New story in Nature!

Just after a few weeks of it being accepted, my story “When There’s Only Dust Left” has dropped in Nature magazine, my fourth with them (I’m still reeling over how I managed to get my greasy paws inside the magazine at all). It deals with war, AIs, reality, and had a very strong dose of horror in it, maybe more than most of my other stories do.

The art is amazing, as always. The guy that did the art for this story did the art for Alien: Covenant on Empire magazine’s cover, which is super cool. I invite you to check out his (Jacey’s) portfolio).

nature

 

Anywho, you can check out the story here, or pick up a copy of Nature’s May 11, 2017 issue from your local retailer, if they have it. Hope you enjoy it.

Happy reading!

Things That Are Happening: A Szal Story

I start almost every blog with: it’s been a while. I should blog more. So that’s what I’m doing.

As some of you know, I finished a novel last week. It’s sitting aside while I work on other projects, including polishing up my query letter and chapters for my previous novel. Again. But that’s the way it is.

I did allow myself a small break, though. I binge-watched True Detective (Season 1) and 13 Reasons Why, the latter of which I have one more episode to go on. Both are phenomenal shows. True Detective gets better on the second watch once you know where everything is heading. 13 Reasons is a show I would have adored when I was in high-school, and wished I’d gotten my paws on the book back then.

But on the subject of actual work: I’ve had a few things happen. I’m now writing for the awesome Fantasy-Faction! They saw my Tor.com post and asked me to join the team, which I did with my debut publication by way of a review.

raw

A review of the French teenage cannibal film Raw, to be specific. It’s good and gruesome and full of tasty food for thought. Not for everyone, though. Obviously. You can check out my review here.

My story “System Reboot” landed itself a Polish translation in the magazine Szortal alongside Jarosław Grzędowicz, who’s (almost) the Polish George R. R. Martin. Nice to know folks in other countries are reading your work. You can check that out here.

And finally, I sold another story to Nature, which should be appearing this Thursday, I believe. It’s dark, as most of my stories are, and deals with some pretty heavy imagery that I wasn’t sure would pass my editors by. I’m not a horror writer, but this comes pretty close. I do hope you’ll check it out when it comes around.

I’ve also got two invitations to anthologies, one of which is paying pro-rates, so I’d best be working on that one. Ain’t no rest for the wicked.

The Novel is DOOOOONE

Oops, I screamed that, didn’t I?

finishednnovel

But yeah. My spacepunk novel about drug cartels, alien narcotics and fanatic cults is complete at 113,000 words. It’s The Wire and Narcos meets Mass Effect with a snarky Russian-Japanese protagonist who wears an exosuit out of titanium bone. Also includes cults, three-dee printing, alien drugs, and an asteroid filled with million of people and a college of cultures, both human and alien. And food porn. Lots and lots of food.

It’s the first adult novel I wrote in first-person, and it’s also the very novel where I put the characters first. I’ve always included character arcs and backgrounds (how could I not?) but this is the first time where the characters and their voices drove the story. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write another way. Whereas my last novel taught me about world-building and scene-setting, this one taught me so much about characterization and voice and agency. I learn with everything I write, and this one certainly has, too.

I wrote the novel I wanted to write. It took six months because of editing my other work and restructuring, but it’s done and I love the end result. It’s gonna need edits, and beta-readers. But I haz another novel and I am very excited about it. I almost didn’t want to finish it, because I love these people and this world so much, but that’s what a dozen rewrites and rounds of edits are for.

But for now it’s done and I hope to bring it to you guys someday.

Get Out: Thinking with Film

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Out

The fact that I’m taking the time to write my a whole blog on this film instead of on paying gigs or my novel should say it all.

I’ve been interested in Jordan Peele’s debut since I first saw the spoiler-y ass trailer. I got myself to an early, packed-out screening (it doesn’t come out until late May in Australia). This may be the best horror film since The Badadook.

Since it deals with race and culture and erasure – subjects of discussion that have never, ever, ever gone badly on the internet thanks to nuance and calmness and understanding – it could have easily ended up a confused mess of “Creepy White People: The Movie”. Instead it’s a nuanced hyperblend of horror and comedy with an uncomfortably sharp message.

