SITGES 2003 Film Festival Report


Inspired by rumours that Tarantino will make an appearance (he doesn't), I get up really early to attend a press screening of KILL BILL. I'm also hoping it might be the uncensored international version (I've already seen the US version). Imagine my horror when the film starts and turns out to be an offensive dung heap called S.W.A.T. (Clark Johnson, USA 2003). The less said about it the better, but more than just a bad action film, this piece of propaganda is essentially the anti-BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE - I could swear I even saw Michael Moore's mug-shot flash by on a computer search for "international criminals"! I guess the filmmakers thought it was a "joke" to make the villain French (the peace-mongering frog even has a nasty flick knife engraved with the word FRANCE, and an inside traitor alerts the audience by indulging in French wine!) but I just get a sour taste in my mouth and want to get out. Rather than "harmless entertainment", this kind of film is part of the ideological machine that Moore exposes so well in COLUMBINE and his books, and perpetuates a view of society as a system where violence (and in particular, violence performed by white men with huge guns, aimed squarely at black people and foreign "terrorists") is the only way to keep the American lifestyle intact. Freedom fries, anyone?

Next was a screening of the "fantastic" short films in official competition. I usually have a low patience for shorts, but this year it seemed the number of films was reduced and the average quality higher. I'll skip the duds, but there were several highlights. ZIPPO (Stefano Sollima, Italy 2002) was a bizarre little 8-minute gem about a man with zippers all over his body, which he uses as pockets to store various surprising items. When a mouse accidentally gets "under his skin", the hunt is on! I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (Miguel Ángel Vivas, Spain 2003) was a zombie story in the style of Peter Jackson and George Romero, which managed to create a believable world and tell a complete story in 20 minutes. The premise is similar to DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, in the way the inhabitants of a small village have learned to accept and live with the constant presence of zombies, but it didn't achieve the depth or poetry of that masterpiece. CHEESE MAKES YOU DREAM (Kara Miller, Great Britain 2003) was an excellent little 5-minute vignette about a lonely pensioner who is prepared to make everything to make a visiting saleswoman stay - especially when he discovers that she's not very honest about her business proposal! Nasty and sad at the same time, in a very English way. Finally, LE PIED (Olivier Barma, France 2003) was an eyewitness account of the life of a serial killer, told by a very unusual narrator - the killer's left foot! Fast paced and humorous, the strange premise had no chance to get boring in the 4 minute running time.

Next for one of the highlights of the festival: ONG-BAK. MUAY THAI WARROR (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand 2003).This energetic and well-made Thai martial arts movie lives up to all the hype and more, and is probably the best all-out hand-to-hand fighting film since DRUNKEN MASTER II. The star - newcomer Panom Yeerum (who we will definitely see more of) - flips, jumps and twists like a young Jackie Chan. Yeerum is not much of an actor (yet) but he's great in the acrobatic chase scenes, and even better during his numerous drawn-out fights. His very first fight is literally just a second long - but it's such a bone-crunching move I could feel the audience gasp in amazement. The fights are brutal, high-flying and hard-kicking and manage to create a style that is completely their own. The director often shows a move or a stunt from several different angles using alternate camera angles, sometimes repeating a scene as much as four times. This transcends being just a "show-off" device (as in Jackie Chan's films) to heightening the intensity and visual style of the movie, "stopping time" in a similar way to the way bullet-time did in THE MATRIX. Actually, it's a good thing the filmmakers couldn't afford using any advanced computer graphics, because then the film would have looked much less unique! The simple story - about the trek to retrieve a stolen Buddha head, the Ong-Bak of the title - works well as a setup for the fights and to sketch out the main characters. The opening half-hour is slow but when the film gets going it literally never stops. This will probably be a breakthrough hit for the burgeoning Thai movie industry. Luc Besson's company is handling the international rights and a special edition R2 DVD is forthcoming from UK's Hong Kong Legends.

Ricardo ReparazIn another break from the movie-going, I find Ricardo Reparaz, who's working in the festival's publications department. Ricardo enjoys the festival but it's hard work - and he hardly gets to see any movies! There is a daily newspaper published, with articles on all the day's premieres. The festival also publishes a number of books each year; this time these include one on Japanese cinema and one on Curtis Harrington. The books are well produced and look very interesting - too bad they are mostly in Spanish and/or Catalan! The gem of this year's collection, however, is Pete Tombs' MONDO MACABRO, published in a Spanish translation, with a new chapter on Pakistani cinema. The new edition edition is in full colour throughout, and looks amazing with lots of new images. It's well worth searching out even if your Spanish is not up to scratch! It might be possible to track it down from the co-publisher, Circulo Latino.

