Wednesday, 16 May 2018


One of the things I hope for when reviewing the new Blu-ray and DVD releases is finding that what has dropped through the letterbox is a previously unsuspected perfect masterpiece that I hadn’t been aware of before. Legend of the Mountain is a film that falls into exactly that rare, much-appreciated category. It is an extraordinary fantasy-horror epic, made by wuxia supremo King Hu in 1979 -- and it now finds its way to UK shores in a definitive Masters of Cinema dual-format edition released thru Eureka Entertainment, having been fully restored to perfection in 4K back in 2016 by the Taiwan Film Institute.

The Chinese film industry had been mining its rich history of folk tales, legends and ghost stories since way before the release of this picture at the end of the seventies. Notably, King Hu’s first employers -- Shaw Brothers Studios -- from his days as a jobbing actor, had a run of successes in the Horror genre and even teamed up with Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1974 to co-produce The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. But Hu’s film, produced, like most of his better known pictures in Taiwan, and starring many of the key names from his repertory of Taiwanese actors, belongs in a special category all of its own, despite deriving from the same literary source materials and incorporating similar shenguai elements as many of the earliest efforts in a genre that would in later years become better known to western audiences with Ching Siu-Tung’s 1987 hit A Chinese Ghost Story. In many ways, Legend of the Mountain represents a throwback to a more elegant cinematic past, and has more in common in its artful approach with classic Japanese arthouse supernatural cinema from the '50s such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s transcendent Ugetsu Monogatari, than it does with the increasingly sleazy materials that were being produced in China at the time under the Shaw Brothers umbrella -- like Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic II, or his bizarre follow-up Oily Maniac (1976).

King Hu was a masterful filmmaker, noted for his blending of western film editing techniques with the choreography of traditional Chinese martial arts, the resulting aesthetics replicating the formalities of the Beijing Opera he had loved since childhood. King Hu’s retinue of skills as an editor, production designer, costume designer and visual artist facilitated a combination of influences that resulted in outstanding new school wuxia classics such as his breakout film Come Drink With Me (1966); the record-breaking box office hit Dragon Inn (1967); and its follow-up (in which the director’s style-conscious thinking-man’s-action-movie approach to direction reached its zenith), the critically acclaimed A Touch of Zen (1971): all of which married great artistic visual beauty with dynamic camera work and complex plotting. Although the latter also featured representation of the metaphysical as understood through Buddhist philosophy alongside the swordplay and intrigue, a straight ghost story in the style of China's traditional folk tales such as Legend of the Mountain represented new ground for King Hu’s cinema.

By 1979, though, Chinese horror pictures were, in general, becoming more exploitative. Yet King Hu’s uniquely beguiling, ambiguous yet baroque creation seems to display some affinities with the idiosyncratic ‘70s cinema of Nicolas Roeg and even takes inspiration from visual imagery found in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents over and above the high profile western horror pictures that had started to exert an influence on the direction of Chinese horror. Rather than following the pack, this film represents King Hu continuing to move away from mainstream commercial concerns. Like A Touch of Zen a full eight years before it, its extended run time -- in excess of three hours! -- worked against the film attracting a large audience; and in the west, its runtime was severely truncated. After spending so many years on A Touch of Zen, Hu made some effort with the work that followed to get back to producing the commercial hits of his early career by adapting to the new Kung Fu style pioneered at Shaw Brothers. But he found it increasingly difficult to attract funds for his favoured form of historical swordplay epic. Interestingly, the circumstances surrounding his decision to make Legend of the Mountain at that precise point in time, and the reasons it turned out as it did, had less to do with Hu's pre-existing artistic proclivities and everything to do with the  practicalities of his professional and personal life coming together to interact in a very specific way during this stage of his career.

Firstly, Legend of the Mountain was the second of two movies Hu was contractually signed up to make back-to-back on location over the course of a single year, requiring him to utilise largely the same cast and crew and shoot at the same locations in South Korea: a production method very similar to one famously employed by England’s Hammer Films in the mid-sixties for the purposes of cost-cutting. In this case, the approach was driven by Hu’s need to attain funds from the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation: a body set up by the Korean authorities to make it attractive for foreign film production to come and invest in Korea by shooting on location there. A primary condition was that a minimum of two films had to be made in the county in order to qualify for this generous funding subsidy. So, with this in mind, King Hu wrote Raining in the Mountain: a film about life in a Ming Dynasty monastery, which he conceived after visiting a Korean folk village  - a kind of living museum that seeks to preserve historical monasteries, buildings and artefacts on site and in their original condition – while on a scouting mission in the mist-shrouded mountains, realising that the location could easily double as a Chinese historical setting since the architectural style showcased by its Buddhist temples was very similar to that which was developed in the 11th century by China’s song dynasty. This film was to be made for Hu’s usual Taiwanese backer. But Hu still needed to come up with a second film, which he would produce himself and own the exclusive distribution rights to. For this reason, Legend of the Mountain had to be made very cheaply by going straight into production on completion of Raining in the Mountain and utilising the same re-dressed locations and sets, as well as retaining largely the same cast and the same crew.

At around the same time, King Hu married a Chinese writer and scholar called Ling Chung, who had written extensively about Chinese literature and had been teaching the subject for several years at the State University of New York in Albany. Chung gave up her academic career in the States to come and work with her new husband -- and was delegated the job of writing the screenplay that would form the basis of the second film Hu planned to make after completing work on Raining in the Mountain. Hu nearly always scripted his films alone, so suddenly having someone else generate his material (even if it was his own spouse) was undoubtedly a new experience for him. Working from elements of legend found in the much-mined 18th century text Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling -- specifically the short story A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountain, which provides the basic framework of the screenplay -- Chung came up with a tale that was very different from anything Hu had written and filmed before, presenting unique challenges for a filmmaker with a style underpinned by his talent for shooting complex action rooted in the real world.

Chung’s story, although an original variation on a traditional tale set in the culturally sophisticated Song dynasty, nevertheless remained true to the poetic spirit of Chinese folk tales and legends of the supernatural, while actually containing barely enough plot to fill a half-hour short. However, Ling Chung imbued her modern interpretation of the story with references to the many religious traditions that had co-mingled in China for centuries, informing its intellectual and spiritual life, its philosophy and everyday superstitions. This presented King Hu with the interesting conundrum of how to present such a context on screen with characters that largely stand for metaphorical ideas, and have motivations rooted in the indefinable abstractions of their historical milieu. For his solution, King Hu took the counterintuitive and daring approach of actually extending the film’s running time rather than reducing it, experimenting with duration to reinforce an ethereal atmosphere and create a concentrated  film texture full of poetic allusion that does not need to busy the screen at all times with concrete incident and complex plotting. A dreamlike state is induced by extending moments in which nothing much is happening while collapsing events that would normally take place over a great period of time (such as the courtship before a wedding) into mere seconds. The approach was in no way intended to provide padding to make up for the sparseness of the story source; Hu was attempting instead to give expression to the mixture of Taoist and Buddhist thought which provides an illustrative intellectual backdrop to the kinds of folk beliefs this story and others like it inherently rely on for their appeal.

