Tag Archives: foreign film

In Their Own League Advent Calendar: 18. Rare Exports

By Joan Amenn

Do you like your holiday entertainment a little on the dark side? Maybe you’re just tired of the same old sickly sweet films year after year? Well, we have the antidote to all that and you better watch out, better not cry because “Rare Exports” (2010) is going to blow your mind with its take on the origin of Santa Claus. A word of caution however, this is NOT a children’s holiday film even though Onni Tommila is great as its young protagonist, Pietari. The film is set in Finland which lends a creepy sense of frozen dread to this almost Lovecraftian take on the holidays. There is a gentle streak of comedy that runs through it all, culminating in a laugh out loud punchline of an ending. Well, maybe you just have to have a certain kind of twist to your funny bone to appreciate it but this tale of reindeer herders living a little too close for comfort to the border with Russia has its moments. When those pesky international neighbors start setting off explosives in the nearby mountains, the children of the herding community soon learn that they are prey for a not so jolly elf and his minions. Its all rather gothic fun for late night viewing after an exhausting day of hearing mall carolers sing “Jingle Bells” for the hundredth (thousandth?) time. Break out the glogg and enjoy, but don’t say we didn’t warn you about Santa having a temperamental streak!

Belle: LFF2021 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 122 minutes

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Writer: Mamoru Hosoda

Stars: Kaho Nakamura, Takeru Satoh, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta, Koji Yakusho

By Calum Cooper

While many would declare Makoto Shinkai the next Miyazaki of Japanese animation, I believe there’s an argument to be made for Mamoru Hosoda. Since breaking away from franchises like “Digimon” (1997-) and “One Piece” (1997-) to create his own stories, Hosoda has consistently proven himself to be a masterful storyteller. His seemingly simple concepts repeatedly lead to gargantuan creativity and heartfelt earnestness. His latest film, “Belle” (2021), continues this trend with exquisite splendour. It may even be Hosoda’s best since “Wolf Children” (2012).

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old girl suffering from crippling loneliness. Once a happy child who loved singing, the death of her mother has turned her into a teenager of immense shyness, often prone to floods of tears as she wallows in self-pity. She avoids her peers, barely speaks to her father, and doesn’t even sing anymore. When her technowizard of a best friend introduces Suzu to the app U, a virtual world where people can create their own anonymous avatars, Suzu finally finds escapism.

In U, she becomes Belle, a beautiful woman with luxurious pink hair, retaining only Suzu’s facial freckles. Here Suzu finds herself able to sing again, comfortable with the knowledge that no one knows who she is. Yet this brings her overwhelming attention and popularity from the app, eventually bringing her in contact with another user named The Dragon, a horrifying boar-like creature whose user seems to be going through anguish similar to Suzu’s. This encounter leads Suzu through a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation.

“It is ultimately a story about the masks we wear when afraid of our inner selves, be it the anonymity of a virtual avatar or the roles we play to survive the hardships of life.”

One reviewer branded this film “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) meets “The Matrix” (1999). It’s not an entirely unapt comparison, especially to the former, given the character pairings, the name of Suzu’s avatar, and even some overt thematic elements. Yet this firmly remains a Mamoru Hosoda film. Boasting many of his usual charms, be it the animation, the humanistic focus, or the themes on family, this is a story about someone closed off from the world finding the courage and selflessness to reconnect. In the process “Belle” explores, among other things, grief, anxiety, bravery, and solidarity.

Hosoda’s team are no strangers to playing around with their animation, from “Summer Wars” (2009) to the various art styles that reflected each chapter in “Mirai” (2018). With “Belle” they cleverly blend two different styles, using Hosoda’s signature 2D hand drawings for the real world, and refined CGI for U, creating the impression of live 2D, almost as if to showcase a “perfect” version of the reality Suzu wants to shut herself out from. It’s a risky choice, especially in the aftermath of Studio Ghibli’s hugely disappointing “Earwig and the Witch” (2021). Yet it allows for vast amounts of visual splendour through its creative settings and multiple tones of colour. Some of the backgrounds even had input from Cartoon Saloon, a really pleasant surprise that no doubt elevated the film’s emotional spectrum.

“What it leaves us with is a film that is as emotionally astonishing as it is visually euphoric, blossoming into a finale equal parts stunning and deeply humanistic.”