The next major screening is the Spanish premiere of KILL BILL (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2003), and in compensation for suffering through S.W.A.T. I desperately try to score a ticket, but with no luck - the screening is completely full. So is the new version of TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (Marcus Nispel, USA 2003), which is playing at almost the same time in town. So what am I going to do until the midnight marathon, featuring new films from Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon? Incredibly, after hanging around in the press-office and sweet-talking just about everyone in sight, I suddenly find myself in possession of ticket to BOTH films! I opt for KILL BILL since it's showing in the hotel auditorium, and it's soon obvious I've got hold of the hottest ticket in town. All the glitterati of Barcelona have turned up for Tarantino's latest, and the line looks more like that to a high-class cocktail part or a posh art gallery opening than to a glorified exploitation movie! By now I am an expert in the art of sleeping through loud action films, and I time my nap perfectly: falling asleep when Uma Thurman start speaking Japanese with Sonny Chiba (subtitled in Spanish only), waking up refreshed just as her plane descends on Tokyo. Disappointingly, this is not the uncensored version - so far it seems it's only been playing in Japan. In any case, the cocktail party audience eats it up. I find the movie less re-watchable than I had hoped, as the characters and story ring hollow at times, but there's no denying this is great entertainment.

Screaming Mad GeorgeOK, midnight marathon time! In the line I spot Pete Tombs and Andy Starke, along with Omar Ali-Khan, who wrote the chapter on Pakistani film in the new MONDO MACABRO book. Omar is also serving on this year's FANTASTIC jury and is worried because he missed today's short film screening - he gets even more worried when I tell him that some of the films were actually good! In the line is also LA-based SFX wiz Screaming Mad George, who is in fact a nice guy who's neither screaming nor mad, despite the heavy goth clothes. It turns out Screaming has a short showing in the marathon, and we chat about his work with Brian Yuzna and other genre legends. Tuomas Riskala of the Espoo Film Festival in Finland turns up and is raving about the TCM re-make - it turns out everybody who's seen it likes it quite a bit. It's terribly cold in the line but suddenly, we are whisked away to a VIP room and find ourselves in the presence of Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon and the entire crew of STRAIGHT INTO THE DARKNESS (Jeff Burr, USA 2003), which is also showing at the marathon. As the screenings gets more and more delayed, rumours start flying that all is not well with one of the films…

Tobe Hooper give bad newsUh oh. As the Marathon starts, Tobe Hooper comes up on stage and gives the bad news: the 35 mm print of his re-make of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (USA 2003) didn't make it in time; the Betacam tape brought in as replacement was blank; and now they are resorting to screening someone's personal VHS dub as a last resort! (I wonder why they didn't just go out and download a DIVX copy from the Internet?!) Although there may be some charm in watching the re-make of a legendary "video nasty" on tape, there's no way around it: in the huge auditorium the film looks and sounds terrible, making it impossible to give it a fair judgement. As it starts out, it looks very much like a 70's slasher film and is fairly entertaining, as a couple moves into an old LA residential building where a murderer is on the prowl with a toolbox. Angela Bettis is under-used but she's showing great potential - a real "scream queen" on the rise. About half-way through the film turns much more interesting with the introduction of an occult sub-plot, and actually gets quite scary. However, the bad image quality makes it hard to really figure out what style Hooper is aiming for. In fact, I swear I could see a few of the corpses winking - was this a Scream-like nod to the post-modern audience or was I seeing dropouts on the VHS tape? Hooper has a good grip of the fright film conventions he helped create, but ultimately it's hard to care about what is essentially a B-movie that will likely go direct to video in most markets.

Next up we had BOY IN THE BOX (Screaming Mad George, USA 2003). Screaming Mad George produced, edited, directed and scored this 30-minute short, not to mention supervising the special effects and appearing in his own heavy metal band! This bizarre domestic drama looks both unique and surreal: all characters have had their heads replaced with various objects that reflect their personality, such as a hammer or a TV set! It's not the effects extravaganza one could have expected (although I spotted a runaway eyeball from BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR) and has a narrative drive that makes the whole strange thing work. While Screaming's music is not my style, one can't help but be impressed by all the creative energy that's put into this project.

Stuart GordonKING OF THE ANTS (USA 2003) is Stuart Gordon's latest. Earlier in the VIP room I told the director how much I liked his debut RE-ANIMATOR, but it seems he's trying to distance himself from the all-out splatter/comedy style characteristic of some of his best work. This is a film noir-ish story about a man who gets dragged deeper and deeper into a plot that eventually leads to multiple murders, starting when he misunderstands some idle talk as an assignment to kill a famous lawyer. Eventually he is hidden away and tortured on a desert ranch, in some very viscous scenes. He tries to redeem himself by seeking contact with the murdered lawyer's wife but only ends up worse off than before. In the first half, the narrative has a feeling of the kind of unstoppable momentum that is typical of the best of film noir, where things just get worse and worse. Unfortunately the film is not without its problems and the ending is not very satisfactory. The film ultimately feels cold rather than engaging, because almost everybody turns out to be such scumbags, and those that aren't get killed off. It doesn't help that the lead (Chris McKenna) doesn't manage to show any kind of development during the story - he seems to be essentially the same at the end, despite all he's been subjected to.

It's now over 6 in the morning and I just can not physically stay for STRAIGHT INTO THE DARKNESS, so this war film from the director of LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE III will have to wait for another time. Incidentally, the director seems to be really nice guy who even brought his mother to the festival!

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