Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017: P&I Screener Library, Part 2

Tiger GirlOn the Beach at Night Alone, and Life Imitation.

Yesterday, I detailed to you the first half of my exploits in the Press & Industry Screener Library, a service that sufficiently credited Festivalgoers could use as either a chance to catch up on films that they missed whilst the Festival was ongoing or to take a chance on much lower-key fare that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a look in.  I was not impressed, actively disappointed even, by those that I had given up my time to view, which somewhat inadvertently represented the Festival’s slate this year as a whole.  But fortunately, and completely coincidentally since we’re covering these in viewing order, I didn’t have to end my Festival coverage for 2017 on a complete down note, for there were a pair of quietly-shiny gems hiding away in that there library.  Films I was also hoping to see at the Festival itself but ultimately missed out on much like yesterday’s slate, but, unlike yesterday, these were very damn good, bordering on great!  Yay for qualifiably pulling it out of the bag at the last minute!

Whilst I sadly still was unable to get ahold of Beach Rats – a casualty of the scheduling pile-up that led to my viewing of Manifesto, because I make very smart life choices – I was able to catch another one of the films that fell to the lure of 12 Cate Blanchetts, and, unlike Tonsler Park and Manifesto, this one was actually good!  Tiger Girl (B), the latest from Jakob Lass of Love Steaks fame, is a riotous little movie that surprisingly acts as a lower-class German counterpart to one of my favourite films of the Festival, Cory Finlay’s Thoroughbreds, albeit more conventional than Finlay’s off-kilter brilliance.  In it we follow Maggie (Maria-Victoria Dragus), a passive and meek-as-hell young woman introduced hilariously failing her police academy entrance exam, and being forced to spend the next 6 months going through security academy until she can try again.  Maggie is a perpetual victim, being railroaded into relationships with other guys, blankly taking jabs and insults from so-called friends, and, in that ultimately display of a doormat relationship with the universe, even being cut off from a parking space by a woman in a giant SUV who insists on taking up two spaces instead of one.

Maggie, however, soon starts being saved from these situations by Tiger (Ella Rumpf, looking and acting like the off-spring of Kristen Stewart and Kate McKinnon), a guardian angel of sorts who keeps showing up at the exact moment Maggie needs help before disappearing off into the night.  Despite how that may sound, though, Tiger is a very real person and Maggie finds herself drawn ever more to her as time marches on.  Tiger is everything that Maggie is not: cool, rebellious, uninhibited, assertive, and delightfully anti-authoritarian.  She seems to fancy herself a vigilante, karate-kicking her way through would-be rapists and hypocritical jerks that “have it coming,” and which she soon drags Maggie along to, particularly after Maggie’s training provides her with a pair of official-looking security jackets that allow the pair to carry an air of authority to their directionless lashings out at society and quests for trouble.

It’s a tale of a good girl gone bad, going from uptight to mayhem whilst her would-be mentor starts to question the state of her own life, the acquaintances that are crossing lines that stop her life from being fun, and the protégé that relishes way too much in beatings both doled out and taken.  This means that Tiger Girl’s inevitable turn towards drama in the last half-hour doesn’t end up working anywhere near as much as the bad-taste fun of the prior 60 minutes – partially because it’s just too disappointingly pat and done-to-death, partially because the film is surprisingly uncertain as to whether we’re supposed to be judging Maggie (now rechristened Vanilla the Killer by Tiger after she pathetically throws a baseball bat at an attacker’s head that nonetheless knocks him out cold) for going off the deep-end or not (since the object of her rampage honestly did have it coming), and partially because the film is decidedly uninterested in making anything resembling a point at all.

But, like I said, Tiger Girl is a lot of bad-taste fun.  Tiger and Maggie are a really entertaining pair of characters who may not exactly be likeable in the traditional sense but are a lot of fun to be in the presence of, particularly since their friendship is palpably genuine, helped along by charismatic near-star-making performances from Rumpf and Dragus.  Lass, for his part, has put together a propulsive film that’s stripped out almost any downtime – almost literally, too, since there’s barely a dialogue exchange that isn’t jump-cut to hell and back – yet the effect works rather than causing the film to feel like a hyperactive slog.  It’s a stylish film existing in a deliberate hyper-reality that almost works as a feminist fantasy, particularly in the intentionally minimised and largely helpless roles given to the male characters that also double as gratuitous eye-candy whilst the women are largely fawned over as badasses by the camera and are the only ones capable of kicking ass, albeit one largely put together by a man’s idea of feminism.  There’s a disappointing nothing of an ending and the conventionality of the last half hour does suck some of the air out, but Tiger Girl is damn good fun and may even end up as somebodies’ new favourite film should they discover it.

At this year’s Festival, notorious Japanese director Takashi Miike celebrated 100 completed feature films across his storied career with his Blade of the Immortal receiving its UK premiere.  It’s a filmography as varied and inconsistent as it is utterly intimidating for any novice to dive into.  Whilst he still has a fair while to go before he reaches Miike’s insane prolific output, particularly since his first decade only equated to 7 completed features, South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is clearly trying his damndest to make up for lost time.  On the Beach at Night Alone (B) was the film that made it into the Festival selection, but it’s only the first of three features that he has directed this year, all starring Kim Min-hee (best known to Western audiences as Lady Hideko from Park Chan-wook’s maniacally brilliant The Handmaiden), and all having played at various festivals over the past year.  One of them also features Isabelle Huppert, which means that I need it in my eyeballs yesterday, but it also helps that I was quietly enthralled by On the Beach itself, it also being my first exposure to the works of Sang-soo.

