VILLA TOUMA isn’t a typical Palestinian film, as debut director Suha Arraf structures it around three Christian sisters – in Chekhov style – who live simply in an austere, aristocratic home. All is controlled and ticking along slowly until their orphaned niece comes to live with them and they determine to find her the right match. Inevitably, they become more outward-looking in the process, although there’s a major setback when their niece has her head turned by an unsuitable suitor, and their frozen-in-time existence is further pierced by the intrusions of the outside world.
From Israel comes a very personal film, NEXT TO HER, based on the direct experiences of the wife of director, Asaf Korman. Indeed Korman’s wife, actress Liron Ben Shlush plays Chelli in the film, who grows up with a learning-disabled sister, Gabby (played by Dana Ivgy). Chelli and Gabby do everything together, eating, sleeping, playing. But eventually Chelli is forced to place Gabby in a day centre while she works, which gives Chelli time to start a relationship with her co-worker, Zohar, who moves in. He swiftly becomes part of the family, although he can’t cope with Gabby sharing their bed – and an unexpected pregnancy throws a spanner into all their certainties, loves and loyalties.
Physical disability is at the core of another personal film, MARGARITA WITH A STRAW, in which director Shonali Bose draws inspiration from her cousin Malini, who has acute cerebral palsy. Kalki Koechlin is extraordinary as Laila, a smart, confident teen from Delhi who won’t be held back by her wheelchair or her cerebral palsy. She confounds expectations when she gets a scholarship to New York – where her world opens up and her self-knowledge increases, especially when she unexpectedly falls for a beautiful blind Pakistani woman. So at one stroke this movie busts all kinds of boundaries and barriers in disability, sexuality and even faith. Bold indeed.
COURT, from Chaitanya Tamhane revolves around the Kafka-esque world of the Mumbai legal system, and the case of a folk singer accused of inciting a labourer to commit suicide – and although evidence is scant, he faces up to ten years in jail. A well-acted story and neat critique of India’s creaking, rigid, labyrinthine, Raj-based courts.
With hardly any words spoken throughout, LABOUR OF LOVE is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s haunting first film, and relies on everything being expressed through gorgeously shot scenes of colour, light, gesture, food preparation, work and sleep. Its two central, isolated figures toil respectively in the day, and at night, living parallel lives and sharing the same space, but never there at the same time…
Another debut drama, DUKHTAR, from Afia Nathaniel, tells a timeless tale of two rival families who agree to settle an old score by betrothing the very young daughter (or dukhtar) of one leader to marry the other. But the girl’s mother has other ideas and they flee together. Unfortunately this means that both clans are on their trail, and we see them making their way across slabs of epic landscape with rare slashes of colour, as they escape with help from one sympathetic man, who risks his own livelihood and life. It also has a great soundtrack.
An unexpected treat of a thriller from Diao Yinan, BLACK COAL THIN ICE, takes place across several years. Detective Zhang is investigating a grisly murder in north China, but retires when he’s wounded. But it gnaws away at him, and five years later he is still desperate to solve a case that now has more dead bodies. But how and why are body parts turning up at coal plants some 100 miles apart? And can he resist the charms of dry cleaning worker, Wu Zhizhen, a woman who seems strongly connected to victims in the case? Is she perhaps an ice-skating siren who has lured them to their deaths? There are elements of Double Indemnity, Lady from Shanghai, and black widow stories sprinkled through this gripping drama, with gambling dens and amusement parks that Orson Welles would be proud of, where the pursuer becomes the pursued as further bodies and body parts pile up…
SHADOW DAYS is Zhao Dayong’s story of a rural ghost town into which a young urban couple arrive. Here the young man’s uncle employs him to help enforce the one-child policy in a heavy-handed manner, which he relishes, despite his own partner expecting their baby. They strut around with impunity, insisting on abortions and “tubes being tied” to keep the numbers down – but surely their consciences will alter their actions if they look like affecting their own lives? Effortlessly atmospheric, this film also highlights an important and divisive issue in China.
Migrant workers and the families they leave behind is the highly topical issue behind Chienn Hsiang’s drama, EXIT. Some 30 per cent of Taiwanese men now work in China, so their wives and children are left to fend for themselves. One of these women is Ling, who is responsible for a sullen, uncommunicative daughter and an ageing, hospitalised mother. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s going through the menopause and is out of a job when the garment factory closes down. Her only solace comes from tending to the ailing patient in the bed opposite her mother’s. With bandaged eyes and no visitors, he evokes her pity and she even starts bathing him. But what will she do when his bandages are removed and he is able to see her?
If it’s fun you’re after, then the 3D spectacular, THE WHITE-HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (right) from Jacob Cheung should be right up your brightly-coloured street. Set at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it sees heroic warrior Zhuo Yihang fall in love with the White-haired Witch, Jade Raksha (Fan Bingbing). Special effects in Hero and House of Flying Daggers style manage to transport our characters through caverns, across cliffs and into splendid palaces, as they battle their way through adversity, and confront evil and ambitious men. Witty, stunning to gaze upon, and packed with action sequences as the fights come thick and fast, this is also another cinematic triumph for girl power, with strong, heroic female roles. And the 3D glasses really do give the action another dimension.
They say you should leave the best until last, which in this case is my favourite festival thriller of 2014, A HARD DAY, from Kim Seong-Hun. Not sure if it’s something in the water or the genes, but Koreans currently make the most exciting thrillers around. Period. This one starts at a million miles an hour and never lets up. In fact, it has one of the best opening twenty minutes of any recent feature film. To describe it in detail would be to ruin it, so suffice it to say that homicide cop Ko (Lee Sun-Kyun) accidentally hits a lone figure while driving late at night, shoves the body into his car boot, then has to find somewhere to secrete the corpse. And he’s running late for his own mother’s funeral… But as the plot spins, twists, turns and chucks in corrupt colleagues, car chases, coincidences, vice, money and drugs for good measure, you’ll be breathless trying to keep up. There’s also lots of humour. Resistance is useless. You. Must. See. This.
Next time: in Part 3 of our round-up, The London Film Festival 2014 documentaries you have to check out – oh, and the much-coveted DVDfever awards are virtually here…
Check out the BFI London Film Festival 2014 website here.