Despite never crossing over into full blown horror, Sebastián Silva’s second collaboration with Michael Cera in quick succession (the first being Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) retains a constant oppressive woozy air of threat and disorientation. In remote rural Chile a group of friends including obnoxious American, Brink (Cera), Sara (Emily Browning) and her boyfriend Agustín (Agustín Silva) are joined by Sara’s naive cousin Alicia (Juno Temple) on a trip to a little known island. Marked as an outsider from the outset she struggles to fit into their boisterous group, with the language barrier segregating her even further. As she perceives the actions of the others becoming increasingly cruel and rash Alicia becomes convinced these strangers have all turned against her. But with her mind twisted by insomnia she is barely able to grasp her own reality.
This seems to be shaping into a conventional genre movie from the start as these young, beautiful things pile into a truck and head to a remote house in the country. With its hyper-tense atmosphere and bubbling undercurrent of hypnotism and ritual, Magic Magic is seemingly building up to breaking point for all of its running time. What we get instead is a static nightmare that swirls around Alicia but never really takes us anywhere. Those waiting for shocks and thrills will be sorely disappointed as the film drifts away in a haze of inconsequence.
Ostensibly a film about corruption of innocence painted in broad strokes – with recurring imagery of nature and animals, death and sex – there are some intriguing themes here captured in impressive cinematography pulsing with a muggy sense of place. However, it flatters to deceive, with little more underneath its dazed, earthy surface than the bare bones of half formed ideas. Flat characters and a marginal narrative prevent it breaking away into the success that’s hinted at. But there are still pleasures to be had in the 1970s inflected pagan ride, not least the strong performance of Juno Temple who single-handedly keeps things interesting with a display of pure natural anguish and internal pandemonium.
While it fails as psychological horror or a study of innocence Magic Magic succeeds admirably in capturing a stomach churning sensation of being friendless and isolated in a strange world. We desperately feel for the young American trapped with these obnoxious overconfident sorts, and the film is at its best when Silva focuses on singular moments of sheer overwhelming discomfort. As a whole there isn’t much in Magic Magic to love. Nevertheless with the flashes of nerve-shredding intensity in Alicia’s surging fever dream – communicated with genuine conviction by Temple – it elevates itself to something more harrowing and affecting.
[ 2013 — Dir: Sebastián Silva — 97 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
Magic Magic is in cinemas from 18th April
In the great tradition of Japanese cinema the titular Yonosuke is an awkward, easy-going character who lights up the screen with his beaming oddball presence – apparently having the same uplifting effect on everyone he meets. A Story of Yonosuke charts the 1980s college days of – the apparently hilariously named – Yokomichi Yonosuke (Kengo Kora) from being an outsider in the big city to forming friendships and relationships that forever change the lives of others. Intercut with fleeting moments from the present day, we see the fondness and affection with which Yonosuke is regarded, and just how his live-wire spirit affected them all. But one question lingers throughout: what became of Yonosuke?
Vividly drawn in bright colours, A Story of Yonosuke has the flavour and aesthetic of a small-scale indie but expanded to a lengthy reflective odyssey, clocking in at 2hrs 40mins. While this sedate pace and relaxed approach to editing permits a nice natural rhythm to develop, and allows relationships and characters to evolve with an organic grace, it is however unquestionably too long. The intriguing flash-forward structure and curious unknowns often belie its epic length, but with large portions crossing over from warmhearted whimsy to just plain directionless meandering it is never truly able to justify its running time.
This discrepancy does little to diminish the overall charming warmth of a film filled with comedic lightness and a subtle undercurrent of poignancy, falling just on the right side of sentimental. Director Shūichi Okita never allows the story to become too mawkish, and keeps something remote about his central character – an enigma that even those closest to him are never really able to fathom. His infectious optimism, naivety and kindness are what define him. Anything more would shatter the illusion of this childlike saint who has somehow found himself in these fortunate people’s lives.
The central performance from Kengo Kora is fantastically pitched. Initially appearing to be little more than gangly limbs and scruffy hair, he goes on to provide Yonosuke with just the right amount of depth. He remains a distant figure that we’re never truly able to understand, but nevertheless he is a living breathing person, not just the two dimensional dumb comedic character the role could conceivably have become. This episodic journey through time is a mesmerising study of fate, ultimately a little too ambling to have any striking impact – but for its warming positivity tinged with an underlying melancholy A Story of Yonosuke is a film that deserves to be experienced. Not quite as endearing or life-changing as Yonosuke himself, but it’s a film with a good heart and the best intentions.
[ 2013 — Dir: Shûichi Okita — 160 mins — PG cert — IMDb ]
A Story of Yonosuke is now available on Blu-ray & DVD from Third Window Films.