This intent won’t perhaps be apparent to the unwary viewer who comes into this world without prior knowledge of it -- at least until some way into the film; and neophytes may initially feel bewildered by the apparent indifference to issues of pacing or plot development. Indeed, at first it seems all Hu is really interested in depicting at great length is his protagonist -- a naive clerical copyist played by frequent King Hu collaborator Chun Shih -- wandering a series of arresting otherworldly mountain passes and various landscapes of outstanding natural beauty, usually framed as a tiny fragment amidst the splendour, whilst serene Chinese woodwind musical cues float forth, interlaced on the audio track with the profound eeriness of wailing mountain winds. The film begins in this graceful, relaxed register and returns to evocations of such moods at several junctures to show how key narrative events and the characters associated with them also have profound implications for interpreting the landscape. Implicit in such an approach is the philosophical assumptions of the Taoist religion, where an enchantment with nature and its ineffable, ungovernable forces exists alongside a belief in the harmonious creative energy that lies unseen behind everything, connecting all living things and inanimate objects in a matrix of potentialities for transformation. Couple this with the ideas of reincarnation and karma that come from a pervasive Chinese Buddhist strain of thought, and you end up with a -- to western eyes – strange and idiosyncratic ontology, with everything having resonance with something else: animal spirits can take on a human form, and silent meditation or ritualistic incantation (even the act of playing a musical instrument and the creation of melody) express the modes of a life force that also regulates the development of ecosystems and the weather through an all-enveloping teleological wholeness functioning across multiple plains of existence. Even without any prevailing knowledge of Chinese religious thought, viewers will find they have soaked up this metaphysical context perhaps without even realising it, thanks to an extensive series of powerfully allusive montages, edits and pillow shots King Hu expertly weaves throughout the picture … not to fill out time, but to imbue the interactions of his characters with a textural spiritual resonance that’s embedded in a belief system incorporating an immanent supranatural agency.

The film’s hero, meanwhile, embodies the more practical, rationalistic traditions of Confucianism. Clerical scholar Yunqing Ho (Chun Shih) is a man with his feet planted firmly in the real world. He has been charged with a specific practical task he must travel a great distance to accomplish: to carry a scroll, containing a written sutra that releases the souls of the dead, to the Mudra Temple, high up on a plateau of the Gaya mountain, where he is to copy it for General Han in the wake of a great battle on the frontier that has resulted in the loss of many soldiers who, according to Buddhist belief, cannot pass on to the next stage of their existence without it. Ho does not reject the supernatural. Indeed, he leaves armed with prayer beads given to him by a monk to ward off any demons he might encounter along the way. They have been blessed in a sombre temple ritual, composed of elaborate hand gestures and earnest genuflection, treated with the same amount of gravity as later outright manifestations of supernatural power by way of a heightened and discordant audio design emphasising striking idiophonic percussive sounds. Ho assumes, though, that such realms are distinct and separate from the ordered rational world informed by the six senses, and so is surprised and disconcerted to find his lonely journey across the vast, overwhelmingly beautiful terrain, not so much interrupted by as infused with uncanny sights and unsettling encounters: a glimpse of a spectral woman in white who shimmers in the mist that perpetually floats above a mountain lake; ghostly flute music with no player, emanating from a deserted rest-stop pavilion; and an inscrutable Lama in orange robes who seems regularly to appear out of nowhere as Ho makes his way between eerie empty staging outposts (with their perfectly preserved but now-empty monasteries and religious statuary) and the serenely picturesque mountain trails across which he tenaciously treks inbetween.

This portion of the narrative echoes the opening act of many film versions of Dracula (as well as Stoker’s novel itself), and recalls Jonathan Harker’s journey into the wilderness of Transylvania, where he too is expecting merely to complete a straightforward clerical task, before finding himself immured by the irrational forces of a great supernatural evil. Here, though, Yungqing Ho's journey seems to find its resolution in a destination that appears at first far less threatening and uncanny than his route getting to it, despite initially falling foul of a shambling oddball mute manservant on the outskirts, called Old Chan (Feng Tien) -- the story’s equivalent of an Igor figure from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Arriving at General Han’s deserted fort compound to be told that his host (Yueh Sun) is in fact already dead, Ho is offered sanctuary in the already-prepared rooms of Han’s favourite concubine by the General’s smilingly friendly chief advisor Tsui Hung-chin (Lin Tung), and introduced to the only other residents of the complex: a raspy-voiced but voluble busybody housekeeper by the name of Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu) and a young maid-servant called Quing; but most significantly, Wang’s beautiful daughter Melody (played with relish by Dragon Inn heroine Feng Hsu), a former court musician whom the cajoling housekeeper seems unusually eager to pair-off with the bookish visiting scholar. Instead of a horror story or fantasy epic, we appear to have stumbled into a domestic comedy of manners-cum- sex farce in which Madam Wang and her maid-servant conspire to have Yunqing Ho act as tutor to Wang’s daughter in the hope of getting the two close enough for long enough to marry them off. Rainbow Hsu, as the domineering Madam Wang, here provides the film with one of its more unexpected highlights thanks to her enjoyable turn as a comedy grotesque, but we soon realise (although Yunqing Ho does not) that supernatural machinations are afoot when Melody’s recreational drumming skills turn out to have hypnotic properties that allow her to put the young copiest into a memory-erasing trance, thus allowing her to claim the next morning that he has had his way with her while drunk and is now honour-bound to agree to Wang’s terms of marriage! This is particularly unfortunate, because no sooner has Yunqing Ho tied the knot and consummated his marriage to the sinister Melody for real (a love scene overlaid with nature imagery in a montage that combines scenes of sunsets and mountain lakes, and cuts from phallic images of fish swimming to a spider’s web being spun) than he falls in love with the daughter of the widow of a frontier magistrate, called Cloud (Sylvia Chang), who lives in a simple dwelling with her mother outside the fort.

The jealous love rivalry that ensues between Melody and Cloud unleashes a multitude of outlandish supernatural interventions, and it becomes more and more apparent to Ho that he is in fact surrounded not be people but by earth-bound spirits, who are the very souls he has been called here to help pass to the next stage of their existence. All the relationships that have heretofore been established between the characters are revealed, therefore, to be entirely false. In truth, Melody is the chief instigator of all preceding events: a serial murderer during life who killed Wang, Quing and Cloud before being tried for her crimes at General Han’s court where she was exiled to die alone. Seeking to settle her scores, Melody's wandering spirit was granted occult powers by a misguided Taoist priest (Hui-lou Chen) and she became a powerful demon who has enslaved the souls of Madam Wang and Quing to help her steal the sutra and use it to resurrect herself in the world of humans. The Taoist priest and his Lama assistant (the traveller who shadowed Yungqing Ho’s journey across the mountains) are trying to stop her, but her powers are growing too strong to resist. All of this is later explained by way of the priest’s prayer shrine, which has the ability to function as a cinema screen that explains to people what motivates their actions by reflecting images of events from their past lives back at them (thus allowing King Hu to deliver convenient info dump flashbacks to his own characters as well as to the viewer). These revelations also mean that Ho’s love for Cloud is as doomed as his marriage to Melody, for, as the laconic Lama magician points out: “an affair between a man and a ghost can never work out.”