Being neither white, black or American it was interesting to watch this film as a passenger from a third person perspective. America is just as foreign to me as India or Brazil, and the issues of race and culture existing there so far removed from other countries and what I’m used to, it almost came across as a culture shock. “Are ultra-white, WASP Americans really like this? Is this really the sort of nonsense African Americans have to deal with? Can people really be so moronic and selfish in 2017?” These folks aren’t even your minority white, like Polish, Swedish, Italian, Greek (whether Mediterraneans are white depends on who you ask), whatever. These are McWhite, Anglo-Saxon, Get-Off-My-Property white to the core, and watching them stumble through the notions with Chris is both hilarious and painful.

From a writing level the script itself was spot-on (yes, here be spoilers). There’s so much to unpack in themes and foreshadowing. The deer’s head, the cop at the start, the dad’s mini-rant on animal “ethnic cleansing”, the grandpa’s running at night because he wanted to be like Carl Lewis, the symbolism of the silver spoon, the way the son would physically size Chris up. It’s incredible that Jordan Peele managed to pack in as much as he did, let alone compile a narrative, let alone one that’s dripping with utterly thrilling horror. And speaking of horror, the mix of it and humour was spot on. It’s not easy to craft an atmosphere taut as guitar strings and then break into jokes about white folks and sex slaves and drunk dogs, but it was done right. My audience was cracking up one minute and collectively holding their breath the next. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions and very calculated plot points that build up to an crescendo that’s both super smart and horrifying. How many folks have laid on both operating tables because wealthy, privileged people are willing to utilize what is essentially modern day slavery.

There’s so much more food for thought in here. The token Japanese man at the party asking questions that were just as awkward and engaging in the bidding as well (with a “yellow” biding pad, too), how the single person at the party who spoke to Chris like a human being was blind and literally could not see his ethnicity. Jordan Peele knew exactly what he was doing, and shows with every prop. Oh, and we all cheered when the bitch got blown away by the end.

The film wasn’t perfect. The cinematography could have been much sharper and more deliberate with their shot placements and camera angles, and the humour felt forced at times. I don’t agree with everything the film was trying to say – being non-USian means I’m definitely going have my own stance on race and culture (I personally couldn’t care less if someone “saw” my ethnicity or not as long as they didn’t treat me differently). But like the best films: Jordan Peele isn’t trying to provide answers. He’s raising questions and portraying a subject matter through his world-view and his lens, and he does it brilliantly.

Get Out is very possibly the best film I’ve seen this year and is the best cinema experience I’ve had in a long, long time. I can’t wait for the endless barage of essays and articles this will inspire on race and America and I can’t wait to choke on the bile flooding in from the comments section.

Progess Report: 2017

So 2017 has been busy in a lot of ways. We’re already one month down and halfway into the next. Could thing is I’ve kept pretty busy.

I’ve seen a number of films this Oscar season, including La La Land, Lion, Split, Hackshaw Ridge, Arrrival, (loved them all) Passengers, Live By Night, Nocturnal Animals (didn’t think too much of ’em) and finished Resident Evil 7 (I loved it!) and read a few books here and there, including Stephanie Garber’s fabulous Caraval. But I’ve been pretty busy with my own work, including the space opera/murder mystery that’s been eating up my creative time since April 2016. I got further feedback from narrators that required some major structural edits in the first crucial third of the novel, which cut a pile of pages and unnecessary words and made the novel much sharper. It’s in the absolute final polish now with the query and synopsis being written and polished in tandem. I’m incredibly happy with it and hope that it finds a home.

But then it’s back to my other novel, which I halted at 50k to edit this previous one. I haven’t written many shorts in this time, which is going to change once I get some novel work done. Although I do have a (great) part time job, earning some dough from fiction never gets old, and so sketching up a cool cool 4,000 words at pro rates is something I’d like to do. Plus it gives me a great chance to experiment with areas I’m weak with or themes and characters I’d like to explore but not willing to donate an entire novel to. So I’m doing that soon.

But something pretty cool is coming: just a week ago I interviewed Colin Gibson for StarShipSofa. Name sound unfamiliar? But you know his work: he was the head production designer for Mad Max: Fury Road. The man designed and built the weapons, the sets, the look, the aesthetic, and all 150 cars for the film. He also got to work on the background, the storyline and the world-building for one of the most striking and critically acclaimed documentaries films ever put to screen. This guy won an Oscar for his work, beating out Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, and the Martian. Yeah. That big.

