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Well look what we have here? Another review I meant to pen almost four weeks ago.


I caught Aftersun in its first week, rushed to it in fear that the run would be swift and brief in the strange winter season filmed with gimmicks, Oscar-contenders and Christmas classics. I wasn’t sure how much it would be the darling; Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness looked to be a lingerer in my locals and yet came and went fast despite the esteem and talent behind it. Yet, here we are and Aftersun is still screening. There’s a good reason for that. Let’s pretend I saw it last night. That way it doesn’t look so bad that I sat on this.

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

What did I think of this tortured yet heartfelt depiction of a father and daughter’s love for one another over the course of few days on a Turkish package Holiday in the nineties? Quite a lot actually. Charlotte Wells feature debut is equal parts deeply personal, explicitly honest and utterly familiar in its depiction of familial relationships. The casting is brilliant, Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio give genuine performances in the lead roles, balancing authentic vulnerable nuance with the playful, uncomplicated bond between parents and kids.


11 year old Sophie (Corio) doesn’t live with her father, Calum (Mescal in a turn that reminds me of a young Alfred Molina), but loves him dearly. He books a trip away for them before the school term begins, a package holiday to Turkey where they stay in a hotel resort brimming with tourists. It seems like Calum is in between jobs. This trip is to prove something, yet things go wrong in little ways; the hotel doesn’t provide them a room with two beds, he will sleep on the cot, Sophie has become more perceptive to his differences. Through the video camera she films him with, moments captured in physical media and memory juxtaposed to adult Sophie as she reminisces, troubled more so, by this time with her father, we begin to form a fragmented picture of the troubled Calum.

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

Everything is delightfully subtle, ambiguous even to the end. From frames within frames, a marvellous scene played out in the reflection of the TV screen, mirrors and walls dividing our characters, a veil over our perception of them, situating us in a strange flux between Sophie’s viewpoint and one of a voyeur. I suppose if we frame the film in the idea of older Sophie’s retrospective, this fractured way of viewing our protagonists makes more sense. Some parts Sophie saw, some are parts she suspects, some is teased to us as an audience to paint a fuller yet far murkier picture of Calum.


With Sophie, and her coming of age journey, we capture the monumental struggle with mental health on a molecular level. Calum unwinds; a tortured glimpse of a falling figure through the nostalgic use of physical media so that there is dreadful ache before we really know the characters. Between them, as they wave farewell to one another at the airport in the opening scene, we sense that longing, the moment captured.

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

It’s a terrific dynamic and Wells handles beautifully. The relationship between them is relatively healthy. Calum struggles with being a younger dad, getting confused for Sophie’s older brother by other guests and so forth, along with the implied issues surrounding employment, money, possible alcoholism, relationships, self-destructive tendencies and his responsibilities by the age of thirty (and somehow Wells encapsulates this through the motif of the rug he becomes obsessed with… and it works). Sophie asks him what he thought he would be doing by then when he was her age; he refuses to answer. There could be a lot of things. Or nothing. He loves being a dad to Sophie that is obvious but there’s more to it, he's somewhere else.


What I love best about the conflict of ages, and the unusual exploration of this dynamic, is Sophie being on the cusp of teenagerdom. She is young enough to be forgiving of her father’s shortcomings whilst displaying signs that conflict between them is on the horizon, resentment can build, she’s becoming her own person; she calls him out - "Stop... Offering to pay for something when you don't have the money.". Honesty is obviously a part of their relationship. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of love in either of their lives - he admits to loving her mother if only platonically, a lovely layer to the ‘broken’ family narrative, respect exists between Sophie’s parents. He demands she know how to defend herself, to be open with him about experiences; it’s beautifully handled. Yet these also feel like desperate attempts to impart something to her one last time. The bond of father and daughter, one so full of trust and love is a rare thing to see on screen, certainly one that lacks the overbearing misogyny that runs deep in many of the narratives. Here we see a man openly guiding his child; as much protective as he is encouraging, even as they seem to be growing apart.

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

The setting is ideal. It’s strained, buzzing with an abundance of Brits partaking in cheesy activities and roasting themselves by the pool. A cathartic trip to Turkish baths in the latter half of the film is not only refreshing for the audience but a slither of culture far more grounding than the shallowness of the tourism haven. In its use and the significance of that type of holiday in the nineties suggests a large effort on Calum’s part to spend some time with her though the story reveals rather potently that she does not see him as much as she would like.


There is a striking balance between his presence and absence in the film. Mescal carries this act with great tenderness, projecting the inner turmoil, the relaxed exterior in contrast to his more parental instincts. It’s a fine, harrowing line to walk and somehow Mescal does it. This is clearly made easier with the brilliant Corio who gives a natural and gentle performance; together on screen you believe it.