But it can certainly leave a strong impression -- as Hu demonstrates repeatedly throughout the colourful three hours-plus of this by-turns visually poetic, awe-inspiring, comedic, and hallucinogenic audio-visual experience. (And that is, in the end, the best way to think of the movie – as an experience!) Lengthy digressions in the form of serene montages appreciating both the beauty and pitilessness of nature, also suggest oblique ties to the ghostly affairs that play out on the spiritual uplands of human relationships. There are several extraordinary hypnotic scenes in which religious and demonic forces battle each other with opposing rhythmic drumming and lots of coloured smoke. All the skills for shooting action Hu demonstrated in past full-throttle wuxia films are here brought to the service of bonkers gladiatorial supernatural showdowns between Melody and her various antagonists which, in other hands, could’ve looked rather weak given the poverty of the special effects budget. Here, through a combination of effective editing, precisely choreographed gesture, showy camera movement and lots of that coloured smoke, alongside a clamorous audio track of thunderous drumming and discordant janglings, they are rendered utterly strange and compelling.  Only one short sequence relies on the sort of wire work more usually prevalent in the wuxia genre, but it’s a good one – and infused with a peculiar fantastical mood that’s equal parts fairy tale and nightmare. It involves Quing the maid emerging from a sort of earthworks in the middle of a sunlit clearing that Ho and Cloud encounter after having trekked through a darkened gothic forest of crooked burnt tree trunks while trying to escape the malign influence of Melody. With the uncanny sound of fluttering feathers high up in the audio mix, the evil spirit swoops and acrobatically dive bombs the couple from above like a bird of prey, at the same moment demonstrating all the fragile grace and beauty of a gravity-surfing butterfly. Astonishingly, this sequence was one of the things cut from the film when it was originally released in the west in a shortened even more incomprehensible form!

 It is not until the concluding act, though, that King Hu finally allows the film to register a fully recognisable Gothic mode that fully embraces the irreducible irrationality of its subject matter; by which point, because of its now total disdain for anything approaching narrative logic, combined with a determination to bombard the viewer with a full sensory overload of uncanny supernatural stimuli, the movie begins to resemble, in both visual style and textual tone, the neon-soaked nightmare fairy tale of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: with a delerious coloured light-drenched showdown that involves multiple doppelgängers and plentiful psychokinetic pyrotechnics, it concludes with a splendidly gooey body horror meltdown, at which point the film apparently cycles back to the beginning in a Dead of Night-style coda.

This amazing piece of work gets a very nice treatment for its UK outing, with extras featuring a video essay by David Cairns, an insightful talk by former King Hu associate and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, and a noteworthy booklet featuring informative writings by King Hu and screenwriter Ling Chung, a splendid essay by Glenn Kenny, and a plethora of behind-the-scenes photographs featuring the cast and crew filming on location in South Korea.      

Saturday, 17 March 2018

RE:BORN (2016)

Back in the year 2000, Tak Sakaguchi became a notable new star of Asian cinema thanks to a vibrant, low-budget zombie-Sci-Fi-action-gore flick called Versus, which burst upon an international genre distribution scene that was, at the time, hungry for all things Japanese in origin. Its director, Ryûhei Kitamura, discovered in his good-looking young choice of lead-actor, not only martial arts skills honed by years of street-fighting, but a certain charisma that belied the young performer's lack of experience with acting. His was a magnetic screen presence born of a personality that lit up the screen through elevating his frenetic fight choreography and compelling martial arts moves above an ability to convey emotion or develop a character with more standard acting skills. Fast-forward fifteen years, and Sakaguchi (having in the meantime nurtured a cult following of sufficient magnitude for him now to be able to afford to ditch the last name on his screen credit) has come out of a semi-retirement previously self-imposed so that he might concentrate on his burgeoning career as a director and writer, to team up with his former action coordinator on Versus, Yûji Shimomura, for this stripped-down action flick, appropriately titled Re:Born. Shimomura here assumes the role of director (this is the couple’s second collaboration following on from 2005’s Death Trance) but has also worked with Tak and the film’s other main combat supervisor Yoshitaka Inagawa (who also plays one of Tak’s main antagonists in the movie) to come up with a special new form of close-quarters combat utilising quick-motion knife play, which they call Zero Range Combat. The film is essentially a showcase for this technique, and its lightning-fast moves are deployed from the very first scenes, which take place in an underground bunker where a special-forces unit armed to the hilt with night-vision goggles and machine guns, etc., is, nevertheless, entirely taken down by a single shadowy panther-like presence known as Abyss Walker (Yoshitaka Inagawa): an apparently invulnerable hitman who lurks in hidden corners and appears to harbour the fleet-foot ability to materialise in opposite sections of the same facility moments apart.

As far as plot and character motivation may be of any concern at all in this picture, we don’t get much more of it here than the barest minimum necessary to convey a sense that this is a narrative film rather than merely a collection of action set-pieces and fight scenes strung together. Although Sakaguchi’s co-screenwriter, Benio Saeki, uses Tak’s character Toshiro’s PTSD as an effective device for presenting his intrusive memories of past traumas in the form of tantalising flashes of backstory, these have to be pieced together and interpreted by the viewer over the course of the film and then placed in context alongside Toshiro's personal history, which is explained half-way through by one of his still-loyal surviving comrades, played by Orson Mochizuki. 

At the start of the movie, Toshiro is a blank canvas: a former elite killing machine who has to self-medicate in order to dampen down the violent impulses that still linger in his psyche. Despite the fact that he has given up his former profession to run a convenience store in downtown Tokyo, his instinct for violence is still liable to be re-activated by memories of the harm he has perpetrated during past missions. Many of the faded scars still visible on Toshiro's face and body appear to have been self-inflicted, suggesting a degree of self-harm has also occasionally been enacted as a means of controlling his inner destructive impulses. Tak presents Toshiro as someone who cultivates a calm, placid Zen-like surface that he uses to suppress a steely core he does not want to bring to the surface, unless he is presented with an unavoidably lethal situation -- at which point the old skills snap back into place and the Super Solder operative that has never truly gone away is called upon to fight once again. Toshiro does everything possible, though, to avoid confrontation of this sort in his day-to-day life, knowing the results could be catastrophic if he were, for example, to react violently when his store gets held up by a gang of small-time hoods. When this does, in fact, happen, instead of taking the malefactors down like one would expect him to do, Toshiro serenely hands over all the cash in the till and then replaces the day's take with his own money!