I’ve met him a number of times in person outside of my work for StarShipSofa and spoken to him at length about Fury Road and the industry (and got shown a few things related to the film that I can’t actually reveal or talk about). I told him about the podcast and he agreed to be interviewed. So I interviewed him about this fantastic, insane monstrous of a motion picture and how he helped bring it to life in all it’s Australia gory glory. It’s going to be out soon and I do hope you’ll check it out then!

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard arbitrary thoughts so far.

So Resident Evil 7: Biohazard came out today. It’s been an anticipated game for me ever since that insane Beginning Hour demo first launched. I’ve been playing it almost all day now and have some quick thoughts about the game. And yes, I am enjoying it.

 

  • This is a Resident Evil game through and through. The mansion design, the trick with getting the shotgun, the puzzles and back-tracking: this isn’t a first person horror game with the Resi brand slapped onto it: It’s Resident Evil through and through.
  • The atmosphere is phenomenal. You can practically smell the mold as you trawl through this Louisiana mansion with a creaking ceiling above your head, rotting carpet beneath your feet and trash everywhere. It’s great.
  • Same goes for the sound design: it’s some of the best I’ve seen in any video game to date. The mansion seems to sigh and groan every few minutes, and it feels like it’s either coming from right behind you or in the next room. Same goes for enemy encounters. Using the sound to track them and hide is both nerve wrecking and seamless.
  • It has one of the best, most intense intros to a horror game I’ve ever seen.Stomach churning stuff.
  • It goes without saying: it’s a very gory, very graphic and very dark game. If you don’t have an iron stomach, don’t even bother.
  • The discarded notes, clues, markings and rooms provide a whole backstory all on their own – almost more than the actual narrative provides.
  • I’ve only done one boss fight so far, but it’s proven to be more almost and cumbersome than intense.
  • The game feels a tad easier than I’d like it to.
  • The Bakers are absolutely insane and terrifying and hilarious. Every word that comes of Jack Baker’s mouth needs to be a meme.
  • It’s scary, but not as scary as it could be. That’s starting to change as I continue through the game, however.
  • Don’t be fooled by the exterior: the mansion is *massive* and you’ll need to explore every inch of it to progress.
  • The story is slow going, but the information is doled out well enough that it compels you to keep working your way through the levels.

That’s all for now! Try it for yourself and see what you think.

Split: Film Review

I was lucky enough too grab myself an advanced preview screening of this film. I wasn’t particularly sure what to expect. Saying that the Shymalonianman is a controversial director is like saying Genghis Khan was well-known in his time. The man is the very definition  of hit and miss. The Sense Sixth and Unbreakable are some of the best films around. And then we got…what we’ve gotten.

So it gives me a lot of pleasure to say that M. Night is back in the saddle and has directed his best film in a long, long time. This film isn’t just about mental illness and madness: it’s about monsters and what monstrous events have the potential to do.

It’s interesting that this is the film that could be his turnaround, because so many things could go wrong with it. A psycho kidnaps three girls and holds them hostage. in his dungeon. But looking at it that way would be disingenuous. This particular psychopath has twenty-three different personalities, and these girls are far from your typical damsel in distress horror-flick victims.

Obviously James McAvoy stole the show – that tends to happen when you’re playing a psychopath with twenty-three different fragmented personalities. He doesn’t act these characters, he lives these characters and for the set time fits into their personalities like a glove. The way he assumes the role of a brain-damaged nine year old, a strict English granny, a Brookyln punk and a deranged killer and flipping between them all at the same time is bordering on scary. It’s difficult enough to play one character with one personality. McAvoy manages with 23. Not all of them are portrayed on-screen, but the ones you do see make you believe he could pull it off if he wanted to.

The other actresses also manage to pull their own weight. It’s Anya Taylor-Joy who truly shines amoung the three and the perverted chemistry between her character of Casey and whatever personality is present in Kevin’s body is wrought with tension at some times and sickeningly funny at times.