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

If there was any part I felt stumbled, it was the ‘future’ scenes. Sophie all grown doesn’t sit as comfortably with the other aspects of the film, sometimes posing a little jarring. That is until that finale. Then I got it. The desire to save, years of experiences weighing you down until suddenly you’re seeing the world with the perspective your parents and you just… get it.


I think I know why part of me struggled to even start this review. Not a day went by where I didn’t think of Aftersun. At one point in the theatre, I was questioning the hype, and then the last twenty minutes happened and it all made sense and I felt that strange, familiar itch in the back of my mind that it all felt real, that my feeling had been before. I’m not a parent. I am a daughter, a half-baked, dribbled out of the mould, inexplicably got incinerated on only the upper right-hand corner kind of offspring. Yet those feelings could go beyond that. Loss, in all its forms, living and lifeless was present for me in that screening. Understanding, and seeing no better path to salvation sat heavy within the experience; I suppose that was Wells intention after all.

'I think it's nice that we share the same sky...' - Sophie

Not much happens in Aftersun yet everything mundane possibly does. Life and love, man. Wells story is pivotal to human condition, to young women, to the modern depiction of familial love in our stories. Frank, sometimes funny and warm yet often deeply melancholic, I wanted to make it better and felt my powerlessness as both the spectator and the child. The conflict in that with the beautiful experiences they share. Wells had made an absolutely gorgeous film and one impossible to forget. I look forward to her future projects and hope and pray that we see more from young female directors and representation at the awards this season. Aftersun deserves it.


****

Still from Aftersun (MUBI, 2022)

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There is nothing like the melodic wilt of the Irish brogue. Nor is there anything quite like the razor sharp witticisms of a Martin McDonagh script. And there he squishes it all together, procuring the finest talent in all the Emerald Isle, helmed by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson brought back together again after McDonagh’s brilliant black comedy In Bruges, and a precious donkey for the final touch. Would I be so bold to proclaim that The Banshees of Inisherin is my favourite film of this year? (Drive My Car was last year, lads, don’t jump on that one.)


Yes, yes, awards season has only just begun; technically I’ve seen two ‘contender’s’ as such, so far and we have more to come with a great deal of interesting films– Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun looks fascinating as does Ruben Östlund’s latest, Triangle of Sadness. However, my Irish blood yearns for cracking, wistful cinema and I didn’t get that with Kenneth Branagh this year.

Still: The Banshees of Inisherin (Film Four, 2022)

The trailer had to be the most exciting thing to drop in the last few months, film-wise. Enough to intrigue, not enough to spoil I couldn’t wait to book in. Two old friends, Pádraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson), living on the fictional island Inisherin in early twentieth century Ireland, do the same routine every day; meet at the same pub, at the same time, order the same drinks and talk about the same things. Until Colm decides he doesn’t want to be friends any more.


McDonagh’s latest film was sold perfectly and concisely, unlike this review. It’s a beautiful film, visually speaking, capturing the stunning charm of Ireland and its neighbouring isles, it feels utterly faithful. Interweaving the conflict of the Irish civil war with elements of folklore, a funny, often moving story unfolds as a hard-hitting breakup.


Beyond that, it’s rather philosophical, laced with despair. Brought on by Inisherin itself, the war, the time period or something far more urgently human, McDonagh’s film becomes spiritual as the characters battle with legacy and mortality… and why they don’t want to be friends. There was little to prepare me for the turns the story took, the depths it mined nor the rawness that stung a little too close to the bone with its observations. The inclusion of the political is so subtle; it adds context and a deep melancholy to the story without being the story. The mysticism, simply the element of the unknown, as with all things in this world; nothing is quite as mysterious as the human heart.

Still: The Banshees of Inisherin (Film Four, 2022)

‘I just don’t like you no more’ Colm says. Pádraic wants to know why. So do we all, he’s perfectly nice, though ‘niceness doesn’t last’ if a little boring and loves his animals. It shouldn’t be so funny and familiar all in one his journey for the truth; like children on a playground, both admirably frank and harrowingly vague, Colm’s decision fed into the worst kind of anxiety in me that adulthood has brought. How does one really hear what they don’t want to? The persistence is familiar and yet honourable in its own, ridiculous way. Farrell is a finer actor than he is ever given credit for, harnessing the vulnerability and naivety of Pádraic as he attempts to reconcile with anything he could have done. He can bear tragedy in his performance and childishness; his decisions and regrets wrought with periods of self-implemented misery. Farrell just knows how to sulk really well.