Although Tak Sakaguchi -- now looking considerably older than the fresh-faced youth of Versus, if still very much better than most of us -- is not required to display demonstrable signs of emotion at any point in the movie, and has only minimal dialogue, his character Toshiro is provided with a support network of devoted former comrades and a cute adopted child daughter called Sachi (Yura Kondo) to do the work that is necessary in order to make this otherwise insular character appear sympathetic. Help is provided by the sentimental music cues composer Kenji Kawai provides, particularly during Sachi's scenes with Toshiro. Toshiro's former comrade Kenichi (Takumi Saitoh), permanently injured and facially scarred during the course of saving Toshiro's life on an older mission that occured some years back, continues to receive regular visits from his loyal pal; and the portrayal of Toshiro's devotion to little Sachi certainly helps humanise him, as well as provide the mythical basis for his reputation as the "reborn ghost" -- which is hinted at in the book Sachi is shown reading from throughout the first part of the film, titled The Beginning of the End of the Legend.  

But all of this is merely the set-up for the true business of the movie, which is to present viewers with a set of tense scenarios that can only result in a series of close combat fight scenes that frequently culminate in showers of arterial gore spray emanating at regular intervals from innumerable blade-shredded throats. The motley group of foes and villains Toshiro must combat and overcome over the course of the picture have even less depth and personality than he does, but nonetheless endow events with a certain flamboyant comic-book exuberance otherwise eschewed by the muted tones of Tetsuya Kudô's digital photography, despite the shallow motivation for conflict between these antagonists and Toshiro producing little in the way of the moral ambiguity or divided loyalties that we've recently come to associate with the Marvel or DC Comics universes from their transitions to the cinema screen. 

Toshiro, in his previous life as a combat veteran, was known as "The Ghost", and has, we learn, earned the lasting enmity of his nemesis "The Phantom" (Akio Ôtsuka) and  former partner Abyss Walker, simply for leaving their surrogate family-cum- military unit because of moral concerns he'd acquired, concerning The Phantom's penchant for kidnapping little children and brainwashing them to become agents of international crime and mass genocide! Silent assassin Abyss Walker -- in his black, shroud-like cloak and goggles; and criminal mastermind The Phantom -- puffing on cigars whilst sporting dark glasses that partially mask the vertical scar across the left-hand side of his face -- couldn't look more villainous if they each walked around with placards around their necks proclaiming: 'I am an evil villain'; but some of their underlings are even more deranged and exotic-looking, and include a short-skirted schoolgirl killer and a sword-touting teenage whiz kid.

Toshiro initially effortlessly identifies and dispenses with multitudes of anonymous heavies sent by The Phantom to ambush him by stealth as they emerge from the crowds in the public squares of Tokyo. The fighting style reportedly created for these clashes is actually based around short, sharp fist jabs and quick-fire blocking body stabs rather than the more demonstrably cinematic martial arts moves of many other fight movies. They require additional sound effects and a jagged editing style in order to allow the eye even to fully register their existence. Toshiro's abilities are presented here as though they were equivalent to a superhero's special powers rather than falling within the normal range of a human skill, since he seems to enter a highly focused yet closed-off state of consciousness just before a fight that allows him to move quickly enough to dodge bullets while disposing of half-a-dozen assailants at a time, each one felled with a quick blade slash to the jugular. His weapons also include, at one point, a shovel, as well as the usual collection of lethal knives; and one would-be assassin is dispatched with a chopstick through the throat which Toshiro wipes down afterwards to continue using with his food after the assailant interrupts his meal! The centrepiece of the movie, though, is a forty minute fight scene set in a forest, with two-hundred enemy troops and trained assassins Toshiro and his two pals have to slash, kick and punch through in order to reach the Phantom's military base, where Sachi is being held hostage as a lure to draw "The Ghost" out into the open. It's a kinetic tour de force of bone-crunching, throat-slashing and neck snapping, delivered with convincing aplomb before the inevitable double-stand-off occurs at the climax, first between Toshiro and Abyss Walker and, finally, Toshiro and his old boss The Phantom: a concluding scene that’s played for deliberate Kill Bill-like anti-climactic pathos rather than the expected blood-letting catharsis nurtured by the build up to it. 

In truth, there is little in the concentrated, laser-focused simplicity of this movie that will really surprise or win-over anyone not already persuaded by the silent professionalism of Tak Sakaguchi's particular brand of stoic screen machismo, but this bare-bones dual format release from the UK's Eureka Entertainment label should adequately satisfy his cadre of fans, acting as it does as the ultimate feature-length demonstration piece for his many physical talents, his poise and prowess, and his charismatic screen presence.   

Saturday, 17 February 2018


It is no surprise that colonialism should have such an important role to play as the thematic lynchpin in Derek Nguyen’s debut feature The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí). The film, set in Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, positions itself as a traditional Gothic romance, a genre with many established literary antecedents in the 19th century that set a textual precedent for dealing with issues that arise from the fact of colonialism and the social dynamics of Empire -- including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When it comes to the Gothic in cinema and on screen, none have mined the post-colonial guilt of a faded empire nation more effectively than Britain’s Hammer films in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially when it could find ways to combine the theme with Freudian notions of the return of the repressed; for example, in the sexually charged exoticism that underscores Jon Gilling’s The Reptile. However, Nguyen’s approach to the Gothic and to colonialism have much more in common with the work of Guillermo Del Toro in his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and, more recently, Crimson Peak which set creepy, fantastical goings-on in a closed location defined by a particular milieu, and use familiar tropes related to the Gothic genre to provide metaphorical context and commentary on specific historical events.

Writer-director Nguyen was born in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973. His family left South Vietnam for the United States two years later, along with 130,000 refugees who also fled the country during the US evacuation, fearing retribution from the forces of the invading North Vietnamese. In The Housemaid, Nguyen reaches back several decades to before the Geneva Accords and the ensuing communist insurgency, to when the Viet Cong’s predecessors, the Viet Minh, were fighting a war which had been raging since 1946, for independence from French colonial forces. The complexity of the historical detail matters little to the arc of the story but is used merely to provide an anchor for a tale that seldom strays beyond the borders of a once grand but now gone-to-seed French colonial estate on the grounds of a rubber plantation hiding a very dark and violent history of abuse and oppression. This decaying mansion and the forbidding forest of rubber trees on its outskirts provide all the Gothic menace one could hope to derive from such a tale, as Nguyen turns for his Gothic model to a recent successful update of the recipe that recently helped revitalise Hammer Films: namely the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black

Originally, that story took the form of a novella by writer Susan Hill, and aimed to capture the essence of traditional fireside ghost stories like those that once might have been told by M.R. James to his Cambridge students over a glass of Christmas sherry. For the updated film iteration, imagery and more forthright jump-scare techniques borrowed from modern J Horror were also brought to the table. This is the style The Housemaid slavishly seeks to imitate, although after commencing with a strong but imitative prologue that reproduces a vision of the threating, darkly veiled spectral entity familiar from the source of its inspiration, the film later drifts into waters apparently more sedate, but with a stronger focus on areas of dark romance and sexuality. It becomes a fable-like exploration of the unequal but ambiguous erotic power dynamics that lie behind the master and servant, oppressed and oppressor relationships so intrinsic to a colonial set up, but will probably mystify or bore western horror fans who aren’t also up on their Poe or Daphne Du Maurier -- although this aspect of the tale doesn’t appear to have harmed its reception at home. However, this "third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history" (a nice publicity line, but how many horror films from Vietnam have there actually been?) can’t resist for long the urge to unleash its own budget version of a ‘kitchen sink’ finale, as the last act presents a veritable torrent of enjoyably over-the-top pyrotechnic set-pieces and unlikely plot twists in a bid to hold its own with contemporary western fright flicks along the lines of Insidious or The Conjuring and its ilk. 

