Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 12

My Wolf Alice night out, Burning, and Dublin Oldschool.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

I fear that Wolf Alice are cursed.  Or, if not Wolf Alice specifically, then Wolf Alice gigs for me.  I have seen them five times now and every single one has had some major issue happen at/with them.  The first was back at Leeds Fest 2015, mid-afternoon on the BBC Radio 1/NME Stage.  My Love is Cool had only just been released so I hadn’t spent enough time listening to it by that point and much of the performance was me going “this is going to be incredible in one month’s time when I see them in Sheffield and know the album front to back!”  Plus, the crowd were largely waiting for Circa Waves (back when they seemed full of potential) so it was a dead affair.  The second time I saw Wolf Alice was a month later at The Plug in Sheffield.  I was with my best friend Lucy, the crowd were hot, the band were great…  I was also in the last days of my undiagnosed diabetes so I spent the entire gig sat right at the back with no view of the stage, drinking my weight in lemonade unable to figure out why even standing up now left me utterly exhausted and hating my garbage body.

The third time I saw Wolf Alice was in March of 2016 at the York Barbican.  I was with a friend of mine from Uni, Jack, the album had become a minor obsession by this point so I indeed knew it front-to-back, and the band were still brilliant despite the increased venue size (and they also played “Swallowtail” which pleased me to no end)…  But there were also these absolute cunts that turned up off their faces, yelling abuse and requests between every song and during every song, and one of whom vomited in the middle of the floor during the support act which severely damped everyone’s mood.  The fourth time I saw Wolf Alice was last year at the XOYO in London the night before the Festival.  It was a small record release gig for Visions of a Life, an album I didn’t actually own at the time because my preference for physically buying CDs and records meant I had placed too much trust in my local supermarkets to have a copy, the crowd assembled didn’t seem to realise they were at a gig until song #6 and didn’t sing or dance or do anything until then, “Don’t Delete the Kisses” had to be restarted due to sound issues, and the band only played nine songs before calling it for the night.  My attempts to make up for that last gig ended up being thwarted by the dates of the tour near me conflicting with other stuff, but then finally, as detailed yesterday, an opportunity arose.

So, my fifth time seeing Wolf Alice was on Wednesday at the Roundhouse as part of a Q Awards post-show with IDLES as a support.  The sound at the Roundhouse is absolutely appalling, pretty much impossible to hear anyone making any noise into a microphone, but the atmosphere was absolutely insane and both bands were on-fire (IDLES only got 35 mins and tore the roof off before Wolf Alice came and burned the building to the ground).  I even turned up literally seconds before IDLES started despite my fear that Tube issues would screw me over…  Then five songs into Wolf Alice, the sensor in my arm that monitors my blood sugars (for said diabetes) came off in the throng. So now I’ve had to waste a bunch of money buying a glucometer that can only tell me how the sugars are doing when I do the finger-prick thing, which rather hobbles me for these last few days.  Once again, Wolf Alice are cursed, or Wolf Alice gigs are cursed, or I’m just cursed in general.  It’s probably the last of those three.

A much stronger critic than myself might be able to talk about Irish dramedy Dublin Oldschool (Grade: B-) without mentioning in any capacity Human Traffic, but they’re going to need the internal fortitude of one of those strongmen who drag giant trucks across great distances in order to pull that off.  Set over a long weekend in the underground nightclub scene of Dublin, following a bunch of wannabe DJs in their mid-20s with few prospects in life and hopelessly addicted to all manner of drugs, guided along by excessively-flowery narration from our lead protagonist (here being co-writer Emmet Kirwan’s barely-functioning mess Jason) and soundtracked by some properly banging house tunes, I am genuinely shocked Dave Tynan’s first feature film doesn’t have a “inspired by” credit to mitigate any potential lawsuits down the line.  Still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, and whilst Dublin Oldschool doesn’t come close to its most obvious source of inspiration, it is at least really entertaining.

Supposedly, Dublin was a play before this big old feature film came along, done in the form of a spoken word piece between its two leads, the aforementioned Jason and the heroin-addicted older brother Daniel (Ian Lloyd-Anderson) he hasn’t seen in years, and I sincerely think the biggest compliment I can pay Dublin is that the idea never occurred to me whilst watching the film.  With that information, it does explain the tonally ill-fitting narration and slowly-filled out flashback that pop up intermittently, but otherwise Tynan’s work avoids the usual pitfalls of stage-to-screen adaptations that either feel too static or go too big to disguise those stage origins.  There’s a good sense of place to both Dublin and specifically the life of Jason that stops the film from feeling too circular, and whilst I wouldn’t say the movie is exactly stylish – in fact, truth be told, the direction is quite Channel 4-y, kind of in line with that of a Paul Abbott series – it is shot with a life and energy that keeps things moving without drowning in affectations or undercutting itself with reactionary gritty kitchen sink direction.