Gleeson, and his fiddle-playing incorporated into the narrative perfectly, were as powerful as ever. He lumbers through scenes unsettlingly stoic, often gentle, even as he is cutthroat with his decision. The more refined of the two, he in many ways makes for an odd pairing with Farrell. Yet once again they are able to capture the magic from their previous collaboration, honed by years of experiences. Where in In Bruges, it felt like an elder and his protégé, here they are equals both on and off-screen. In him we find the powerful existentialism laced throughout. What do we do with the remaining time left to us? Can we be selfish in our final years? As Colm says himself; ‘I do worry sometimes I might just be entertaining myself while staving off the inevitable.’

Still: The Banshees of Inisherin (Film Four, 2022)

McDonagh’s cast overall is lucratively brilliant. Barry Keoghan as the islands soft-hearted ‘fool’, for one! Sharp decisions in casting brought his fascinating characters to life. Their personalities and rhythms authentically captured amongst the absurdity. Although what I know of the Irish, they really are this stubborn. My favourite choice – other than the donkey - has to be Kerry Condon, however, as Pádraic’s wise yet tolerant sister Siobhan. Her voice of reason challenged by the restrictive nature of the isle is a heart-aching conflict to the already troubling shift between the two old friends. She is the anchor for Pádraic, the connection between the two men. Condon balances this in the best way.


Most striking of all, The Banshees of Inisherin is beautifully mature. Even with its premise rooted in childlike folly. The unfolding beats and conclusion of In Bruges, which lends itself to comparison here though I am sorry I keep bringing it up, are always violent and intense; the story is about two hitmen laying low in Belgium. Whereas Banshees is the break-up film. Stakes are raised; violence falls heavily and packs a heftier punch. It’s as unsettling as the fighting on the mainland that rumbles in the distance, it’s a disturbance of peace for no reason anyone can really give. When we reach the end of the swift two hours runtime, we are exhausted and cautious, something sits heavy with us. But it lands with great power. It packs a heftier punch. It makes for unforgettable cinema.


Maybe it is too early to chatting about best films of the year, maybe I can say what I want? The danger lies in my words, however. Banshees has been hyped. I can see it receiving similar backlash from those listening to the hype. What I’m doing now is fuelling hype. Hype is a dangerous thing; it hurt Hereditary and more in the last few years. Some will accuse this of being high-brow; I’ve found the comments online already saying it was dull and slow, that they got up and walked out. But I loved the film, struggle to see those flaws in which some are getting rather loud about – mostly due to critical acclaim – despite this being one of the most accessible films on the awards rota. So how can I not be wrought with it, this hype?

Still: The Banshees of Inisherin (Film Four, 2022)

McDonagh has grown so much since In Bruges and so have Gleeson and Farrell, who have honed their craft. I’m gonna say it; I think The Banshees of Inisherin is better… don’t throw those rocks at be, sir! I don’t throw those statements around often, nor do I even say it lightly. I was utterly enthralled by the feud between Pádraic and Colm, wondering and hoping and effortlessly forlorn by the tale. It was perfect storytelling. I laughed, and cooed (at the donkey, duh) and fell frantically into this bleak world McDonagh crafted, somehow also a paradise and cage to its characters. ‘How's the despair?’ the priest asks Colm. Well, that is a good question, isn’t it?


*****

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Park Chan-wook is phenomenal. I missed the clanging of erotic balls in the cinema, enjoyed in a single intensive sitting some time later, was too young to be scarred by hammers and memory loss. I wanted to face a Park in theatre.


Of course I was buzzing at the opportunity to catch the previews of Decision to Leave, Park’s latest work! The film stars Lust, Caution’s (that controversial epic erotic thriller by Ang Lee that I love a lot), Tang Wei in her most nuanced and commanding role. Opposite the charismatic Park Hae-il, known to me for his ominous turn in Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003), upon the reveal of the cast I was already excited.

Screencap from Decision to Leave (Mubi, 2022)

The plot is as follows; a man’s death in the mountains puzzles a weary Busan detective and meeting the victim’s timid Chinese widow leaves more questions. Determined to solve the crime, deemed an accident by others, his growing obsession is made all the messier by his developing feelings for the wife he has pinned as his main suspect.


The turnout was fabulous that night; a bunch of people geared up for one of South Korea’s most macabre, masterful and shocking filmmakers. There was no doubt that the room was (pleasantly) filled with film lover’s, all one can ask for when the light of the silver screen pouring upon you is from none other than Park.


It was odd leaving the cinema, however.


