Film reviews

Anime steam

dir. Katsuhiro Otomo.

Steamboy is Otomo’s first feature-length anime since the success of his 1988 sci-fi cult classic Akira. The global anime community has waited a long time for this successor, and now delivered, it has inspired bitter division and pulled limited critical and box-office success.

Steamboy is set in a visually magnificent Victorian England, where an alternate Industrial Revolution is taking place. Ray Steam, the young hero inventor, lives in working-class Manchester. Ray, who is also the son and grandson of famous steam engineers, receives a mysterious package from his grandfather: the ‘steam ball’. In true anime tradition, it is an object of power—the catalyst by which the adventure begins and ends. Much of the film’s meat is derived from the arcane speculative fiction genre, steampunk—think cyberpunk—but instead of neuro-interfaces and cybernetic implants, there are massive cast-iron steamships, elegant behemoths of trains, mind-bendingly intricate labyrinths of shiny brass cogs and gears, all fitted with elaborate pressure valves that scream ‘She canna take nae more ... She’s gonna blow Cap’n!’ Otomo’s very Japanese take on the subtleties of Victorian society is intriguing: we see old things through a new filter.

Otomo is obviously fascinated by vast landscapes of urban dystopia: he wrote the screenplay for the troubled 2002 anime of the late Osamu, Tezuka’s manga version of Metropolis. The very name Steamboy is a direct reference to Astroboy, the iconic television series created by Tezuka, widely regarded as the godfather of  Japanese animation.

Steamboy feeds the eye a wealth of complex imagery in this retro-tech world. Otomo is a passionate artisan, who has devoted the last ten years to developing Steamboy without the use of the modern Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) technologies found in such films as Toy Story and Pixar’s up coming blockbuster The Incredibles. The difference in texture is extreme: each frame of Steamboy breathes style and craft.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t match the visuals for brilliance. A ruthless corporation with its psychopathic henchmen battles the forces of Her Majesty (a stately Victoria) for control of the steam ball, an apparently endless energy source. The thematic focus of man versus machine plays out with a fair degree of complexity: the ideological struggle between the holistic and the mechanical. But what could have been poignant, will leave many cold.

If you can ignore the trite conversations and stilted interactions, Steamboy might get into gear for you. There’s fun to be had, if you don’t concentrate too hard. Compared with recent anime epics, such as Miyazake’s enchanting Spirited Away, the characters are predictable, and the archetypes come thick and fast, with some minor exceptions.

Despite the story’s flatness, the spectacle kept me in my seat. Scenes of Ray jetting over the mills and smokestacks of London, powered by the steam ball (more homage to Tezuka) culminate in a grandiose finale, which is perhaps a little over-packed with huge vapour trails and giant rivets.
A compelling yet flawed piece.

Gil Maclean

Small-town memories

In My Father’s Den
dir. Brad McGann.

Small-town New Zealand, domestic unease, teenage curiosity, adult distrust and global instability is the vital, if at times melodramatic, mix that strikes the light of In My Father’s Den.

This is a ‘demons lurking in the past’ film told with pretty pictures. And while I wanted to believe the critical acclaim it has attracted, I found myself struggling.

Paul (Matthew Macfadyen), a celebrated, but troubled, war photographer, returns to the small New Zealand town of his childhood, for the funeral of his father. His unexpected return awakens the ghost of childhood past, present and, one suspects, future. In fact it’s quite a séance. His born-again brother resents him, his sister-in-law looks like his mother, his ex-girlfriend has a daughter that has had as many birthdays as he has spent years away and his father had a secret den.

Paul, convinced to stay in town and teach at the local school, meets Celia (Emily Barclay), the 16-year-old daughter of his ex-girlfriend. They form a strange friendship, filled with both suspicions, unexpected ease and spend a deal of time together in the father’s den. They talk about books, life, dreams and disappointments, relying on each other for the emotional sustenance they fail to garner from the small-town world that surrounds them.

But lo and behold, Celia disappears. Last seen by Paul, clutching an atlas (yes, a gift from him and yes, a heavy-handed metaphor), insisting she is happy to walk home alone.

Naturally the town turns on Paul, and the whole ugly mess of his childhood sprawls out across the screen.

