: an innocent, sweet account of a spiritualist kids’ life.  The film’s best sequences are even the ones where we get to see this mini-guru as, well, a child.  He enjoys snow-sledding with his friends, hates firecrackers because of their loudness – leading to one of his friends labelling him a “scaredy-cat” – and at one point nearly burns his home down when left alone because he stokes the fire just a little too hard.  In the final third, we go on a road trip with Padma and Urgyan as they make the pilgrimage to Tibet in order to put Padma in higher-education, and we get some excellent shots that draw attention to just how isolated and quiet Ladakh is compared to the rest of India, but that sweet innocence remains throughout.  Perhaps because of my lack of experience with Buddhism (and perhaps also owing to my sleepiness at that point in the morning), I didn’t find much to Becoming Who I Was, but it was a really enjoyable watch that may be worth checking out regardless of your reactions to a synopsis of it.

So you remember a couple of days back when I dragged Sally Potter’s awful and insufferable The Party for being a prime example of a “Smart Person Comedy?”  A film so concerned with impressing self-professed “Smart People” by vomiting ideologies and subtext through copious amounts of awkward tin-eared dialogue that it forgot to be entertaining or write any jokes, and therefore is only really enjoyable to a select group of likely-smug twits whilst everybody else gets left out in the cold?  Well, err, prepare to throw accusations of hypocrisy at me, because I absolutely adored Quality Time (B) and maybe only 5 other people will, whilst everybody else will likely sit in absolute bafflement over what those 5 other people are in such hysterics about.

Bear with me a moment and I’ll explain why I adored Quality Time and how it dodges the “Smart Person Comedy” tag, whilst I hated The Party which wears the label as a badge of honour, like a UKIP voter does theirs.  Quality Time is the feature debut of Danish writer-director Daan Bakker, and is an absurdist/surrealist anthology comedy in 5 parts, each with a different visual style, each with a different protagonist, and the only link between them being that each deals with, in its own way, the fragility of masculinity and the self-absorption of male egos.  One features a man who suffers from social anxiety travelling back in time with his friend to try and prevent the event he claims was the root cause of the problem: a nursery teacher slapped his bum for being naughty when he was an infant.  Another involves an aspiring musician meeting his girlfriend’s parents over a holiday weekend, going to absurd lengths to assert his masculinity in the wake of him accidentally peeing in a bin in the middle of the night.  We start with a man who can’t stop being forced to overdose on milk and ham at family reunions because one of his uncles likes him doing it, presented to us solely by dots on a solid white background who speak in distorted roboticized voices.

This is all largely presented in a deliberately opaque, abstract way that can appear like it’s nothing more than a deliberate affectation of faux-profundity rather than actually saying anything; surrealist nonsense for the sake of surrealist nonsense – I haven’t even mentioned the alien abduction vignette.  And yet, whilst Quality Time probably doesn’t manage to wring anything new to say out of the long-squeezed-dry topic of fragile masculinity, it does manage to craft together actual jokes within an idiosyncratic rhythm that makes perfect sense after a little adjustment, and the absurdity means that, unlike The Party, there’s always a fresh delivery on the central message so that it doesn’t become tiring.  For example, the musician segment ends with a sequence where he brings out his guitar to their campfire and, without objections but also without any requests, plays them a song.  A full song.  Except that there are no vocals, the song consists solely of 4 of the most basic chords being cycled through aimlessly over and over again, and he can’t even play that well.

And so he just plays these 4 chords.  Over and over and over again.  For upwards of 5 minutes.  Lost satisfactorily in his own little world whilst everybody else slowly realises how shit it is and how it appears to have no end in sight, trying their best to hide the slowly mounting horror on their faces that, oh Christ, he’s really not going to stop, is he?  And I, and the 10 other people in my screening, were busting several guts laughing at this!  At one point, he strums one chord about 25 times for upwards of 12 whole seconds as his idea of a bridge, and I started getting pains in my stomach from laughing so hard!  Then, when he finally finishes, he just looks at everybody with the most content smile possible on his face, and I swear that a whole bunch of us were seconds away from breaking into spontaneous applause despite nobody involved with the film being there to receive it.

Like I said, when I write it out like that, it sounds like the most insufferable garbage and that I am a giant hypocrite for loving it, but there really is a sense and a rhythm to Quality Time that makes it genuinely funny.  It’s not a film that’s interested in making you feel smart for getting what it’s doing at the expense of good filmmaking or actually being funny.  It’s just a weird, surrealist trip of a thing whose deadpan distance to almost everything only makes the absurdism, whether low-key or heightened, all the funnier.  Admittedly, as is often the case with anthology movies, some segments are far better than others – the second one, centring around a man in arrested development who moves back in with his parents and takes an interest in really underwhelming digital photography, always filmed from an extreme distance with all dialogue silent but presented in subtitles, being the runt of the litter that goes on for much too long – but, goddammit, Quality Time got to me!  I doubt I will ever see it again, it’s that weird and that hyper-designed for a certain incredibly tiny demographic, but I am so glad I got the opportunity to.