Shock of all shocks; Park kept it classy. But as erotic thrillers go, this is on the cleaner side. Not gonna lie, we (i.e. my friend and me – my sister kept her head this time) were a little disappointed by the lack of freakiness. But maybe I have strayed too far from my Austen-esque roots, lost sight of the utter bliss of watching two beings transfixed in chasteness. It’s all about that longing. And chapstick.

Screencap from Decision to Leave (Mubi, 2022)

Good thing I remember that. Besides the lack of skin, I wondered what left me so suspiciously reserved about my feelings towards Decision to Leave; by no means was it a bad film. In fact, I found it to be one of the strongest of the year. Ultimately I knew just what it was, thinking hard as I did. I’m unaccustomed to change.


Park’s name almost ruined the film for me. Yet not in the way I expected more from Spike Lee with Da 5 Bloods or smarter from Quentin Tarantino with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or even warmer from Pedro Almodóvar with Parallel Mothers; this harsh perception of filmmaker against their bodies of work is to be expected. Park hadn’t made a bad film, or a disappointing film; simply something different. As a storyteller he decided to strip away his usual excess of depravity to get to the very heart of his story. That explains why even (terribly two weeks later… jeez) I can’t find much to be negative about.

Screencap from Decision to Leave (Mubi, 2022)

Knowing nods to classic Hollywood noir, Park’s style is still unmistakable. Rich colour palettes, this time against blue hues, enhancing the foggy landscapes of Ipo, the glamourous teal costumes of Wei’s, the night-time investigations through the city, the dizzying heights of the perilous mountains (my nightmare fuel), the unsettling excursions into nature. The tone, with its 1970’s spy thriller style, push ins that recall Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, apartments decked in darker tones, splashes of orange in comparison the clinical and bright, modern rooms I have grown used to seeing in mainstream television dramas, there is something both modern and explicitly archaic in Park’s execution.


Microscopic close-ups are as erotic as they are intrusive. A cadavers eye crawling with bugs, the tender touch of the detective and the widow in a shot that calls to mind the most intimate scenes in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992). The two extremes of the detective’s world, those very things that inspire such passion in him; a stark contrast to his safe, seemingly idyllic marriage often shot in mids. He is distanced from that world. But work and the widow trap his meticulous gaze. This is highlighted even more in a switch of scene half-way through the runtime. It’s jarring at first. The damp, foggy town of Ipo, sleepy though it is dominated by the Nuclear Power plant that functions as the toxic heart of the community juxtaposed to the bustling city Busan, corrupted by crime and murder, sapped of life.

Screencap from Decision to Leave (Mubi, 2022)

The sweeping tracking shots, the pans beautifully choreographed and hypnotic, most of all in the ritualistic intensity of the twilight ocean scene – the suffocating waves ever present and volatile, a thematic dream - in the films finale. Some of the technical visual precision is exactly what distracted me at first. I had no criticism of just how smooth Decision to Leave looked. Park’s use of dead space in the latter half of the film, the high contrast and shadows in snowy night scenes is so visually rich. There are layers. I would love to break down his use of colour throughout the story, being such an integral part to his previous films, I was palpably aware of it.


The romance is so gentle despite its insidious origins. A break from action, an old temple and the blessing bells, the merge of old and new; the detective and his suspect take shelter in this old world from the rain. The tropes are all there too. The innocent shared umbrella, glances, the hand cream… the chapstick! Better still, how it becomes integral to the plot. Park proves he can do a whole lot more without stripping his characters and throwing them into raunchy decadence. Their solace in one another, specifically in this scene, takes them out of both worlds. Under the watchful eye of the spiritual entity the temple houses, they may not get up to much, but it feels like the one place they can be, where past and present have no place.


Poor Park Chan-wook, stretching his storytelling chops as I bemoaned the lack of nude. Where was there even room for all this shock sauce, anyway? If I had been smart before, I would have cleared my mind a little; embraced the experience of Park onscreen and recalled his ability to do so much more intimacy when his characters do not a lot. It’s far rawer. He can show a lot less and tell far more; he is a man full of nuance, more so than he is given credit for.

Screencap from Decision to Leave (Mubi, 2022)

Both stifling and vacuous, the harrowing charm of this mystery thriller lies beyond even the ‘romance’, creeps about morality, teases trauma; its Park’s bleak sense of humour at all of this. It’s biting in commentary. Layers of themes and ideas that perfectly weave into the narrative of deception, murder and intrigue; Decision to Leave is clever and sexy, utterly lethal. I’ve adjusted the bar for Park. I can proudly hold this up as an example of his cinematic mastery.


****

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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