To be fair, In My Father’s Den did have some exquisite moments, it was filled with performances that quite outstripped the film as a whole. Emily Barclay was perfect, full of adult promise while muted by teenage selfishness. Witnessing a mother’s breakdown amongst the wintry bows of a disused orchard, was profoundly moving. But the film was hamstrung by the weight of its own complexity. It never quite carved out a place of its own, swinging erratically between aching family tragedy, rural metaphor and Inspector Morse.

Siobhan Jackson

Circle of life

The Story of the Weeping Camel
dir. Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni.

In the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia a family raises goats and camels. They also cook, play cards, sing songs, baby-sit and plait rope out of camel wool. In fact they do pretty much what we all do: mix life and love, play and work, laughter and silence. The only notable domestic difference is they don’t watch TV. Yet!

The Weeping Camel is part documentary, part narrative fiction, and part fairy tale. The film opens with an old man sitting down to camera, telling an ancient tale of how the trusting camel lost his antlers to the goat. He describes the camel looking up to the sky, patiently waiting for his forgetful, or perhaps plain thieving, friend to return his lent body part. But of course he never does.

Like Kipling’s Just So stories, the tale plays beautifully with magic and reality, stimulating the ‘strange wonder’ bit in your head that cinema so rarely gives a work out.

It is calving time in the Gobi Desert and the camel herd is making noises that only camels can make. The first calf is born with ease. All sticky and sandy, it feeds without quarrel from its mother. Before long a whole posse of calves are drinking and milling about their mothers, but there is one expecting mother that is still expecting. Waiting. Finally the calf arrives after a long and difficult labour. It is a rare white calf, beautiful, but rejected by the exhausted and traumatised mother. With a calm determination the family tries to unite the two, but all their attempts fail. So the two young sons saddle up and head to a town, some distance away, to enlist the help of a musician (not to mention buy batteries, watch TV, eat ice cream, and dream a little).
The Weeping Camel is a quiet story of domestic routine, working life, the determination of nature and the seemingly universal desire children have to watch cartoons. There is little artifice—no ‘characters’ created from acting methods—just people and their animals in front of  cameras playing out a story, that is part real and part play.

But don’t be lulled into a false sense of charm or sentiment. This film has a very sophisticated narrative and a determined pace that makes it far more culture than nature. A fact that is perfectly reflected in the family’s eventual use of the highly cultured tradition of music to reunite a failure of nature.

Does the camel really weep? I suggest you go and find out!

Siobhan Jackson

Coloured sword strokes

dir. Zhang Zimou.

Zhang Zimou’s first foray into the wuxiz (swordplay) genre is a deceptively simple story. A man, known only as Nameless (Jet Li), is presented to the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), a real historical figure famous as a despot, tyrant, and unifier of the warring Chinese kingdoms. Nameless claims to have killed the three most wanted assassins in the land: Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). As he tells his tale and is questioned by the King, we find ourselves confronted by a layering of multiple versions of the same events, each incompatible with the last but nevertheless building on it, emotionally, aesthetically and narratively.

Each fragment retells the same events, but interprets the character’s motives differently. Each fragment is also dominated by a different colour: black, red, yellow, blue, green and white (both Zhang Yimou and the film’s Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle are well known for their expressive use of colour). The effect is not one of repetition or incoherence, it is more as if time itself has been passed through Newton’s prism and broken into divergent but implicated possible pasts and futures. The richness of the characters, and our emotional involvement with them (and it is a film that moves some people to tears), comes from the recognition that all of the characteristics and motives attributed to them in each fragment—assassin/hero, noble/base, tyrant/unifier, lover/liar—truly belong to them at the same time, and in the same world.

As a martial arts film there are some truly breathtaking fight scenes, but the fighting is strangely secondary to the film’s real concerns. Indeed for all its spectacular action the film is pervaded by a strange stillness. Zhang makes much of the formal and aesthetic links between martial and other arts, music and calligraphy explicitly, but also dance, theatre, painting, philosophy and even government. Even in the fight scenes themselves, the fall of rain on the cobblestones, or the colour and movement of the leaves in the wind seem more essential to the scene than the swordplay itself. It is an extraordinarily beautiful film to watch.

Allan James Thomas



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