SITGES 2003 Film Festival Report

DAY TWO (November 28)

Darcy Paquet with wife Hyeon-sookA fruitful first night over, I retire to the hotel to be up early for a screening of one of my favourites of recent Hong Kong cinema, Corey Yuen's SO CLOSE (Hong Kong 2002). Outside the cinema I meet Darcy Paquet, the webmaster of Darcy is in Sitges together with his wife to be a judge in the ORIENT EXPRESS section. We chat about the travails of running an Asian movies site (I used to do it too, back in the days when the World Wide Web was all grass and hills and everyone knew everyone else's IP addresses). Darcy is based in Korea and makes his living from film-related activities - such as doing the English subtitles for several of the Korean films shown at Sitges! Judging the ORIENT EXPRESS category seems a little less strenuous that the FANTASTIC category, since the number of films is smaller (about 15) and the jury is only 3 people. Darcy and his wife had their trip paid by the festival, are put up at the main hotel and get tickets to all the films they want - nice work if you can get it!

I expect most readers have already seen SO CLOSE, but I'd like to plug it anyway. This is my third viewing of this totally unapologetic piece of entertainment, and it easily outclasses Ching Siu-Tung's similar but much more cynical NAKED WEAPON. Something I find interesting is that rather than being a modern-day action film, this is in fact more in the line of costume fantasy epics like SWORDSMAN II and DRAGON INN. Here, the heroes (while nominally cops and contract killers) are more like wu-xia warriors, totally removed from any pretence of realism, much more even than in John Woo's most stylized gangster epics. Their magic is not performed through uttering spells or magic gestures but with modern information technology - technology that is so completely unrealistic that the suspension of disbelief is similar to any "flying people" film! As an action choreographer, Cory Yuen is a master in total control of the form, and here he also successfully integrates computer graphics in a way that blows pale dross like THE MATRIX RELOADED and CHARLIE'S ANGELS FULL THROTTLE out of the water (I'm not talking about the cheesy bits of CGI here, but those most viewers probably didn't even notice!) Of course, this movie is too quirky for mainstream Western consumption, and it seems like the Hong Kong audience didn't take to it either, so I guess it's unlikely we'll see much more of this style in the future.

The Mondo Macabro guysUp at the festival hotel, I catch up with Pete Tombs and Andy Starke of UK-based DVD company Mondo Macabro. They're in town to present a MONDO MACABRO retrospective they have programmed, inspired by Pete's book of the same name. There are films from the company's catalogue, like ALUCARDA and THE LIVING CORPSE, as well as oddities like the Japanese "vision of hell" JIGOKU (1960) and obscure Korean re-discovery HANYO (THE HOUSEMAID, 1960). Unfortunately, Pete and Andy didn't get here in time to check out the print of Filipino oddity THE KILLING OF SATAN (1983). They want to put the film out on DVD, but all existing materials are in such bad conditions that it seems impossible. It's an unfortunate side-effect of the increasing sophistication of film collectors and the rising standards of DVD transfers that anything less than perfect is likely to generate a huge consumer backlash, particularly on the Internet. The current print of SATAN is apparently showing with burnt-in Spanish subtitles. "I don't think that the internet movie forums could handle the kind of traffic there'd be if we put that one out", deadpans Pete.

My cinematic trek next takes us to Denmark and Nicolas Winding Refn, who made a splash with his energetic debut PUSHER in 1996. Refn still comes off like a young upstart when introducing the film, but FEAR X (Denmark / Great Britain / Canada 2002) is his third outing, and the first in English. He is happy to be at Sitges because it's a horror festival and he loves horror - he says that he hopes that the film will give the audience the same kind of experience as he himself just had sitting opposite his hero Tobe Hoper! Unfortunately, FEAR X is a mixed bag. John Turturro gives a good low-key performance as the tortured security guard who is obsessed with finding out why his wife was killed in a seemingly random shooting. To do this, he watches security tapes he gets from a colleague at the mall he works at. When the police finally get a clue to the identity of the killer, he follows up on his own and eventually confronts the killer, to unravel the mystery. But this straightforward story - from a script by Refn and Hubert Selby Jr. of LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM - doesn't manage to hold the viewer's interest. What's worse, Refn introduces numerous "weird" touches, like ominous music, distorted dreamlike images, and a vague sense of foreboding, which can only be described as Lynch-Lite. The ending is entirely unsatisfactory and does not give answers to any questions - but by this time it does not matter too much, since the film does not ask many interesting questions to begin with! In all, if you're in for a vaguely puzzling thriller with shades of TWIN PEAKS and FARGO that never really seems to get going, this is for you. The rest of us should seek out Refn's earlier work or wait for the better films he's obviously capable of producing.

Omar Ali Khan goes MondoNext, I wanted to take a look at Celestial Pictures' crop of re-mastered Shaw pictures, part of an homage to the recently deceased Chang Che - apparently, new prints have been struck from digitally restored negatives. Unfortunately, to my dismay the print of BLOOD BROTHERS (Chang Che, Hong Kong 1973) I viewed was preceded with a disclaimer that it had in fact been struck from an un-restored negative. I'm afraid I can't say much about the film's content, because by this time I was so exhausted from my movie overdose I managed to fall asleep - not a simple feat considering the constant barrage of exaggerated fight sound effects! But what I can tell you is what to expect from one of these "non-re-mastered" prints: There were lots of scratches and dirt, especially in the first reel; but these were not too distracting. Later reels cleared up and the final part (when I woke up again!) was almost spotless. What's more, the colours looked good, nicely of the period and probably more true to the original look than a DVD with artificially pumped-up hues. So if any of these prints are playing locally, it's safe to check them out - no reason to be discouraged by the fact that they have not been "fully" re-mastered!

Suitably refreshed from my Chang Che-augmented nap, I next went to see indie-film legend Jim Van Bebber's magnum opus, THE MANSON FAMILY (USA 2003). This used to be called CHARLIE'S FAMILY, and this was still the on-screen title. As you may know, the film has spent over 240 years in production, and since all the original actors have died of old age, several of the leading roles are now filled-in by string puppets. Actually, joking aside, it seems that the DVD company Blue Underground has stepped in with the cash required to finally complete the movie, which was playing festivals in unfinished form as early as 1997. Luckily for us it was worth the wait - at least for the most part. The film is a vivid and believable recreation of the Manson family's lifestyle, leading up to and including the infamous Sharon Tate murders. The story is told through the use of a clever device, a "25th anniversary documentary" which is being put together by a TV reporter. This neatly allows Van Bebber to use various types of film stock and video, exploiting rather than hiding the fact that the film was pieced together from various sources and filmed over a number of years. "Real" interview segments are shown on either beat-up 16mm film (for interviews around the time of family's arrest) or video (for "contemporary" interviews). The "staged" sequences (i.e. those that definitely could not be documentary footage) are more vividly and expressively shot. These sections reach harrowing levels of intensity, especially when re-enacting the most famous murders. The only weak link in the picture - and it's a biggie - is unrelated footage of a silly contemporary youth cult who hang around naked, watch Richard Kern movies, take drugs and play with stars-and-stripes-painted dildos. Eventually these kids act out their own violent acts inspired by Manson, but this material unfortunately feels like so much filler and only cheapens the film. The film is not apologetic about Manson but very matter-of-fact, and in fact Manson comes off as a bit of a goof - perhaps the greatest mystery is how he could exert so much influence over such a long time.

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