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BFI London Film Festival 2021 – Dispatch #4
In his fourth dispatch from this year's BFI London Film Festival, Slarek takes an expressionist trip to post-WW1 Vienna in the Austrian crime thriller HINTERLAND, and is bewitched by conversation and coincidence in Hamaguchi Ryûsuke's WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY.
 

I’ve quickly discovered that in order to balance my festival viewing with the demands of my day job, I’m going to have to restrict myself to watching and reviewing two films a day this year. I may treat myself to a third on occasion, and if that means I have to cut the review length back to a couple of paragraphs, then so be it (this is likely to be the case with one of the three films that I have just seen that will hopefully be covered in Dispatch 5). Part of this dispatch was difficult to reign in, because I wasn’t expecting to be quite as captivated by the second film as I was, and had I had the time I would have written considerably more about it, but I still have today’s three films to write about yet so need to get this one to press. Later, perhaps.

HINTERLAND [HOMELAND]

At the end of the First World War, a small group of Austrian POWs arrives home to a country that has been socially and politically transformed by the conflict. As they go their separate ways in search of whatever lodgings they can find, group leader Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) returns to the apartment in which he, his wife and young daughter previously lived, but discovers that his family has since moved to the country in the belief that Peter would never return. When one of the soldiers is murdered and his body horribly mutilated, Peter is arrested for the crime by eager young Detective Paul Severin (Max von der Groeben), but when they reach police headquarters, Peter is greeted warmly by Police Chief Victor Renner (Marc Limpach). It turns out that Victor and Peter are former colleagues, and that before going to war, Peter was the finest homicide detective on the force. While Victor is keen to seek Peter’s help on the case, Paul continues to distrust him and treat him instead as their prime suspect, but when another of Peter’s former comrades is viciously tortured and killed, it’s Peter who identifies the clues that suggest the two murders are somehow linked.

Go into Hinterland completely unprepared and you won’t be far into it – a couple of minutes, I’d say – before you start wondering what the hell is going on. I’m not talking about the story, which unfolds clearly enough and in linear fashion, but how director Stefan Ruzowitzky has chosen to visualise it. As the soldiers climb out of the darkened hold of ramshackle boat on which they are being transported and onto the deck, nothing about the location or even the boat itself feels quite real. This sense of reality dislocation takes a further leap once they reach Vienna, which has been transformed into a colour-drained expressionist canvas of angular buildings and noir-inflected lighting. I was not too surprised to discover that this was achieved by shooting the actors against a blue screen and digitally adding the distorted landscapes in post-production, which gives the film a look that has whiffs of Dark City, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even the Meanwhile City sequences of Franklyn. But the strongest influence has to be Robert Wiene’s expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film that was made and released just a couple of years after when this film is set and at times appears to be deliberately referenced.

Expressionist Vieann in Hinterland

I sat down for the film with little knowledge of this stylistic approach and will admit that I initially found it a little off-putting. But by the time Peter reaches the first murder scene and is prevented from getting near the body by Paul’s prejudicial dislike and distrust, the frustration I felt was a clear indication that I’d been pulled into the story nonetheless and had become rather fond of this cheerless, thick-bearded protagonist. He was elevated further in my eye when given a dismissive dressing-down by pompous aristocratic superior, Graf von Starkenberg (Germain Wagner), who accuses him of being a communist for seemingly no reason other than he doesn’t like him. I have a feeling the modern-day American Republican party would welcome this idiot with open arms.

Although mentally scarred by the departure of his family and by his belief that he is too damaged to be a suitable father to his daughter any more, Peter has lost none of his former skills, and is encouraged to use them both by Victor and police pathologist, Dr Theresa Körner (Liv Lisa Fries), with whom Peter clearly has a professional history of some note. As a result, he becomes a dark Holmes in need of a Watson, a role that is eventually filled by someone we’ve been previously steered to see as Peter’s chief antagonist. The mystery of who is killing the former soldiers in such an extreme manner and why is only clarified as Peter puts the pieces together, and though not a complete surprise (a late film discovery by Paul about those being targeted also comes sometime after most watching will have twigged), there is a rather neat final twist that complicates matters for one of the pursuers.