“OK, enough about weird foreign films we’ll never see, Callum!” I can already hear you all (and Owen) yelling.  “Tell us about Brawl on Cell Block 99 (A-), already!”  After all, I purposefully skipped it yesterday in order to watch Lu Over the Wall, partially because I knew that, if I were going to see Brawl, it had to be at a public screening, preferably one packed to the rafters.  This turned out to be a very wise decision; I highly doubt the eventual, brief, sickening displays of violence would have made quite the same audibly horrified reactions from a room full of jaded journalists, nor would they have broken out into spontaneous applause at one image that is going to stick with me for a good long while.  I doubt that it’s going to get the kind of release that will allow people to do so, but my best advice for Brawl is to see it in as packed a cinema as possible, because when it gets going, the inevitably shared reactions that your fellow patrons will express towards it only make watching Brawl even more perversely enjoyable.

Then again, when does Brawl get going?  Theoretically, that would be when the titular brawl starts, but that’s actually the relatively brief climax to this 2 hour 12 minute movie.  We don’t reach the titular cell block for 90 of those minutes, and Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) doesn’t even get sent to prison for a good hour of that.  Yet, inarguably, the film gets going from the off and it does not let up until writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s credit comes up on screen after one final ultra-violent send-off.  Brawl is a slow-burn in the best possible sense of the term, where that length is fully justified by not wasting a single second and moving with purpose and precision.  Despite the promise of grindhouse trash that the title advertises (and does eventually deliver on), Brawl is instead a step-by-step descent into Hell, as we watch a man who truly believes he is good sink ever further into the horrors of the depths below out of a desire to protect his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and unborn child.

Bradley is introduced to us in a prologue set 18 months prior to our main narrative; laid off from his job and returning home to discover that his wife has been cheating on him for the past 3 months.  With his cross tattoo-baring shaved head, height, and muscular physique, Bradley (and Vaughn) cut an imposing and constantly unnerving presence.  He seems prepared to explode into violence at any instance or provocation, like anything resembling sadness within him does not exist, replaced with more anger and rage.  Yet, instead of lashing out at his wife, he systematically tears her car apart piece by piece with his bare hands, before going inside and having a calm and understanding conversation with her.  Bradley is capable of extreme violence, but he’s a man who is largely just tired of always picking up the milk or water instead of the cream.  Unfortunately, this means that he’s finally ready to throw his lot in with his drug-running friend Gil (Marc Blucas), and 18 months later that decision bites him in the ass hard.

Bradley’s world is not exactly sunshine and rainbows in that prologue, either – Zahler places a great emphasis on the exact shades of black that frequently litter the frames in this opening, contrasting with the realistic world otherwise – but it’s about to become nightmarish.  I’m also not exaggerating when I described Brawl as a descent into Hell, earlier.  As the film progresses, Zahler’s affinity for horror makes itself known, and the film just gets darker and darker visually, as natural light becomes a thing of distant memory and the artificial light starts to more closely represent the burning embers of the fiery pits.  Clean semi-spacious homes give way to claustrophobic prison cells give way to puke and shit-covered squats lined with broken glass.  Mattresses sink further and further into the floor, and Bradley literally continues his spiral downwards, disappearing into a pit that he will likely never leave, giving up his soul for the family he has only ever wished to protect.

Zahler’s direction is utterly phenomenal, every frame dripping with menace, every scene deliberately paced despite the runtime, and every last hit during the film’s exchanges of violence making the making the most tangibly painful thud possible.  His characters are largely simple, but they’re performed so well by the film’s cast – Vaughn really is an absolute revelation, but there’s also Udo Keir as the man who delivers Bradley the ultimatum, and Don Johnson as a sadistic prison warden – and served by a screenplay filled to the brim with crackling dialogue and tight plotting, including a twist that I genuinely did not see coming, that it turns into an asset.  And, seriously, whatever Zahler’s effects people are getting paid, it should be way more because even I, somebody with a slightly stronger stomach for this stuff than average, had to look away more than a few times.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is absolutely magnetic filmmaking, the best action-thriller I have seen since The Guest, and perhaps one of the best films I have seen throughout this entire ridiculously-good year for movies.  I need to watch Bone Tomahawk yesterday, because, based solely on this, S. Craig Zahler is one hell of a talent.


Tomorrow: Yorgos Lanthimos brings The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Sean Baker presents The Florida Project, and Paddy Considine returns to the director’s chair with Journeyman.

Callum Petch and the boys mean business.

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