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Josh Slater-Williams

The best new films at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival

Highlights from this year’s programme, including a tribute to legendary DoP Robby Müller.

For its 15th edition, the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival offered a stacked buffet of world, international and UK premieres, anniversary screenings in creative pop-up venues, compelling industry panels, and rich retrospectives.

On the latter front, a full Elaine May retrospective and the restoration of bonkers Japanese musical The Legend of the Stardust Brothers were among our personal highlights of this year’s programme. In terms of the new features on offer, however, the following eight titles represent our favourites from a notably strong programme.

1. Harry Birrell Presents Films of Love and War

This year’s GFF hosted the world premiere of a number of local features, and Glasgow-based Matt Pinder’s documentary picked up the festival’s coveted Audience Award. In 1928, Scot Harry Birrell was gifted his first cine camera as a boy. For almost all of his life after that, he recorded incidents minor and major, leaving behind a legacy of roughly 400 film canisters.

Of particular interest for Pinder is Birrell’s personal diaries of his wartime years spent placed in Burma, Bombay and Nepal, where he was among the few serving Brits granted access to filmmaking equipment, including early colour film. Although there are some archive newsreels and a framing device with relatives (including granddaughter Carina, who also served as co-producer), much of the documentary comprises an energetic edit of Birrell’s film work, accompanied by Richard Madden’s narration of Birrell’s diaries – fittingly, Birrell receives a cinematography credit

2. Chained for Life

Having previously appeared in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, British campaigner-turned-actor Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, takes centre stage in Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life. It’s a lightly surreal, acerbic comedy set around the production of an indie horror which questionably deploys disfigured or disabled people in its supporting cast.

Indie darling Jess Weixler plays a movie star supposedly slumming it in a low-budget schlock piece by a Euro ‘auteur’ to raise her credibility. She befriends Pearson’s Rosenthal, the effective lead among the collection of ‘freaks’ populating the hospital-set horror. Sharing its name with a conjoined twin murder mystery from 1952,

Chained for Life is a meta-interrogation of sensitive representation and patronisation of the marginalised in cinematic history, with Tod Browning’s Freaks being referenced on screen to an understandably high degree. It’s also an amusing riff on François Truffaut’s Day for Night, while Schimberg’s unpredictable weaving between scenes of the film-within-the-film, those scenes being shot, and the actors’ on-location mishaps outside of the shoot lend it a disorientating atmosphere reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

3. Her Smell

With Her Smell, director Alex Ross Perry has somehow made a great hangout movie where the central figure is unbearable to be around for a majority of the runtime. This is not an easy film to like – but it may win you over if you get on its wavelength. Its five acts are structured like suites, each operating at different emotional registers, though the first three are very much in a consistent psych-horror hurricane mode.

Not to spoil how, but the second hour eventually settles into a more sober, kinder portrait of its Courtney Love analogue, with Perry and Elisabeth Moss in the role of Becky Something radiating sympathy for the illnesses and addictions that can sadly sometimes seem like a necessary burden for magnetic musicians to thrive.

This is far from a one-woman show, though, with Gayle Rankin and Agyness Deyn proving the ensemble’s MVPs as Becky’s long-suffering bandmates, never quite able to stop loving her even when they hate her – even when they actually leave the band over her self-destructive behaviour.

4. The Third Wife

Writer/director Ash Mayfair’s slow-burn debut feature, The Third Wife, is an empathetic and entrancing drama that follows a 14-year-old girl named May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), who is married off to a much older rich landowner in 19th-century Vietnam. Although the plot moves through the seasons as May’s cycle of pregnancy progresses, this is not just her story, as Mayfair also touches on and lends significant agency to May’s sister-wives on the land.

There are grudging bonds between the women in regards to their shared experiences, where there is a sense of competition with one another over becoming the favoured spouse by birthing a male heir. In relegating most of the men in this multiple marriages narrative to the background, favouring a focus on the women, the film evokes something of the spirit of Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern.

Mayfair does still have sympathy for all parties involved, though, as the men with the power in these dynamics are proven to be just as trapped in this cultural system as the women.