Divided into two unequal parts, On the Beach centres around Young-hee (Min-hee), first seen in Hamburg lodging with a fellow South Korean-expat and their German hosts.  She’s longing for a man she knows will never come, and keeps talking herself into and out of getting over him whilst admiring the serenity of her current home.  Young-hee is a minor-level actress back in South Korea and the man she wants so badly to turn up, because he promised, but knows won’t is a famous Director who is also a married man.  Their affair made headlines across the nation and killed her career stone-dead, necessitating her flee to Hamburg.  Her heart is bruised, perhaps even broken, and her time in the country is only being spent picking away at it, like a scab too fresh to painlessly remove.  Eventually, after an unspecified time, she returns to South Korea to meet back up with her old friends, still directionless and fixated on what may have been but having curdled into something a tad more bitter.

On the Beach is deliberately aimless, sometimes too much for its own good.  It’s a mediation on heartbreak, the grieving process and the different ways that prospective support systems can help one attempt to move on, and the hypocrisy in how the media treats those involved in adultery scandals.  Young-hee’s career is effectively murdered, where she is damaged goods with a dirtied reputation that will be lucky to ever work in this town again, yet the nameless Director still has people flocking with enthusiastic glee to work on his next project, which is naturally an expy about the affair from his side, with the only damage to him being a frequently-invoked and suspiciously-bullshit-smelling claim of “stress” and great upset to his mental state.  Sang-soo shoots long, static, distant scenes that leave us at a remove from his cast whilst simultaneously causing us to feel like intruders on private thoughts that are meant to be unheard, his usage of zooms that slowly degrade in image quality in particular creating the impression of invasive eavesdropping.

But whilst On the Beach can too often feel like a collection of half-finished thoughts in need of further development, particularly in the infrequent appearances of an unacknowledged hooded man that sometimes lingers about and feels like he’s supposed to be a metaphor for something I can’t quite figure out, it’s always brought back by an absolutely phenomenal Kim Min-hee.  She is absolutely magnetic and painfully vulnerable, quiet and introspective much of the time but a constantly volatile powder-keg of unresolved emotional hurt once enough drink has been put into her.  Her words always sting, regardless, and Min-hee pours absolutely everything into Young-hee, especially in a raw climax that unspools just enough pent-up baggage to leave the situation unresolvedly ambiguous.  Is it a vitriolic kiss-off or an anguished plea?  The scene that follows it pointedly refuses to state for sure via the masterful usage of a cliché that typically cheapens dramatic stories.  So, sure, it may occasionally lose itself in its half-finished thoughts and ambiguity, but there’s something tangibly and uncomfortably real here, even before I found out that it’s largely based on Min-hee and Sang-soo’s own real-life affair.

Unfortunately, I must bring my coverage of this year’s Festival to a close on a bit of a down note, as a film with one of the most intriguing loglines I’d seen in this year’s programme ended up stuffing the execution in disappointingly empty fashion.  Life Imitation (C-) is a documentary hybrid based around the lives of young queer women in today’s China and how they intermingle with a technology that simultaneously allows them to be more honest about themselves yet leaves them ever-distant from everyone else and putting on even more of a performance than they already are.  We frequently return to a recording of a text-based conversation, the camera hovering above the phone as the texts come in with the hands of the person receiving these texts only occasionally intruding in frame to ask the person sending them to continue, where a queer woman relates the painful, often-abusive dissolution of her relationship with her boyfriend in near real-time.  The violence, the mutual cheating, the emotional abuse he dumps upon her, all coldly related through the relative safety of these private text messages yet being recorded for the world to see.

It’s quietly horrifying stuff that leaves a marked impact whenever we return to it, and would have been a fantastic set-up for a short film.  The problem is that director Zhou Chen has made a feature, and the other footage he uses to pad out the runtime is decidedly less loaded, less interesting, and less haunting than this one conversation.  Life Imitation, you see, is an experimental film, and much of the other footage he uses ends up using, like all the worst experimental films, is so devoid of meaning that you have to graft your own explanations onto them.  Occasionally we’ll be made privy to various groups of men and women having conversations about their queerness, and those are interesting, but largely we end up watching event-less Grand Theft Auto machinima in which online avatars stroll aimlessly around Los Santos doing absolutely nothing.  No, really.

What these segments mean is anyone’s guess, but they take up the vast majority of Life Imitation and the result ends up draining the power of the segment that works, since the 5 minutes of film that do work, that have power and meaning and engage the viewer, are almost always followed by at least 10 minutes where nothing of any interest or substance happens.  Chen eventually ends his film by alternating between shots of the real world and hyper-realistic shots of the virtual world, as if to question where one ends and the other begins and you can’t see me but I’m making reflexive jerk-off motions as you read this sentence.  It’s a shame because Life Imitation starts so strongly, and every time we return to that one conversation I felt chills run down my spine over both the conversation and thematic implications it provides, but then it just fails to find anything else to surround that one phenomenal strand with.  I guess it’s cool to know that GTA’s machinima tools can be used to make pretentious art films as well as chaotic action shorts, but I don’t see what that has to do with exploring the lives of queer Chinese women.


Callum Petch is still figuring out what’s going to go in his experimental film.

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