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TIFF 2010. Day 7

0742 Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan)

Here’s a film that, in away, people will eat up because the filmmaker knows exactly what he’s doing to what intended effect.  What he’s doing is presenting the confessions of a teacher and several elementary school students embroiled in a cyclical, nested scheme of murder and revenge.  It starts with a teacher announcing to her class she is quitting, then saying that the accidental death of her daughter was actually caused by two students, who she then obliquely identifies and tells them she’s secretly infected their milk with a disease.  And it only gets worse from there.  Nakashima’s film is a relentless montage, wall to wall hand-held by voice-over and accompanying emo music, that grotesquely exposes, to a probably unintended absurdly humorous degree, the murderous solipsism of elementary school.  The initial evocation seems brilliant, a cacophonous tableau of a school room overripe with distracted students, multiple text messages flying about discussing what’s going on right now and unrelated concerns, the teacher’s stoic, horrible monologue, flashbacks, sudden student outcry, and again linking all these noise with blog entries and texts and murmurs.  But quickly it becomes apparent that Confessions is merely illustrating its story; the film could exist as a radio play and only lose its sense of visual relentlessness.  Every scene is as it is described in voice-over, every music choice is there but to underline the emotion unexpressed in the trite storybook pictures, and to help segue between scenes in a movie that despite its apparent topicality of youth-student mentality has no interest in time or place or real social interaction, just exaggeratedly widespread feelings of hatred, self-pity, self-hatred, and murderous violence. The whole two-hour film looks and feels like a three minute Scorsese up-and-coming montage or flashback, a series of insert and tableaux, drama stripped to simplified explosions of emotion, each one telling us rather than showing us the event, the emotion, the point.

0743 Curling (Denis Cote, Canada)

I’ve not much to say on this one, unfortunately.  Check the newest issue of Cinema Scope instead, where it is the cover story.

0744 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan)

I suppose we can only forgive hypocrisy in workman filmmakers like Miike and Johnnie To (or, going back, of course, Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, and the lesser known) who, in the case of the Japanese maverick, can make a critical indictment of genre cinema, as in Izo (2004), and then can turn around several films later to make something like this, as classical or old fashioned a samurai film as there ever was.  And perhaps 13 Assassins in fact embodies the contradictions apparent in a filmmaker who has made works that satirize such a conventional venture, one where a secret group of samurai must quietly assassinate the Shogun’s misanthropic half-brother to prevent more bloodshed, a civil war, etc. et al.  The quietly bipolar nature of the film is apparent from the start, where Miike has a field day with the velvety look of his digital photography, shooting conspiratorial meetings all lit by soft, natural candlelight; likewise a later excursion through a naturally lit forest catching the kind of detail, flatness of composition, and unusual nature look to the light mostly absent from the film’s boring daytime pallor of smeary grey-brown muck.  Similarly, the plot has to be churned through in exhaustive exposition about duty and where to kill the lord and how to set up defenses and which samurai to hire, all tiresomely and thoroughly filmed.  Yet the film finds a catalog list of side observations to be made within this trite genre structure: a scene of the assassination squad bathing in the forest, the use of the same actress to portray one assassin’s faithful wife and a jungle savage’s lost love, and dozens of similarly evocative asides in the 45 minute final action sequence.  Yes, the film builds to the assassination which involves less of the precision that term implies than a self-annihilating bloodbath, except despite its duration Miike chooses to shoot everything in long lenses (and digitally of course), so all sense of choreography or thrill is evacuated and we are left with a numbing, repetitive collage of swinging swords and falling bodies.  Suddenly the dull color of the day scenes make sense, when, in motion amongst dozens of active swordsmen, the camera flattens everything into a fragmented, tapestry-like blur of death.  And inside this whirlwind are indeed moving Miike moments of modestly totemic genre beauty: the image of a naked boy pissing in the street (falsely) tells the lord’s retainer the city is safe to travel through; an apprentice is mortally wounded, falls upside down, and watches his master fight and die from this position in a moving, unexpected reference to Rebel without a Cause, and the mindless, tenacious slashing of swordsmen over-exhausted, over-fought, and bleeding to death, heaving themselves at fighters they no longer can see.  As this finale makes clear, Miike is well aware of the conventionality of 13 Assassins and clearly is comfortable following and continuing its form.  But he seems to do so if only he is allowed, within it, to either play with the established aesthetic, break free for a moment of gleeful winking (the evil lord, instead of avoiding trouble, decides to take the road that will undoubtedly lead to danger and explains by looking at the camera and saying “the foolish path is more fun.”), or, more often and with the best results, step aside within the conventions to observe something strange, moving, true, or human that exists there, just to the side of what a normal genre entry would choose to reveal.  It is Miike’s obstinate preference to still reveal things inside the most conventional of projects, structures, or details that marks him as one of the most continually fresh and exciting of directors, and 13 Assassins bares all the scars of such a beautiful approach.

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