Nguyen’s screenplay admittedly does an impressive job, though, of outlining a very specific period in Vietnam’s history and making its content perfectly fit the well-defined contours of an utterly conventional ghost story cum Gothic Romance. The film’s nervous young orphaned heroine, Linh (Kate Nhung), arrives at the Sa-Chat estate on a suitably stormy night, looking for work as a housemaid after her family has been killed in air raids that wiped out most of her village. Austere head housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) and an affable cook who claims also to be a witch (Phi Phung) are the only occupants of the otherwise-empty mansion, which is being preserved like a museum relic until the eventual return of its master -- currently away fighting communist guerrillas as an officer in the French army. Meanwhile brooding groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) lives alone in one of the outer huts on the rubber plantation formerly used to house the French overseers who once made life a misery for the poor indigenous workers tricked into coming from all over the country to toil on the estate on the promise of good wages and a decent place to live. 

The estate’s dark history is defined by its troubling mixture of public exploitation and a very private, domestic form of grief: the imperialist cruelty and violence meted out to the plantation workers and their families – in the form of whippings, beatings and rapes – exists alongside the mental disintegration behind closed doors of the French estate manager’s tragic wife Madam Camille who, suffering from post-natal depression, reputably went mad with loneliness when her husband was called away to fight in the war: she drowned the couple’s baby in the bathtub but continued long after to administer to its rotting corpse in its crib, until finally drowning herself in a nearby lake. These macabre legacies of Empire (according to the kitchen cook, who tells Linh all about them) each leave their own imprint on the house and its surrounding grounds: Madam Camille’s black-shrouded ghost apparently haunts the hallways, staircases and recesses of the now-neglected mansion; while the spirits of the many hundreds of workers, murdered when the war for independence first broke out, allegedly now wander the forest of rubber trees under which their bones still lie buried in hidden mass graves.

The first act establishes Linh as a new and disruptive presence at the empty Sa-Chat estate -- with its grisly retinue of stirred up secrets and its still-uncertain future -- and falls into a pattern familiar to many traditional spook fests in which long, slow, moody sequences, where the young housemaid explores the mansion’s dark corridors by lamplight, are followed by the tension-release of a sudden jump scare. This is where the film is at its most Woman in Black-ish, with briefly glimpsed ghostly figures swishing into the frame, just beyond the protagonist’s eye-line as she wanders rooms and landings designed to showcase lush production design and set dressings highlighting a mix of Vietnamese and Western architectural and ornamental influences. These early forbidding explorations of Linh’s are also disturbed by the hollow, echoing, insistent cries of an unseen mewling baby, heard in some far-off, unidentifiable section of the house; and the inexplicable sight of a self-rocking crib, swathed in cobwebs, from which grabbing phantom hands suddenly emerge … only for Linh to wake with a fright from what turns out to have been merely a haunting nightmare. 

Such imagery is throughout complimented by Sam Chase’s rich and deeply textured cinematography, layering evocative details -- like the House of Usher-style family portraits lining the walls of Sa-Chat, or the estate's imported 1920s furnishings, both of which subliminally remind one of its rootedness in French imperialism -- in a blossoming mantle of atmospheric gloom and shadow seen enveloping the storm-lashed mansion. The estate's mix of east and west influences on its interior design can arguably be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, which has its own mosaic of influences that take on the history and unique geography of the regional setting and use them as the basis for an exercise in pure mainstream genre filmmaking that relies on story beats and filming techniques for its stylistic dressing that are indicative of the popular western forms of cinema its US-raised writer and director grew up on.

The middle section of the film is based around what happens when the estate’s French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), turns up out of the blue, badly wounded after being ambushed by independence fighters, and in need of urgent medical assistance. He and his family have always insisted that local customs, such as the beliefs and practices of Eastern medicine, be ignored as a matter of principle and, in defence of that stand, Mrs Han forbids the witchcraft-practising cook from administering any of her potions and spells while they wait for a western doctor. However, when Han is called away to visit her sick mother, leaving Linh in charge, the young housemaid feels unable to resist when the Captain’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that death seems certain, and cook persuades her to let her try her own methods as a last resort. Here the film takes a detour away from the suggestive atmospherics of a traditional Gothic ghost story and into areas of more outright fantasy horror, as the cook’s ritualistic spell to accompany her remedies not only facilitates a miraculous recovery in the Captain, but appears also to raise the zombie-like cadaver of Madam Camille from its watery grave! 

This development (as well as the ensuing instances of poltergeist-style activity inside the mansion) at first suggest we are about to be given a straight up rollercoaster ride of spectacle-based horror, but instead the story slows down to become almost exclusively centred on a developing romantic relationship between Laurent and Linh. When the two remaining impediments to the couple embarking upon a full-blown romance – namely the cook and Mr Chu – leave for their annual holiday and hand the house and estate over to the sole care of Linh, she gradually goes from being nurse and carer for Laurent to becoming his lover, which eventually leads her to the role of mistress of the house. By the time a disconcerted Mrs Han and the others have returned, Linh has fully replaced Madam Camille in that role!

Here the film indulges in a minute examination of the shifting power dynamics at play in the relationship, making plain the exploitative aspects inherent to this historical context, and the social obstacles likely to crop up for the two lovers, which are looked at from both sides. When Laurent’s army colleagues visit the estate, they view Linh as almost subhuman; one of them even attempts to rape her – forcing Laurent to stop turning a blind eye to his countrymen’s abuses and put his cards on the table, renouncing his affiliates by kicking the group out in a fury. An even greater choice has to be made when Laurent’s English fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) turns up wishing to resume their broken alliance, which leads to the melodrama of a bitter love rivalry that cuts across both class and racial barriers. 

But other class-related complications occur for Linh, too, when her employer Mrs Han returns, only to find that it is she now who has become the employee, while her former housemaid is now the mistress of the estate and her boss. Both Laurent and Linh have to face the accusation from their respective social peers that they have become “the enemy”, with Linh also having to confront the same predicament as that which once faced her predecessor, when she falls pregnant just as Laurent is about to be called away again to fight. There’s some justification to accusations that the apparent departure from straight ghost story and more upfront horror content for large stretches of the middle section of the film results in a slowness of pace, but the issue of the threat that the relationship poses to Linh’s cultural identity and the questioning of her suitability and authenticity in the role she has been called upon to assume at Sa-Chat is eventually explored through a possession subplot kicked off when Laurent opens up his former wife’s wardrobe to Linh in order to help her look more comfortably the part in her new high-status role.