Not so amusing are the long, extended info-dumps the film insists on drowning us in. The scenes with Kevin’s doctor deal with a barrel full of heavy handed dialogue and dull exposition that does nothing but to deliver a message to the audience, not the other characters. This would be fine in a science-fiction or fantasy flick, but this is a horror-thriller: a genre that is most the most part supposed to be nuanced and quick to strike. Instead Betty Buckley’s character becomes a mouth-piece to explain Kevin’s illnesses and medical history.

They don’t even pretend to be otherwise – she spends several minutes giving an academic lecture over Skype about the issue, quite literally talking into the camera. It ripped me out of the scene, but thankfully not out of the film. There’s a few moments that could be taken as funny, but it’s almost unintentional on M. Night’s part. Except one, of course. A line dropped by Mr. McAvoy as he plays a CD of an instrumental Chinese soundtrack: “I find Asian-people’s music to be so good for detestation”. The audience cracked up at that point. Shyamalan just could not help himself (speaking of which: the man himself as a cameo in the film because of course he does).

The rest of the film – especially the scenes in Kevin’s hideout are drenched in tension and taut as guitar strings. Because of the split personalities you literally never knew what was going to come next or what Kevin would do or how he would react. The ways that Casey would find ways to work around him without stepping over the line and “triggering” him where phenomenal. The pacing was smooth and relentlessly fast, eslacting to a violent, heart-pounding crescendo which went places I did not expect it to go.

Ultimately this is as much of a film about Casey as it is about Kevin and give her enough agency to help her rise above the dumb blonde chick trope and turns her into a feasible protagonist more than capable of fighting back. The multiple flash-back sequences add necessary context and never feel intrusive. It could have easily just been a film about escaping a deranged psycho, but it’s subtext and M. Night’s trademark plot twist at the end adds several layers of subtext that enriches the narrative while ratcheting up the tension three fold.

I hate to make the comparison, but it the film channels a strong video-game vibe. Titles like Outlast and even The Evil Within come to mind, the former especially with one standout shot that I won’t spoil for you. The brilliant claustrophobic cinematography plays a huge role in making this happen. The narrow corridors and barricaded rooms and caged pathways are made so feel so tight and dark that it almost feels like you’re choking. Considering how bleak the narrative and it’s subtext gets, it’s very suitable. Speaking of which: prepare for this film to be very controversial, and not just because it’s M. Night. It’s easy enough to guess what for – since it’s already been getting flak without it even being released yet. Having seen it myself in full I don’t think they hold any water at all, but I’ll wait to discover what the wider audience has to say.

The suspense could easily have been even more ramped up if the scenes with Kevin’s doctor were given the same tension and sense of growing dread. But Shyamalan choose to polish his characters and narrative subtext at the cost of diluting the atmosphere. It enhances the narrative and truly Shyamalanian classic ending, but these scenes did come across as dragging the tension down, albeit in a necessary way. The man knows exactly when to deliver his information, he just doesn’t know how to do it.

Is it better than The Six Sense, or even Unbreakable? No, of course not. But it’s not far behind, and soars above the trash that he’s been delivering in the last few years. I suspect I’ll keep finding new gems and hidden plot-points on my next viewings. It’s the quiet, cataclysmic ending that truly nails this film and encapsulates the fringed-supernatural excellent that the man is known for. I won’t spoil it other than saying it’s brilliant and you need to see it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a true return to form for M. Night Shyamalan and he should be immensely proud.

Oh, and please stay for the after-credits. Shyamalan pulled a Marvel, and I’m not even joking. If you’ve seen one of his previous films, you’ll know what I mean.

Yearly Round up and arbitrary award eligibility

Say one thing about 2016: it’s been one interesting year. I graduated from university (still haven’t found a job in my field, though) officially moved into my own apartment, and started really living on my own accord. It was also the year where I trudged through the last 1/3 of a novel hating every word of it, splashed out on a 125k epic space opera (currently on draft 8 of it) and wrote 45k of a new month within one month. Not bad, I think. I managed this partially because I’m only working three days a week (my current job is a laborer, so work begins and ends at the jobsite). Between cooking, cleaning, housework and General Life Nonsense, writing is what I do. I don’t get up and watch films or play games on my days off, although I very well could. But I sifted through more than 200,000 words in novels alone this year because I made myself have a schedule and I stuck to it, vicariously. ADHD doesn’t make that easy, but sometimes you have to shove a 12-guage in its mouth, pull the trigger and get back to work. And work I did.