Shot in a glowing-edged soft focus that conjures memories of great soaring Hollywood love stories, Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void however bears little relation to these classic melodramas. Set in an Israeli orthodox, Haredi, Jewish community, the black suits, fur Shtreimel hats and rhythmic prayers lend the film an otherworldly quality. But, with the yearning closeted feelings of a Bronte novel, its nuanced emotional core is always the focus. Following the tragic death of her sister during childbirth, 18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is forced to abandon plans for the arranged marriage she dreams of, and instead contemplate taking the hand of her deceased sister’s husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein). This is a solution that pleases Yochay’s mother - she believes Shira would make an adequate mother to his surviving child, and would otherwise have to pack him off to Belgium to a suitable widow there. With deep reservations both Shira and Yochay are initially reluctant to consider the proposal, but as time wears on and they view the options in front of them the union begins to appear more likely.
The alien formalities and rituals are strikingly fashioned with a sincerity and authenticity that places us at the very heart of the families during this tragic time. With little in the way of clunky explanation this natural mood remains unbroken, leaving us as silent observers at the kitchen table as their lives change around us. Epitomised by its stillness and aching melancholy, this seven time Ophir Award winner – the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars – is a wholly absorbing study of the conflict between responsibility and following one's heart.
Cloaked by the stuffy solemnity of religion the performances demand tremendous emotional restraint, simultaneously cold and passionately anguished. This is accomplished by all the actors, producing a minimal choreography of silences, glances and gestures that tell us their story through their characters. The ensemble cast is individually exquisite, but Yaron and Klein in the lead roles are what truly makes Fill the Void such a powerful work. Seldom allowed to cut loose with their suffering, the brief natural moments when guards drop are piercingly distressing. Rocking back and forth in prayer, or with awkward discomfort, there is a palpable air of agitated unease throughout Fill the Void that occasionally spills over as the emotional strain becomes overwhelming. A tender work of porcelain fragility which, if mishandled slightly, would instantly shatter the restrained cool edges of its atmosphere. But this yearning, still mood is carried gracefully through each scene, edging imperceptibly towards its climax.
[ 2012 — Dir: Rama Burshtein — 90 mins — PG cert — IMDb ]
Fill the Void is now available on Blu-ray & DVD from Artificial Eye.
Arriving in cinemas with much promise and pedigree, the big screen adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling novel is perhaps most notable for being Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first appearance since the awards hysteria surrounding him and his tremendous performance in 12 Years A Slave – a comparison that does Half of a Yellow Sun no favours. Where one is a powerful drama of anguished human emotion, the other is a flavourless overreaching melodrama. In a grand love story set against the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s we encounter two wealthy twins, Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), fiercely intelligent English educated women with wildly differing paths ahead of them. Kainene manages the family's business interests and unexpectedly falls for an English writer, Richard (Joseph Mawle), while the slightly more free-spirited Olanna moves in with the “revolutionary professor” Odenigbo (Ejiofor). But as the violence on the streets intensifies the twins remain more focused on their entangled love lives than the politics of their country - until Olanna and Odenigbo become caught up in the struggle to establish Biafra as an independent republic.
Half of a Yellow Sun is the feature directorial debut of the respected Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, and it’s clear from the outset he has bitten off more than he can chew. As he says himself, “I was trying to capture the essence of the book, I had to decide what was going to stay in and what was going to stay out.” And that is the problem with all beloved literary translations: the medium is so vastly different that representing the source text becomes a failing task. Bandele is so concerned with capturing every little piece of plot there’s no time to develop the characters, turning it into a rushed collection of moments akin to a soap opera - piling up the small dramas, but never coming close to capturing real emotion.
Occasional flashes of Bandele’s stage past interrupt the fairly functional dialogue in the form of biting wit or intimate conversational exchanges, but it fails ever to break away from the look and feel of a Sunday teatime drama. If consumed as such, in 3 parts with anguished cliffhanger endings, it may just have worked but, as it is, flat direction and a muddled over-complex narrative consign it to being an uninvolving exercise in melodramatics. It is perhaps telling that the most interesting, compelling moments are the sporadically intercut pieces of archive footage of the real civil war and in particular the eloquent General Ojukwu.
Ejiofor is a superbly talented actor and he adds a modicum of weight despite the scant material but he is a secondary character to Newton’s Olanna, who unfortunately turns in a performance that is far too histrionic with little in the way of subtlety. Bandele has conceivably seen this as an epic old-fashioned love story in the great traditions of Hollywood - big emotions, a soaring score and a backdrop of conflict. But a lack of focus on the hearts and minds at the centre of the story leaves us with no one to engage with or ultimately care about.
[ 2013 — Dir: Biyi Bandele — 111 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
Half of a Yellow Sun is in cinemas from 11th April.