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Indie Film Roundup: Aftershock, Brilliantlove, and We Are What We Are
Simon Jablonski , November 12th, 2010 14:04

From kitchen sink vampires to harrowing Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemmas to the sticky frustration of young love, Simon Jablonski picks through the best independent films of the week.

Aftershock

Set against the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, which killed more than 240,000 people, Xiaogang Feng’s emotionally vibrant epic takes as its crux an overpowering dilemma: a mother must decide which of her children she wants to save from the wreckage.

The earthquake strikes during an extremely hot summer evening while mother Yuan Ni and her husband are out in the street, having left their twin children in bed. Without warning, the first tremors start ripping apart the surrounding apartment blocks. Overwhelmed by panic, the parents attempt to rescue the children from the crumbling building. Yet, just as the husband rushes in, the entire apartment collapses and he’s swallowed up by the concrete below. With harrowing effect, the scenes focus on the faces and cries of the individuals suffering which, shot along side the spectacular panoramic, dramatically bring out the enormity of the city and its devastation.

Having just witnessed an entire block of flats collapse on her family, Yuan Ni staggers through the aftermath of the quake. Her husband has already been discovered dead by the time her two children are found trapped under a concrete slab, still alive. Short on time and resources, rescue workers struggle to free the children before offering the dilemma to the mother. As the concrete slab is so large, they can only tip it one way or the other, meaning that freeing one of the children will crush the other.

Among the chaos of the rescue operation and the rising mound of dead bodies, the callous pragmatism of the rescuers only heightens the tearing emotional strain of the mother, while it's shot from the teary-eyed perspective of the daughter Fang Deng - who, still conscious, hears her sentence handed to her as her mother finally tells the rescuers to save her brother who lies only feet away.

Unbeknown to her mother and brother, Fang Deng wakes some time later on a cart next to her dead father. She’s then picked out of a crowd of orphans at a refugee camp and adopted by a couple in the services of the Red Army. Usually portrayed as agents of ceaseless marching and general evil-doing, seeing Red Army officers engage in selfless acts of kindness and cracking funnies round the table is almost satirical.

Leaping forwards in gaps of five to ten years, the story follows Fang Deng as she grows up with her new family, overcoming the harsh parental rejection. In parallel, her mother ages, refusing to remarry in honour of her dead husband and carrying out frequent rituals to guide the spirits of her husband and daughter back home. Her troubles are further deepened by the son, who lost an arm in the rescue, meaning his ability to work and earn money are severely hampered.

The film, of course, moves its way towards the inevitable reunion of the estranged family, which it does with high-tension and style. Aftershock is a true epic: without pausing for breath or dragging its heels, it squeezes out beauty from the pit of tragedy.

Brilliantlove

Picking through the guts and glory of a young couple’s passionate relationship, Brilliantlove scoffs its way down a menu of sexual experimentation so visceral you can practically smell it wafting from the screen.

The film’s charm comes from playing the couple’s physical attraction with a sickly sweet tenderness. Their co-dependence and itchingly twee expressions of love (painting “brilliantlove” on the garage where they live and then making a diorama of said living quarters) could have dripped from the imagination of a doe-eyed adolescent in the depths of a particularly indulgent daydream.

A young, carefree artist named Manchester captures on camera various sexual adventures with his girlfriend Noon, a shy taxidermist who stores recently deceased birds in the freezer. This documenting of their relationship is completed by a tape recorder that Manchester buys Noon as a gift, on which she regularly recounts her fantasies and memorable past experiences ( unsurprisingly, the alternative title for the film is The Orgasm Diaries). The unconventional nature of the couple’s relationship is epitomised by an episode in which Manchester masturbates on the sleeping Noon while listening to a recorded monologue she’d made about masturbating – not a common plot tool, that’s for sure. Manchester’s soft Northern tone, simple, poetic manner and over impulsive libido cast him as a social oddity - curiously reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange but without all the demons and self-loathing.