5. Dirty God

Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s English-language debut follows a young mother, Jade, in South London trying to get her life back together after an acid attack, courtesy of her child’s father, scars her face and upper body. The captivating first-time performer Vicky Knight, a real-life burn victim herself, plays Jade with a seething rage at the circumstances both in and out of her control, from the mean-spirited ignorance projected her way by strangers to her inability to healthily maintain relationships with her daughter and mother (Katherine Kelly).

In one of the film’s most intriguing strands, she keeps thinking of her attack’s perpetrator in sexually suggestive daydreams, wherein PSTD is entangled with residue attraction for the man whose act of violence has irrevocably changed her. The approach to sexuality and heady style of these sequences in particular bring to mind both Jane Campion and Lynne Ramsay, and the latter’s Morvern Callar also seems a direct influence on Dirty God’s third act departure.

6. Cities of Last Things

Ho Wi Ding’s Cities of Last Things won the top prize in the Platform section of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Among the jurors was South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, and while it’s not always wise to assume one director’s affinity for another’s work to be partially rooted in similarities to their own, Malayasian-born Ho’s latest has a narrative hook and thematic concerns that certainly resemble Lee’s excellent sophomore feature, Peppermint Candy.

Spanning several decades in reverse chronological order, this triptych documents three significant events in one man’s life. The opening stretch, set in a Philip K Dick-esque dystopia circa 2049, sees Lao Zhang (played as an older man by Jack Kao) stalk and murder some people he’s targeted. The middle section follows a younger version of the man (Lee Hong-chi) as a police officer, taking a principled stand against a case of corruption in his department, only for it to backfire on him. And the final section features our lead as a delinquent youth (Hsieh Chang-Ying), where a chance encounter informs his tragic life going forward.

In exploring how a soul is corrupted through toxic masculinity infecting one’s environment, Cities of Last Things flirts dangerously close to arguable misogyny itself on occasion. For the most part, though, this is an intelligent, raw and inventive personal epic. The moody cinematography, shot almost entirely at night on 35mm via DoP Jean-Louis Vialard, is of particular merit.

7. Erased,____Ascent of the Invisible

Ghassan Halwani’s experimental debut feature sees the photographer-turned-illustrator-turned-filmmaker employ multiple mediums, including text-based interludes, photojournalist interviews, and his own animation, to ruminate on the thousands of people who disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War and the effects their absence still has on the lives of their loved ones.

It serves as both a document of the missing people and also of Halwani’s attempts, through various methods, to uncover traces of their lives and examine the disappearances – to undo any definitive burial of these souls who have never been heard from again, whose having existed at all is something seemingly consciously erased.

A defining example of this erasure comes from a photograph repeatedly revisited throughout the film, where an empty street is shown with no human presence, yet there is a hat in the air and traces of a shoe; the doctored photo once showed the moment of a kidnapping. This is a bewitching film about how denial and lack of collective closure has longterm consequences for a nation.

8. Living the Light – Robby Müller

Legendary cinematographer Robby Müller, who died in July 2018, inspired filmmakers for generations, collaborating with the likes of Wim Wenders, Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch, Barbet Schroeder and Lars von Trier. Director Claire Pijman was given extensive access to his personal archives for her essay film, while Wenders, Jarmusch and Claire Denis’ regular DoP, Agnès Godard, are among those paying on-screen tribute.

Instead of a traditional biography of the man behind so many iconic images, the film presents a scrapbook narrative that eschews clear analysis of what made Müller’s work so great. It’s a free-associative mosaic portrait that uses clips from Müller’s 70-plus feature credits, plus those personal archives, to get at a certain truth about his work and philosophy towards images and storytelling. Müller was guided more by emotion than he was concerned with the technical aspects of a shot.

Living the Light caters to those familiar with Müller’s most famous features, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of Paris, Texas or Mystery Train will likely get a kick out of his home movies, which look like they could be inserted into those films with relative ease. As with the Harry Birrell film, Müller himself is credited as the cinematographer.

Published 12 Mar 2019

Tags: Aaron Schimberg Adam Pearson Alex Ross Perry Ash Mayfair Claire Pijman Elisabeth Moss Glasgow Film Festival Matt Pinder Robby Müller Sacha Polak

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