There is eventually a huge twist to come that makes use of unreliable narrator tricks that are based on an ambiguity that's inherent to the status of the point of view from which we’ve been following these entire events; and the final act turns into something of an Evil Dead styled supernatural bloodbath, as bodies start piling up at the hand of the revenant Madam Camille, while the rotting corpses of the dead also rise up from their plantation ossuary in scenes highly suggestive of similar ones that were depicted in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Scary pay-offs such as these ensure the film eventually delivers on its early promise, but it will be the fans of more traditional gothic fare who will be most likely to appreciate the thoughtful ruminations that lie at its heart, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) of rapprochement after colonial rule and the privations of war. This is an accomplished feature debut, with strongly committed performances from the small but convincing cast. It’s well worth a watch and is currently available in the UK on the Montage Pictures label, a sub-division of Eureka Entertainment, in a dual format double-disc edition with no extras.  


Saturday, 3 February 2018


 At one point during the final act of Árpád Sopsits’s extremely grim, murkily-lit, based-on-true-events thriller Strangled (A Martfüi Rém), soul-crushed lifer Réti Ákos (Gábor Jászberényi), who has been languishing in jail for the rape and murder of a former girlfriend after his death sentence got commuted to life imprisonment, is marched from his dank prison cell and deposited before the state prosecutor. Here he is informed that, even though recent events may suggest he has been innocent all along of committing the crime for which he has so far served eight years in prison, he is, in fact, as far as the State is concerned, still very much a guilty man. There has been a recent spate of attacks culminating in the murders of several women in the same vicinity as his original “crime of passion” (the remote, semi-industrialised town of Martfü in Hungary), which are considered ultimately to be his responsibility too, despite the fact that he has been behind bars the whole time. Indeed, he shares as much of the blame for the mounting tally of mutilated female corpses (one of which is a child), currently being fished with alarming regularity out of the swampy lake which bounds this remote region of Hungary, as the real killer does. Using the cruel Kafka-esque logic of totalitarianism, the true murderer must have evaded detection all those years ago because Ákos just happened to be the more convenient suspect at a time when the State Police found itself under severe pressure (as it is again now) to get the case cleared up and to have a conviction secured. By succumbing to Police questioning and by making a false confession at the time of the original murder, Ákos has cast doubt on the infallibility of the authorities and on their ability to keep order. You see, these events take place in the year 1964. With Hungary part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the Communist authorities at the Hungarian branch of the Party still have to insist publically, for ideological and political reasons, that a serial killer cannot possibly exist in a country under communist rule. The State does not make mistakes.

Despite advertising itself as a true crime thriller based on a notorious case that occurred not long after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the subsequent Soviet military intervention, Strangled is a taut, crisply shot neo-noir thriller made up of elements instantly recognisable as constituents of that particular subgenre and style from their origins all the way back in the ultra-cynical Hollywood noirs of the 1950s. As the historical narrative unfolds, we recognise a series of familiar tropes: there is the initial miscarriage of justice angle; then the falsely accused man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and now finds himself ensnared in a web of corruption he cannot untangle; next we get the boozy cynical washed-up cop on the case, passed over for promotion and now reluctantly teamed up with a young upstart protégé who makes political waves for the authorities in pursuing the truth at all costs; and then there is the domestic angle encompassed by the nervy, isolated wife who begins to suspect her husband just might be the local serial killer causing so much misery. Finally, we have the killer himself – an ordinary man, unsuspected by his peers or anyone outside the walls of his own home, but all the time wrestling with increasingly violent urges that lead him to ever more brutal acts of destruction.

There is nothing in the film, in terms of plot, then, that hasn’t been put to productive use in the noir tradition many times before. It is merely the political and social context in which these elements now occur which is different. By enacting in this setting narrative devices traditionally associated with classic Hollywood’s film noir tradition, the film is implicitly denying the ideological claims of Cold War era Communism. It suggests that the State cannot mould human nature and socially engineer away or eliminate its innate drives and pathologies; and that the primitive urges so graphically portrayed throughout this film will find their outlet in disturbed minds whatever system of societal organisation we might choose to implement. Indeed, to deny their potential for agency in the expression of human desire and action, merely for ideological or propagandistic reasons, is to grant them even more destructive power over us.

Strangled plays out like some claustrophobic, enervated nightmare slowly unwinding over decades. The opening scenes condense into ten minutes of screen time the events immediately leading up to the murder of Ákos’s girlfriend in 1957, and cover his subsequent trial and a police re-enactment of the crime. The latter is carried out after a confession is made by Ákos while in police custody. These scenes also convey a sense of just how isolated the town of Martfü actually is. As it is the primary provider of employment in the town the community is almost entirely dependent on the local shoe factory; without it, the town probably wouldn’t exist at all. The streets are near-deserted until the end of the working day, when the entire workforce emerges en masse through the gates of the factory complex, the afternoon winter light dimming with clocking-off time to become a pitchy darkness. 

At this stage the viewer is provided with conflicting signals as to the likelihood of Ákos’s guilt: on his way home after work he catches up, and gets into a heated dispute with, a female co-worker he’s been seeing, for whom he has recently left his wife and son only to find that she has cooled on their relationship, and now wants to break it off. Their altercation is observed by a clandestine watcher, who has also been following this same young woman home from her place of work after scouting the area by motorbike. We cannot clearly see the face of the actual attacker because he is wearing motorcycle goggles. He clubs her to the ground and strips and rapes her in the mulchy undergrowth of the verge, before throttling her to death and dumping the body later that night in a nearby reed-covered lake. When we then crash cut to Ákos re-enacting these events for the police (with a cardboard axe used as the weapon that initially strikes the victim down), we have little reason to doubt his guilt. The police team, led by senior cop Katona Gábor ügyész (Zsolt Trill), push for a guilty verdict at the subsequent trial, but Katona’s sidekick Bóta nyomozó (Zsolt Anger) has some doubts because of inconsistencies in Ákos’s testimony, and about the fact that the supposed weapon used – an axe – has never been found. Also Ákos has a habit of altering the details of his account of the crime with each retelling. These discrepancies are pushed aside by Katona, though, as the Party wants this embarrassing episode disposed of as quickly as possible. Murder and necrophilia are not judged to be a good look for this post-uprising regime, which is attempting to project an image of an ordered and lawful society to its people.

When we check in on the town of Martfü eight years later, in 1964, it is to find that little has changed in the meantime. Everything looks exactly the same as it once did: the shoe factory is still the main employer of the town's meagre population, and Bóta is still a local police detective -- although his former sidekick Katona has been promoted, and is now State Prosecutor. When another sexualised murder of a female employee occurs while on her way home from work at the shoe factory, closely followed by yet another attack on a third young woman who also worked at the same site (but who, this time, survives after being knocked out by a hammer blow to the head and then assaulted, after which she’s left for dead on a railway track, only managing to haul herself off the rails at the last possible second before a speeding train is about to bisect her), a disillusioned and drink-sozzled Bóta finds out that the authorities have drafted in his former partner’s young protégé, supervising prosecutor Szirmai Zoltán (Péter Bárnai), to help him quickly clear up the case. 