From this point on it’s safe to say that novels will be my focus. The sort of material I want to write and my style of writing just doesn’t jive with the shorter form. Short fiction is economic, tight and demanding, and the top markets even more so (along with finicky and very specific in what they want. Quality is top notch, some of the best SF/F material you’ll find. It’s just not what I’m writing), and novels give you that 100,000 words of leg-stretching smoothness and room to write a character arc worthy of a HBO show (looking at you, Boardwalk Empire). I’ll still be writing short stories, but they’ll be quick desserts between the main meal that is a 130k word chiwawa killer.

It’s also the year that I didn’t sell many original short stories. I had quite a few published from 2015 sales, most noticeably one story that was reprinted six times, including in audio, in Flame Tree Press’s Dystopia Utopia hardback anthology, and in China’s SF World magazine. But I got my first anthology invitation, which netted me my longest sale at 7,000 words, which is also my first non-flash, original pro sale.

In 2014 and 2015, I’d churn out a swathe of so-so stories and scattershot them until I got a sale. This year I’ve been deadshotting each one: didn’t have many sales, but almost all were neither to major venues and projects or at pro rates. Pretty happy there.

 

Anyway: this is what I had out:

FICTION:

 

The Galaxy’s Cube – published in print at Abyss & Apex and in audio at The Overcast.

Walls of Nigeria – published in Nature

Skies of Sand and Steel published in Fantasy Scroll Magazine

The Bronze Gods – published in Dimension 6 (website appears to not be working?)

Last Age of Kings – published in audio at Fantasy Scroll Magazine

(All are short stories)

NONFICTION:

We’re Going Places – published in Lightspeed’s People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction

Five Slavic SFF Novels You Should Have On Your Shelves published at Tor.com

 


I’m also eligible for the John W. Campbell Award and for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. And of course, as an editor the podcast I edit, StarShipSofa, is up for Best Fancast at the Hugos. If any of these strike your fancy, you’re more than welcome to throw my dottings on your ballot pile.

Onto next year!

Star Wars: Rogue One review

So I just came back from seeing Star Wars: Rogue One at the midnight release here in Sydney. And I have many, many feelings.

(It goes without saying that this review is completely free of spoilers, plot related or otherwise. You may read ahead without fear.)

As the very first spin off Star Wars film, Rogue One isn’t afraid to be different. It thrives on it. From the reduced, minimalist opening shots to the ensemble cast, grittier tone and heist plot, Rogue One is certainly a standalone title, but at heart is a true Star Wars film just as much as any of the others.

The difference is clear from the opening shot, where we’re not treated to any opening crawl, but thrust straight into the film’s central narrative. No slow introduction, no gradual reveal. It’s right into the fray from the get go. And this excellent pacing doesn’t let up for a second throughout the film. But this strength is simultaneously the film’s weakness. Certain scenes sometimes feel rushed, all fat chopped away to the scene’s bare essentials, existing only to deliver the audience information than as part of the film’s narrative. This works better with some scenes than others, some part of me wished they slowed down just a little to really drink in the setting.

Most noticeably, though, is the shift in tone. As a prequel, Rogue One is thankfully unrestrained by the films surrounding it outside of continuity and characters, so seized the opportunity to change gears and lanes, altering the  series traditional bright and happy-go tone. There’s darker, more sombre tones here, both aesthetically and plot-wise. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen director Gareth Edwards’ previous films Godzilla and Monsters, but the film’s lack of hesitation to touch on themes of death, war and redemptions as a main vein was refreshing in a franchise that’s so inherently focused on set pieces and building a grander galaxy.

This isn’t just a heist story, this is a war story, too. The bleak, rolling landscapes, wide-shots of desolated planets and colour palette of mud-browns and khaki greens ground the story in more of a down-trodden . And interestingly enough, this is the first time that we’ve seen the “other” side of the political spectrum. For obvious reasons, our story and characters have been on the side of the Alliance – never the Imperials. Outside of oddly-shaped floors with polished floors filled with systems and machines that do Very Evil Things to Good People (all handled by endless squads of Bad Guys quaking in their boots whenever someone with authority comes around), we’ve rarely gotten a glimpse of what the Imperials do when they’re not oppressing people for fun. No spoilers, but we do get the slightest glance and it’s an interesting decision that they’ve made.