The film also plays around with genre too. Romance is not as overt as its “Beauty and the Beast” parallels would suggest, but it is definitely present. In fact, the film’s funniest scene involves an awkward elongated exchange between two people crushing on each other. Yet it seems most grounded as a coming-of-age drama with scoops of sci-fi and fantasy, especially since Suzu’s character growth is so sincere and dynamic. It not only lends itself well to the magical realism that permeates all of Hosoda’s stories thus far, but it leads to some breath-taking imagery that often encompass the character arcs through single images. The greatest of these is a moment where Suzu sings in front of millions of U’s users, portrayed as distant lights. It’s a moment so rich in emotion and grandeur that you will be unable to blink from enrapturement let alone take your eyes off of.

That moment, as well as many others, capture the real heart of this film. It is ultimately a story about the masks we wear when afraid of our inner selves, be it the anonymity of a virtual avatar or the roles we play to survive the hardships of life. Suzu’s arc fulfils this splendidly, but many other characters, from the user behind The Dragon to the supposed queen bee at Suzu’s school, all have some level of inner strife that they must face. It makes for a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, particularly towards the end, with the aforementioned image giving Suzu the courage to stand up to one man. What it leaves us with is a film that is as emotionally astonishing as it is visually euphoric, blossoming into a finale equal parts stunning and deeply humanistic.

“Belle” has everything you could want from a Mamoru Hosoda film – gorgeous animation, compelling characters, and timely themes on family and the often stormy nature of mental health. Yet it is the profound empathy it has for its characters, and the reassurance it offers its audience that makes it such a mesmerising spectacle. It is a work of sensitive honesty and titanic imagination, and that is only the tip of its colourful, effervescent iceberg. While 2021 has offered a great array of animated features – from “The Mitchells vs the Machines” (2021) to “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) – “Belle” is my choice for this year’s animated feature Oscar.

Review: Beanpole

Year: 2019
Runtime: 139 minutes
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Director: Kantemir Balagov and Alexander Terekhov
Stars: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev

By Nicole Ackman

Perhaps it goes without saying that the Russian historical drama “Beanpole” (2019) is bleak. Directed by Kantemir Balagov, it’s a look at Leningrad after World War II as soldiers trickle back in from the front and people try to put their lives back together after the trauma of war. However, nothing could have prepared me for how twisted and depressing the film is. The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and it won Balagov the Un Certain Regard Best Director award. It was also chosen as Russia’s entry for Best International Feature Film for last year’s Academy Awards and made the shortlist, though it was not nominated for the Oscar. “Beanpole” is now finally available on Amazon Prime, for wide consumption. With the overwhelmingly positive reviews it received from critics, I expected to like this film. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole for her abnormal height, is a nurse at a hospital who suffers from episodes of PTSD. The film opens with her frozen in such an episode, something that occurs multiple times over the course of the film, and the sound work for these scenes is impressive. Eventually, her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns from the front and we learn from her that Iya had been sent home early because of a traumatic head injury. The film also follows a former soldier named Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev) who is paralyzed from the neck down and struggles with his fate.
“Ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this film, I struggled to connect with it…The plot, as bleak and twisted as it is, seems to meander and even the dialogue feels slow, with long pauses between lines. The characters themselves are largely unlikable and most of the relationships shown are toxic.”
Balagov certainly has interesting things to say about Russia post-World War II. The script, by Balagov and Alexander Terekhov, was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II.” The film explores the effects of the war on both men and women, showing the physical and mental wounds that they received in it and the ways it makes returning to a normal life seem impossible. Motherhood, and in particular Masha’s desire to have a child, is another theme in the film.
Ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this film, I struggled to connect with it. It’s a very difficult film to watch as it features sensitive topics including lethal injection and PTSD. There are several sexual scenes of dubious consent and an extended scene in which a small child is killed. The plot, as bleak and twisted as it is, seems to meander and even the dialogue feels slow, with long pauses between lines. The characters themselves are largely unlikable and most of the relationships shown are toxic, including the one between Iya and Masha. The film’s production design and cinematography are certainly well done, and the very stylized coloring makes an interesting contrast with the very grey subject matter. However, the film drags on for too long with a runtime of two hours and twenty minutes. Whether it’s because the film is just too Russian for my American sensibilities or because it’s difficult to sit through something so relentlessly joyless while living through our own global tragedy, I found “Beanpole” very unengaging.