Zoltán notices the links to the Ákos case and decides to look again at the original conviction. This opens up a whole extra layer of intrigue and political manoeuvring as Zoltán’s suspicions result in his boss Katana starting to worry that the mistakes and cover-ups of his past are about to resurface and upend his high-status career if it is found during the course of the latest investigation that he sent an innocent man to prison. This prospect looks even more likely when, under pressure from his sister Rita (Zsófia Szamosi), a suicidal Ákos sets out to launch a new appeal against his conviction. A nervy Katana secretly employs detective Juhász (András Réthelyi) -- one of the junior cops helping Bóta and Zoltán investigate the new attacks -- to keep tabs for him on what Zoltán is up to; when he finds out that the latter’s discoveries are leading him closer to the conclusion that Ákos was indeed innocent, he threatens Bóta with the possible release of previously suppressed police surveillance files documenting his involvement in the 1956 Uprising – unless, that is,  Bóta agrees to do everything in his power to hinder Zoltán's current investigations.

This political intrigue and police in-fighting occur against a dour backdrop of suspicion and blame interrupted by occasional bouts of brutal violence and queasy images of sexualised assault, graphically depicted in usually fairly unsparing detail. This is a portrait of a community in crisis and denial, its inhabitants buckling under a clammy and oppressive atmosphere of paranoia that is only enhanced by the increased frequency of the killings and attacks while the ranks of the authorities are closing to protect the failing investigation. The screenplay offers many -- perhaps too many -- side-plots that occur in tandem with the investigation and the political can of worms it threatens to open up. Among these threads is the complicated relationship that develops between Ákos’s sister Rita and the investigating cop Bóta who presided over the flawed interrogation that led to Ákos’s false confession. It is a relationship that is founded on a simmering mixture of resentment (on her part) and guilt (on his), mixed in with an attraction that threatens to spark at any moment into a typically ill-considered and ultimately doomed romance. Meanwhile, the activities of the real killer, a truck driver (Károly Hajduk), who is known to both Rita and her imprisoned brother, continue apace, with the sexual motives behind his violent crimes intensifying and becoming more perverse with each grisly murder. 

One twist to the proceedings during this part of the tale sees the murderer at one point accidentally attacking his own wife, who he mistakes on a darkened street for a prostitute because she wears a wig bought specifically to try and spice up the couple’s moribund love life. She escapes her attacker, but thereafter feels like there was something familiar about him that she can’t quite pin down (a variant of a common trope employed in the gialli of Dario Argento). It takes her the rest of the film to figure out what that is and who, therefore, the killer must be: her feeling of déjà vu turns out to have been caused by the attacker’s laboured breathing, which, she realises, is the same as that of her husband’s during sex!

If all this wasn’t quite enough to be cracking on with, there is also a clear visual signifier being employed in having the innocent Ákos and the unsuspected killer look almost physically identical, setting up a Hitchcockian Wrong Man motif based around an implied transposition of guilt that links the two by contrasting the murderer’s lack of remorse and increasing daring and carelessness in his choice of victim with Ákos’s continued feelings of guilt over the way he had formerly treated the girlfriend who became the first victim of the killer eight years ago. Both men have strained relationships with wives and are remote from their young sons: Ákos because he left his family for another woman and has been in prison ever since, and the killer because in rejecting the moral norms of society in order to pursue his desires he has become detached from family life in general. To bring the symbolic connection to a head the two men actually meet up halfway through the film when the killer, who is an old acquaintance, is shown visiting Ákos in prison, ironically, to offer personal support for his appeal against his conviction! This is where the idea espoused by Katana, and mentioned at the start of this piece, comes in to play: while in the Hitchcock universe it is the Catholic variant of an all-seeing God who has the power to decide who is guilty and who can be punished or forgiven, in communist Hungary it’s the power of the State which makes such decisions of life or death, according to the impenetrable dictates of its internal bureaucracy.

The screenplay suffers from a few too many hanging plot threads that never really develop into anything concrete. It goes to an awful lot of effort, for instance, to lay early emphasis on one of the first victims to survive after experiencing a brutal hammer attack: we wait in suspense to see if she will gain consciousness, and we begin to suspect that the killer has tracked her to the hospital intending to finish the job before she can wake to provide the police with a possible description of him. However, despite the killer actually being provided with a pretext for visiting the ward as a concerned relative of his attacked wife, nothing eventually comes story-wise of this issue, and the surviving victim disappears from the narrative in favour of the above-mentioned plot strands.  

What the film does consistently do well, though, is to capture the suffocating dread and almost subterranean nature of the barren life of drudgery and mundane factory work that provides the social backdrop to the terrible events depicted. It does this with the aid of Gábor Szabó’s take on the neo-noir visual style which relies primarily on shadow-drenched night-time cinematography that serves up a dim colour palette of swampy greens and waterlogged browns filtered through a murky neon half-light. When we are treated to beautifully photographed daytime vistas that reveal the bucolic nature of the forested areas that surround the industrialised regions of the town, they are invariably accompanied by images of untold horrors now no longer obscured by shadows: the stark aftermath of the killer's ferocious violence and sadism. 

The bloated corpses of numerous strangulated female victims, dumped in a lake and later nibbled at by fish, are routinely discovered and examined in forensically sickening detail. This is one of the more surprising elements in a film that reportedly did well commercially in its native land: there is a level of detail in the filming and depiction of the results of a sexualised form of violence carried out against females of all ages that is, even now, rare to see presented this upfront outside the more exploitation-heavy examples of the Italian Giallo. This is a feature that will undoubtedly turn off many casual viewers. I was reminded on numerous occasions of similarly outrageous scenes from the 1980s that can be found in works such as the notorious The New York Ripper by Lucio Fulci, and in Camillo Teti’s The Killer is Still Among Us. As is also the case with the latter example, the violence reaches a crescendo of misogynist disgust with the final murder to be shown in the film, by which point the killer has become so inured to the violence he has inflicted on his dying victims that the only way he can experience the former pleasure he used to get from his necrophiliac pastimes is to impose mutilations on the corpse by surgically removing his victim’s breasts after death. 

If you have the stomach for such grim material, Árpád Sopsits has created with Strangled a rigorously professional take on a particularly lurid moment in Hungarian history, packaging it in a digestible thriller format while employing all the tricks redolent of the modern noir form, which includes its tense, robust score by Márk Moldvai and a conclusion that, despite apparently seeing the status quo restored and justice being served, is still as bleak and cynical as any ending in the pantheon of classic noirs. 

The film is now available in the UK on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s Montage Pictures world cinema sub-label.      


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Kills On Wheels (2016)

Kills on Wheels is a re-naming for English markets of a film, the second from Hungarian writer-director Attila Till, whose original Hungarian title, Tiszta Szívvel, translates as Pure Heart. A comedy action-drama that actually has heart, and is entirely character-based, is a rare thing in of itself, but, as is being foregrounded much more prominently by the English title than by the film’s Hungarian moniker, this one stands out in particular for showcasing a cast of young paraplegics and people with disabling mobility issues as the main protagonists, forging a plot where traditional gangster and action movie motifs are spun into a poignant but non-patronising examination of the sorts of issues of identity and acceptance apt to preoccupy any young teen on the cusp of adulthood, but which have even more resonance for those who daily face the challenges imposed by physical impediments and life-threatening health issues to boot. 