Star Wars has always focused on a very specific set of characters – be they Obi Wan and Anakin from the prequels or Han, Luke and Leia from episode four through six (something that episode seven duplicates). These specific people with special powers, abilities and training were at the center of the story, folding the events around them in a gravitational pull. The exact opposite is true here: the main cast is a collage of six, wild characters thrown together because of circumstance.

They are not special, they are not especially trained, and they barely even know each other. But that doesn’t matter, because they work brilliantly together. They’re everymen who have a job to do, and grow in the process. I could watch these people interact for hours, which is why our very little precious screentime with them feels so patterned down. They never really get a chance to truly rub shoulders and see the sparks fly. There’s certainly a few, but they’re circumstance of the central conflict and not because of character grown. But the cast is diverse and interesting enough that they stand out in a series that’s already ripe with fantastic game players. And while we’re on the subject: it’s truly awesome to see a blockbuster where the majority of main characters are non-America, lesser known actors, some of whom barely even have film credits in Hollywood films. It’s a breath of fresh air to see new faces on screen – here’s hoping more films follow suit.

But as a science-fiction film, the background where the plot unfolds is also important. Doubly so, being a space opera. And not only does the film live up to these – they’re possibly the very best seen in any Star Wars film to date. Industrial dust cities, rain-drowned factories and tropical paradise archipielagos are framed beautifully through the fantastic cinematography, transformed into perfect playgrounds of violence.

Which brings us to the battle sequences. Oh boy. The battle scenes. They’re frantic, wild and all around dazzling to watch. There’s one particular extended sequence, followed by a war in space that’s a pure cinematic spectacle. My dad (who went with me to Rogue One) took me to see Revenge of the Sith back in 2005, when I was ten years old. I remember sitting there with my jaw hanging open, unable to fully sink in what was going on but knowing that it was awesome and I was loving every second of it. The exact same feeling and overload of exuberance and oh-my-god-is-this-happening serendipity resurfaced on seeing Rogue One and I wore a face-eating grin for the whole scene.

Of course, the film isn’t perfect, but there are some weird inconsistencies that just don’t add up. One of the characters is blind (despite being able to fight just fine), and it’s interesting how a universe that can create lightsabers¸planet-destroying death machines, hyperspace travel can’t find a way to restore one guy’s eyesight. But robots, drones and more with actual eyes? Easy. Obviously it was done more for the sake of character than anything, but it was a quirk that bothered me. Science-fiction usually handwaves their inconsistent levels of technology – a sentence or two explaining why this character’s blindness couldn’t be repaired would have sufficed, but this might not have worked with the relentless pace the film was trying to achieve.

I’m not entirely sure if I like Rogue One more than The Force Awakens. Both are fantastic entries in the series, but also wildly different. The opposite of TFA’s criticism is Rogue One’s biggest achievement: the film does not play it safe, it does not rely on past titles as a narrative and aesthetic framework, and it does take a risk and move in a different direction while still being a Star Wars film. I will not be spoiling anything, but the ending sequence is completely left of center and very out of character for a Star Wars film. I can almost imagine the writers fighting with the producers to keep this ending instead of a more…well,  you’ll know exactly what I mean when you see it.

All in all: Star Wars: Rogue One is a bold film that solidifies its contribution to the Star Wars franchise. It’s not without errors, and sometimes it feels a little less human than previous entries, but if anything it only give the film its own unique identity in an industry where same-same is the standard pre-requisite to achieve funding. It’s incredibly re-watchable, and deserves to be watched again and again. It’s a self-contained, flawed masterpiece. It’s not a major meal: it’s a snack between meals that’s just as satisfying and as every bit of tasty. Come hungry for a vivid, visceral piece of cinema and you’ll leave full.

Ramen, sake and drama: Japanese Film Festival Roundup

This past week I attended the Japanese Film Festival here in Sydney. As much as I love Japanese cinema I haven’t seen enough of their films as I’d like (my habits mean I lean much more towards Korean cinema), so I went and picked five films of their awesome line up. I attended most with friends, and each night we tried a different Japanese dish at a local restaurant. Y’know, to ease into the experience.