Hinterland is a film whose stylistic approach I was initially resistant to but found myself increasingly seduced by. I also liked the central character and enjoyed his interactions with those in his immediate orbit, particularly the initially frustrating Paul and the ‘nothing phases me’ pathologist Theresa, whose past experiences prove instrumental in steering story’s third act in the direction it goes. The mutilated bodies are as beautifully disgustingly as those in the TV series Hannibal, and my suspicions that the film’s expressionist imagery was intended be read as a reflection of Peter’s tortured mental state are confirmed by a very neat slide into a more recognisable visual normality in the closing scene. Although open to accusations of style over content, the film’s sound story construction, well-defined characters and solid pacing offer plenty of meat for a reasonably sound rebuttal. I enjoyed it a great deal, but would suggest that those with weak stomachs might want to approach this one with a degree of caution.


Hinterland
is screening at the following times, dates and venues:

  • 18:00 on Sunday 10 October at Prince Charles Cinema, Downstairs Screen
  • 15:15 onTuesday 12 October at BFI Southbank, NFT1
WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY [GŪZEN TO SŌZŌ]

Coincidence can be a disconcerting thing. Here’s one for you. Fellow reviewer Camus and I live in different counties over 160 kilometres from each other and rarely get the chance to meet up these days. Once I was travelling on a train line in the county in which I live for the first time in a year, having travelled some distance to photograph an award ceremony. As far as I’m aware, Camus hadn’t even been in that part of the country for considerably longer. I was just settling down to do some work in my chosen carriage when I happened to glance up, and just as I did so, Camus walked past. I did the most theatrical double-take you’ve ever seen and immediately packed my stuff up and gave chase. It turns out that he was sitting just a few seats down from me, and in an act of extraordinary cool that I still remember clearly, he gave only the smallest start on seeing me appear in front of him. Given how rarely either of us travelled on that line and how the distance we lived apart, the odds that we’d both be on the same carriage of the same train at the same time and that I’d look up from my work at the exact moment that my friend passed by are astronomical. But it happened. Coincidences do, and it’s these insane odds and the spooky feeling that they trigger that drive so many to tar such glorious moments with supernatural hogwash.

Coincidence is at the heart of the three stories that make up Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy [Gūzen to sōzō], the most recent-but-one feature from Japanese director Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, whose latest work, Drive My Car, is also screening at this year’s London Film Festival. This triptych of female-centric tales shaped by chance events shares with Drive My Car a focus on conversation over action, but it’s the content and development of these interactions, together with the impact they have on the individuals in question and some impeccably judged performances, that make this film such unexpectedly riveting viewing.

In the first episode, Magic (or Something Less Assuring), young fashion model Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) listens keenly as her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) shares the details of a recent magical first date, after which she pays an unexpected call on businessman Kazuaki (Nakajima Ayumu), with whom she was previously involved. In the second story, Door Wide Open, college student Sasaki (Kai Shouma) pressures Nao (Mori Katsuki), an older married student with whom he is having an affair, to set a honey trap for respected professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko) as revenge for holding him back a year. In the third tale, Once Again, boyish Natsuko Higuchi (Aoba Kawai), while revisiting her old neighbourhood to attend her high school reunion, is overjoyed when she unexpectedly runs into Mika (Fusako Urabe), someone she was clearly close to in her younger days.