Dublin Oldschool is thankfully one of the few British and Irish indies nowadays to have a sense of fun about itself.  Heaven knows we need something to act as a corrective to this glut of ultra-serious dramas and genial Tesco card features our shared industries have found themselves in, plus continuing the radical notion set forward by works like Skins that, holy shit, young people take drugs recreationally and that’s just a thing which happens instead of the start of some kind of all-encompassing darkness.  Kirwan and Tynan want to draw a distinction between those who take drugs for recreation and those who take drugs as addicts incapable of functioning without them, the film slowly building to Jason’s realisation that he’s not actually that different from his brother despite his attempted high-horse moralising about not being a junkie – “junkie” to Jason equating solely to “heroin user” despite him doing way more drugs per day and being barely able to function without a constant stream of hits.

However, in the execution of doing so they’ve managed to undercut their own message somewhat since drugs are equal amounts a source of comedy and drama.  Almost everybody featured in Dublin Oldschool is more an addict than a recreational user and their addictions have negatively affected their lives – Jason’s ruined the potential of his relationship with ex-girlfriend Gemma (Seánna Kerslake) due to being out-of-it most of the time and confrontational & irritable when sober, whilst Dave (Liam Heslin), who’s trying to rebrand himself as “Dave the Rave” against all common sense, is in a permanent state of spaced and frequently sleeps in the street.  But for every Daniel we’re supposed to pity, there’s a Dave who is entirely a source of comic relief, so the distinctions between “functional addict” and “hopeless junkie” are blurred to such an extent that the drama between Jason and Daniel doesn’t land as it should.  To invoke Trainspotting as a comparison despite that being brutally unfair to 97% of all movies ever made, there was a movie that was able to communicate both the allure & pleasures of drug use and the wide-reaching damage of such addictions because it always drew clear distinctions between the two kinds and only very occasionally tied the drug-taking to the film’s comedy – go back and watch Trainspotting again and make note how often drug-taking and its accompanying addiction in order to remain semi-functional is played for laughs, it’s less than you think.

Still, even if it can’t reach greatness, this is a very enjoyable film.  It’s often funny with a good frequency of one-liners (“Are you Beaker from The Muppets?” one DJ asks Jason when the latter turns up off-his-face to a set and can’t close his fish mouth), the cast are all very charming to watch which helps fill in some deficiencies in the writing of certain characters (mostly the eye-rolling women), and it obviously sounds excellent because what good would a movie set in the Irish DJ community be if the soundtrack sucked?  Dublin Oldschool is a solid first effort for Dave Tynan that won’t become anyone’s new favourite film, but displays enough potential and is already entertaining enough that maybe with time he might make that kind of film.  For now, this was exactly the kind of late-Festival, post-spiritual-hangover film I needed.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a greater act of low-key sabotage that the London Film Festival organisers can perform on a movie than scheduling the press screening of a film like Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (Grade: B/B+) in the final slot of one of the dying days of a fortnight-long festival when everyone is extremely tired, mildly irritable, and just wants to go home.  Intentionally scheduling a near-three-hour, deliberately-paced, intimate character drama for this point of the Festival – after double-digit number of days, 30+ films already, late nights spent penning multiple tens of thousands of words, some folks spending their nights partying with industry colleagues, and nothing but 6am starts; not even mentioning those who were here for weeks of pre-Festival screenings, or those whose bloodstreams now solely consist of coffees of varying degrees of potency – is just baiting a bunch of potentially provocative under-ratings or “I didn’t get it”s from those poor critics.  And, dear reader, I must confess that I fell for that bait, as well as a minor snooze between the 40- and 45-minute mark, despite my very best efforts otherwise.

Burning is a film I think I like more than I love, although it is fortunately one of that subcategory’s variants where I can recognise that the film in question is objectively great.  Like, I completely understand why this has been getting raves across the board from critics that have seen it at prior festivals or screenings that weren’t at the end of a gruelling marathon (or somehow have the fortitude to attack a Day 12 screening with the gusto of a Day 3 screening).  Burning is a damn great film by a director who (from my research as I personally haven’t seen any of his prior works) only makes damn great films, and I am fairly certain that a second viewing, or even just one that didn’t take place within the confines of a film festival after this specific fortnight, will have me leaning more towards the B+ of that inconclusive grade.  But please understand, Burning is 148 minutes long and moves at a snail’s pace.  This is the slowest of slow burns but it does so with a singular destination in mind that it is always making progress towards, and the resulting crescendo is gasp-inducing.  Burning earns its 148 minute runtime, but that can be hard to properly appreciate in the twilight of a film festival.