I’ve already covered “After the Storm” in a previous blog post, so here are the other four.

The Top Secret: Murder in Mind

 the_top_secret-_murder_in_mind-p02If there was ever a film that takes itself too seriously, it’s this one.

It’s a sharp sci-thriller slash murder mystery slash family drama that utilizes some interesting concepts about rifling through the minds of the murdered for memories to point the police force in the direction of the murderers. The process of doing so is not neat (and involves saws, cutting and scooping brain matter out), and there’s inconsistencies and tripwires along the way. The film tries to sell itself as a gritty crime drama, but when the lead detective is essentially emo-punk ripped straight from an anime and half the cast is dressed in cosplay, it’s difficult to take it seriously. Admittedly this isn’t atypical of Japanese films, but the lack of self-awareness hurt this film’s chances from achieveing greatness. And it also finished on an incredibly weird and somewhat arbitrary final shot that made…zero sense?

But bonus points for a creepy, evil schoolgirl with a soul-destroying gaze.

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Concentration.

Creepy

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This is the highlight of the festival, no doubt about it.

It’s not just the captivating characters, wild performances or even the razor sharp plot that makes this film superb: it’s the relentless tone. The lingering dread that pools in your stomach with every wide shot, every darkened hallway and every encounter with a certain character. It’s a pure exercise in showing without telling, saying so much without actually saying much at all. There were several moments where the entire audience just gasped at a quiet, subtle reveal. It’s about as restrained as horror and thriller flicks go, something that’s incredibly lacking in both international and Hollywood cinema. This isn’t director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first thriller film like this and it shows. The entire film teeters on the precipice as the most innocent of shots or facial expressions tells you that something very, very wrong is going on. But you don’t know what, and you don’t know when you’ll find out.

It’s a pure masterclass in storytelling and maintaining tension, and has one of the best climaxes in recent memory. This might just be the best thriller since Gone Girl. The lingering, bittersweet final shot will be haunting me for a long, long time.

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If you think this dinner is awkward, wait for the next scene.

Himeanole

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Every screening has it’s weak point. This is it.

What starts off as a light-heearted romantic comedy with a dash of super awkward turns into a visceral hurricane of murder, ultra-violence and a serial killer with a thirst for brutal aggression. It’s an interesting experiment, but doesn’t completely work out. What could have been a slow-burner of a film becomes a showcase of senseless violence (including sexual violence), strained relationships and a desperate attempt to make the audience simultaneously sympathize and despise the antagonist. Only you can’t just drop elements of characterization 97% of the way through the film, and follow it up with a flashback and expect the audience to care.  It’s far from a complete failure, but without an actual motivation other than the obvious childhood bully victim, there’s nothing here to latch onto, and the gratuitousness of the violence doesn’t help either. There’s a shot in here (pun intended) that made me as a male cringe as a pure reflex, but otherwise it’s brutality for the sake of it. Skip this one.

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Subtle emotions.

 

The Sun

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Now this is how you do a post-apocalyptic bio-terror dystopia.

The world-building seen between the higher class Nokusu and the not-quite oppressed Kyurio sets it apart from most dystopians, where a certain minority of people oppress the majority for the hell of it. Here there’s an actual, physical motivation between the separation, one that the higher class attempt to breach and build a bridge between the two groups. Wonderfully filmed with flawless framing and soft colours and lights used in contrast between the two societies, The Sun is filled with heart-wrenching drama, mixed in with pure absurdist slapstick humour that East Asian cinema is known for. You know what you’re seeing is terrible and depressing, but the way the characters scream and jump around and knock into object and go sprawling on the ground made me (and the audience) crackle with laughter when it really shouldn’t be funny. Whiplash tone isn’t atypical of Japanese cinema, and they do it brilliantly here, jumping between slow, creeping sombre shots and frantic drama. And it’s brilliant.And funny.

Please do see this one. It’s better than any YA dystopia Hollywood has mashed out in the last few years, and it’s deeper and richer, too. It’s a perfect finisher for the Japanese Film Fest, and a fantastic experience in its own right.

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Did anyone ever tell you you suck at Hide and Seek?