Higuchi and Mika meet in Episode 3 of Wheel of Fantasy of Fortune

Having stated above that all three tales are built around coincidence – a description you’ll also find in other reviews and even on the film’s marketing materials – you can be forgiven for wondering where the coincidences lie in the above synopses, beyond the chance meeting of Higuchi and Mika. The reason they’re not detailed is that I’ve provided only the basics of the setup for each of the three tales. It’s not that their narratives are peppered with twists, but what surprises there are – and there are a couple good ones here involving chance events – are best experienced by watching the film itself. And I had to really restrain myself here, as despite its surface simplicity, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a film I just know I could write whole reams of appreciative and in-depth analysis about, but to do so would involve revealing too much about a work that should be seen before being read about in such intricate detail.

That the film is able to exert such a hold using only conversation as its hook is an indication of how well written and performed these interactions are, and how much they tell us about characters we’ve effectively only just met. Meiko (Furukawa Kotone), for instance, initially has the (possibly manufactured) look of an innocent schoolgirl, but she turns out to be far more sexually promiscuous and self-confident than her friend. Nao’s approach to seducing the older professor in the second story, meanwhile, is disarmingly convincing due to the time that she takes and the subtlety with which her signals are projected. Even so, little about this encounter plays out as expected, and it includes a lovely bit of audience misdirection when the professor gets to his feet and approaches Nao and… no, you need to see that one for yourselves. The one problem I have with this second tale is something I also can’t elaborate on without completely spoiling a late-story twist, but I will say as someone who works in a similar environment, I will say that it involves a decision that no level-headed person working in education would logically make. I can say no more at this juncture. The third story has what may be the most unexpected and unpredictable surprise of all, and is prefaced with an utterly intriguing premise that the tale itself appears to do little with, but that is an essential component of the unfolding narrative if the story is to be set in modern times. In the alternate universe of this episode, a computer virus named Xeron has run riot on the internet and released all private data into the public domain, and has since become so ubiquitous that the world has been forced to go offline and return to sending physical letters and telegrams. No longer are people able to do a quick search for information on the web or send emails or texts to their friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most pleasing notion for a movie collector is the casually dropped news that with streaming services now effectively defunct, films now have to be sourced exclusively on Blu-ray.

I was completely bewitched by Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, so much so that I was I left kicking myself that I was unable to catch Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car when it was made available for press preview. The three tales here do provoke different emotions, and I salute Hamaguchi for structuring the film so that the its perfectly timed and pitched finale ends the film on a note so unexpectedly uplifting that I was unable to focus on another film for the remainder of the day, despite initially having made plans to do so. I just cannot get this quietly magical film out of my head, and look eagerly forward seeing it again, hopefully in the very near future. On Blu-ray, of course, not streaming services.


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is screening at the following times, dates and venues:

  • 18:30 on Sunday 10 October 2021 on BFI Player, available for 24 hours only
  • 17:20 on Sunday 10 October 2021 at ODEON Luxe West End, Screen 1
  • 17:50 on Monday 11 October 2021 at BFI Southbank, NFT2
BFI London Film Festival 2021
Dispatch #4

Hinterland
Austria | Luxembourg 2021
98 mins
directed by
Stefan Ruzowitzky
produced by
Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu
Bady Minck
Sabine Moser
Oliver Neumann
written by
Robert Buchschwenter
Hanno Pinter
Stefan Ruzowitzky
cinematography
Benedict Neuenfels
editing
Oliver Neumann
music
Kyan Bayani
visual effects producer
Michel Denis
starring
Murathan Muslu
Liv Lisa Fries
Marc Limpach
Max von der Groeben
Maximillien Jadin
Timo Wagner
LFF screening date
10 & 12 October 2021

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Gûzen to sôzô
Japan 2021
121 mins
directed by
Hamaguchi Ryûsuke
produced by
Takada Satoshi
written by
Hamaguchi Ryûsuke
cinematography
Iioka Yukiko
production design
Nunobe Masato
Seo Hyeon-Seon
starring
Furukawa Kotone
Shibukawa Kiyohiko
Mori Katsuki
Urabe Fusako
Kawai Aoba
Nakajima Ayumu
Hyunri
Kai Shouma
LFF screening date
10-11 October 2021

aticle posted
11 October 2021

See all of Slarek's reviews