A set of their photos find their way into the hands of local porn-peddler Franny, who offers Manchester his own exhibition and wads of cash in return for his artwork. Despite being put up in Franny’s enormous house, Manchester manages to keep the details of their arrangement secret from Noon. In his own innocently fuddled mind, he seems to think she’d be so delighted at rooms of strangers seeing the photos that he wants to save it as a surprise.

In offering a new life, Franny forces the couple out of their bubble and into the rising complications that occur when, prodded by the mighty dollar, the privacies that have remained between the sheets unexpectedly become public. Given Manchester and Noon’s volatility, their reactions are both frustrating and sweet.

As Down Terrace also demonstrated earlier this year, Brilliantlove is a bright affirmation of the digital cinema revolution and its potential to deliver imaginative and challenging cinema on a shoestring budget. Though this country’s produced an unrivalled vault of innuendo-splattered sex comedies, there’s not a huge tradition of filmmakers - Peter Greenaway aside - comfortably handling the subjects covered in Brilliantlove without taking itself too seriously. Perhaps if Bigas Luna had been raised in the Lancashire hills, he’d probably have created something similar.

Brilliantlove is a rare piece of cinema. Its perspective of the couple’s sexual relationship moves between the surreal, funny and, in places, genuinely erotic. Beautifully shot, the direction is never thrill seeking; its artistic integrity isn’t secured through any sense of profundity, but from capturing the spring-time brightness of an ‘innocent’ young couple in love.

We Are What We Are

In a hesitant reimagining of a cannibal movie, We Are What We Are takes a step towards the kitchen sink with a tale of flesh-eating family strife. Though there’s a smattering of dark laughs, the scares are infrequent as it gets bogged down in haphazard family squabbles and a meandering police chase.

The patriarch of the family of five is a lazy watchmaker with a weakness for ladies of the night, much to the annoyance of his wife. His gruesome death leaves a power vacuum at home as to who should take his place as leader. The daughter, Sabina, takes the older, quieter brother Alfredo to the side and almost seduces him into grasping hold of the leadership, with his voice under her careful guidance. This all happens to the fierce objection of their younger, more impulsive and violent brother, Julián, and their ferociously bitter mother, Patricia. Caught within these vehement tensions, Alfredo must go out to prove his leadership credentials by bringing back a human body for some vague ritual, the purpose of which is never really explained.

This quasi-vampiric undertone is unclear throughout. Though the supernatural is severely played down, all the talk of needing human flesh to survive, the allusions to being alive and the importance of ritual seem anything but naturalistic. Of course the film’s title itself teasingly reflects this ambiguity (what are ‘we’?), something which makes the characters all the more intriguing. They don’t appear to have any special powers and seem remarkably happy strolling round in sunlight. It’s only the frequent close-ups of their cold, focused eyes that suggest an otherworldly nature ( although this could also mean they’re steely cowboys on a mission of revenge and retribution, which is possibly less likely given the urban setting).

Alfredo’s first effort to grab a meal in the form of a small homeless child is a comical failure, and his weak attempt plays out like a demonic Benny Hill sketch. After his mother berates him for bringing a prostitute home, there’s a slightly odd digression in which Alfredo takes off into the night and, for what seems like half the film, tracks a group of boys across town. Doing a woeful job of staying hidden, he follows them into a gay club – no doubt inspired by the reams of Twilight fan fiction. After getting off with his intended victim, he gets him back home where he’s affronted about his sexuality by his brother.

If anything, it’s this attempt to stuff not just an entire vampiric soap-opera but a whole spectrum of genres into 90 minutes that is the film’s biggest weakness. There’s the curious death of the father, suspicious policemen, a gang of prostitutes straight out of a John Waters movie, the family rivalries, the sibling intimacies, the sexual awakening, and the supernatural ambiguity. All potentially colourful plot-points, but none of them ever get fully explored and it ends up watered down by its own ambition.

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