When we begin, things appear straightforward enough.  Lee (Yoo Ah-in) is a wannabe writer living in a village on the border of the two Koreas, attempting to pen the next great work of literature whilst working low-paying delivery jobs to make ends meet.  In Burning’s opening scene, he bumps into an old villager and former schoolmate of his, Shin (Jeon Jong-seo), although he doesn’t recognise her.  In fact, as it is slowly parcelled out, the two were barely acquaintances back in the day, Lee supposedly only talked to her once the entire time they were in school and that was to tell her how ugly she was, so he probably wouldn’t have recognised her even if she hadn’t gotten self-confessed plastic surgery.  Despite that, the two strike up a relationship of sorts, one that eventually turns briefly sexual until Shin asks Lee for a favour: watch her unseen cat Boil (named after the boiler room she found him in) in her comically tiny apartment whilst she takes a trip to Africa in order to awaken her “Great Hunger.”  When she returns, it’s with another man in tow, the effortlessly-charming and financially-loaded Ben (Steven Yeun).

Anyone expecting Burning to then transition into a love-triangle drama is only part right.  Chang-dong’s languid opus, adapted with Oh Jung-mi from a short story by Haruki Murakami, is the kind of film whose nature seems to shift roughly every 30 minutes or so, going from a romance piece to an existential drama to the East Asian equivalent of a cringe-comedy to something far more sinister each time anything resembling a major action occurs in the narrative.  But calling it a “shift” is miscategorising things, for Burning is more one of those films that starts the viewer off with a set of blinders that are gradually removed as time goes on, unfurling additional sides and dimensions until the eventual reveal of the full picture at the last possible moment.  “Shift” implies something awkward and done with force, whereas Burning slides between its different modes with an extreme precision and in such a way that it never feels like the film’s various stops and overall destination weren’t the plan all along.

To say too much would be to give the game away, but Burning is focussed greatly on young male dissatisfaction and entitlement.  Lee being a burnout despite not even reaching his 30s with no prospects (he’s already served his time in the military), currently dealing with his father being put on trial for going crazy and attacking the other farmers around the family’s village, and, despite constantly saying he wants to be a writer, has yet to pen a single word because his imagination is too small and he can’t conceive how the world works (by his own admission).  His relationship with Shin is less a mutual exchanging of feelings and more an insular moping deer in the headlights allowing this exuberant and active puppy dog to glom onto him for a brief window of time; their sex is both awkwardly humorous and deeply uncomfortable for this exact fact.  Lee is a man repressed, both emotionally and in his own memories where Shin and key details of his own village completely fail to factor in.

He’s got a chip on his shoulder, therefore, one that is exacerbated when Ben turns up, only six or seven years older than Lee is, living the life he’s always wanted.  Ben’s cultured, charming, loaded, working a job that he refuses to specify since “even if I explained it, you wouldn’t understand it,” with a high-class flat, a Porsche, and now the girl.  Lee tars Ben as “The Great Gatsby” when the latter is out of earshot in a jealous fit, and it’s only made worse when Ben, who appears to be taking genuine steps to befriend Lee and not just because Shin keeps dragging him along, starts divulging aspects of his personality that Lee also shares, like a simmering rage that needs letting off every two months in a symbolic fiery display.  Ben is the mirror-version of Lee in many respects, except that he’s ‘won’ the game of life Lee wishes he could even enter.  And that resultant tension coils and coils, turning ever tighter in surprising ways that often go without clear answers, until it culminates in the best ending of the entire year.  Chang-dong draws out every last morsel from the material that he can, aided along the way by Hong Kyung-pyo’s austere cinematography, Mowg’s unsettling score, and Steven Yeun’s utterly outstanding and multifaceted turn as Ben, effortlessly shifting our perception of the character as Lee’s does without contradicting his prior self.

Again, that grade is almost definitely too low.  I’ve struggled with writing this entry for a good few hours for the simple fact that I didn’t know how to put Burning into words in a way that does it justice, and I’m appreciating it more and more in the hours following the screening because it is a truly spectacular piece of work.  Upon a second viewing at a later date, I can already tell that my “like” is going to flip to “love” because Lee Chang-dong’s film is technically impeccable.  It’s just a shame that I had to watch it under less-than-ideal circumstances.  Here’s to the eventual UK release next year sos I can give the film its proper due!

Tomorrow: Barry Jenkins follows up the Oscar-winning Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk.

Callie Petch is light as a feather, why-oh, grade-A smart clever, why-oh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s