But the opening scene is also designed to provide opportunities for Till to signpost early that he in no way intends this to be an exercise in po-faced sentimental 'misery-mongering' that scores brownie points by portraying persons with physical disabilities as saintly martyrs or token objects of inspiration for the able-bodied. It’s a prison scene of a kind familiar to pretty much all prison movies  -- with gnarly looking cons eyeing each other up for exploitable weaknesses in the prison recreation room while pensive guards monitor them for signs of the outbreak we know is coming eventually anyway. In this instance, though, the camera gradually pans out to reveal that every single one of the prisoners is, in fact, a wheelchair user; only the prison guards patrolling them are able-bodied. As the inevitable  riot-on-wheels erupts before us, we’re being reminded -- as we also were by Miroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 movie The Tribe, in which the entire cast was made up of deaf performers -- that, although people with a common disability placed together in a regime administered by the able-bodied creates a unique culture, the resultant community will tend, of course, to be made up of just as diverse and flawed a collection of individuals as any other group would be.

At the centre of this eruption of explosive tension is ex-firefighter-turned-petty-criminal Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), who we next see leaving the prison grounds at the end of his sentence in yet another scene that is a mainstay of the prison movie subgenre: the one in which the ex-prisoner suddenly finds himself alone outside the imposing walls of his former temporary home, realising that he has now been cut off from the institutional support network that once sustained him, as he's thrust back into an uncaring outside world. Here, Rupaszov is immediately taken under the wing of a trackie-wearing Serbian mobster boss who breeds Rottweilers, called Rados (Dusán Vitanovic). He puts Rupaslov straight to work in the unlikely role of gangland hitman, with the rationale that the goons and gangster bosses he’s to be sent to 'off' will never suspect a guy in a wheelchair – a view that soon proves itself profitably correct.

Although the movie starts with Rupaszov's tale, and looks set to go off down a Tarantino-esque road that puts smart dialogue and extreme violence on an equal footing with deliberately unrealistic, semi-comic action scenarios like the opening scene, the film in fact switches focus pretty quickly and takes us instead into the world of two young disabled friends who, like Rupaszov, have also been institutionalised, although in rather different surroundings. Instead of a prison that caters exclusively for the disabled, Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Ádám Fekete) frequent a rehabilitation centre providing treatment, physical therapy and daily activities for young people like themselves who have a range of physicalities that restrict mobility and/or are difficult to deal with at home. Both actors actually have for real the conditions their featured characters are depicted living with: Zoli is paralysed because of a congenital spinal malformation, and, in the movie, also urgently needs a life-saving operation to support his spine and stop his organs being crushed, a likely result of the condition worsening in later life; Barba, meanwhile, although not paralysed in the same way, finds it difficult to walk or to exercise full control of his limbs. Both boys are fed up with the dull, humdrum routine that is apparently to be their lot while living under a day-care regime offering little to expand one’s horizons, despite the sincere dedication of its staff. They instead have to make do with silly acts of minor vandalism to pass the time. They are also writing and producing their own graphic novel in art class which they hope to sell at a local comics con, detailing in comic-strip form their daily struggles.

The boys meet Rupaszov when he visits the centre to undergo physical therapy. The former firefighter is offended when he spots them messing about with a fire extinguisher in the yard. The relationship is initially fraught with tension but gradually softens, and there emerges a touching bond between the three outsiders, casting Rupaszov first in the role of older brother and confidant to the boys, and then as a sort of surrogate father figure. The raspy-voiced hitman takes them on various expeditions that force the boys to venture far beyond the safe confines of the world they’d previously known. For instance, hanging with Rupaszov teaches the callow duo how to act confidently in the company of women when visiting bars and flashy nightclubs. They also accompany him as he embarks on various hope-filled but ill-fated efforts to woo a nurse he’d previously been involved with who is now imminently to be married -- a plot strand that culminates with a raucous gate-crashing of the couple's wedding reception.

Much of this is standard coming-of-age comedy-drama material, rendered all the more affecting for the pleasantly engaging performances Fenyvesi and Fekete are able to deliver as these two guileless teenagers who end up way out of their depth. Fenyvesi conveys an insular angst but is quietly soulful, while Fekete's character is the more boisterous, geeky and freewheeling of the pair. The suspense and action-drama elements of the film arise when a bewildered Zoli and Barba find themselves suddenly caught up in one of Rupaszov’s hits, pulled into the fray as make-do getaway drivers. When crime lord Rados discovers their unscheduled involvement, he demands that Rupaszov bump off the two boys to make sure all remaining loose ends are tied up, thus placing the hitman in an unenviably difficult position. 

 Broken family ties and imperfect friendships are at the heart of a mercurial tale that largely lands in the sweet spot between wry comedy and gritty drama. A subplot, centred on Zoli’s refusal to let his estranged father help his long-suffering mother out with the payment for his urgently needed operation, is at the emotional heart of the story and the feelings of betrayal and rejection which lie at the core of his characterisation also resurface in the main storyline, with Rupaszov agonising over a seemingly unthinkable dilemma during an initially comedic fishing expedition with the boys that provides him with the perfect opportunity to comply with Rados’s demand to get rid of them. The crime boss himself also acts as something of a father substitute for his hitman charge (with Rados’s dogs referred to by him throughout as his ‘children’), while the jobs Rupaszov is sent on involve him severing ‘family ties’ for Rados with various foreign gang lords. 

Till’s direction is fluid and his shots nicely composed, even incorporating animation into scene transitions in order to illustrate how the events of the film relate to the content of Zoli and Barba’s home-made graphic novel. The score incorporates rootsy urban folk songs and the witty script features caustic dialogue aplenty, particularly when Rupaszov chastises his slow-moving, frequently hapless accomplices as they, say, wrestle with trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady during a stake-out, or take ages unfolding a wheelchair to escape in after the completion of a job -- police sirens all the while wailing in the distance and getting ever-louder as they continue their struggle.

Till is not averse to using the protagonists’ disabilities in this way to generate both absurdist comic moments (although never at his heroes’ expense) and instances of taut suspense. The latter quality is particularly notable during a protracted set-piece which sees Rupaszov faced with a houseful of heavily armed and intensely suspicious gangsters. Afterwards, in attempting to find a wheelchair-friendly exit from the dwelling, he is forced to negotiate a yard with an extremely steep, upward-sloping pathway to the front gate, resulting in what is likely to be the most painfully snail-like getaway in the history of movies!

The film’s resolution, after a tense confrontation with Rados and his canine companions, comes in the form of a pseudo-twist of sorts that is, in truth, so flagrantly signposted it’s probably not even meant to be a twist -- although the final act does also reveal one further poignant wrinkle to the plot regarding the thematic concerns which underpin the film and connect Zolika’s resentment towards his absent father for leaving him and his mother to his ambivalent feelings about Rupaszov, in a way that is both satisfying and life-affirming.    

This likeable dark comedy is released by Eureka Entertainment in a dual format form, incorporating Blu-ray and DVD formats, as part of its new Montage Pictures range.