Film #208: Girls Lost (2015)

Girls-Lostaka: Pojkarna
director: Alexandra-Therese Keining
language: Swedish
length: 106 minutes
watched on: 12 July 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 2/6)
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Just based on the description, this looked like the most interesting movie to me – a kind of body-swapping fantasy with obvious trans undertones. Actually, I think they cover all the letters in LGBT and then some.

Body swapping where a character finds they want to stay as the other gender is not new, to be sure – we’ve certainly seen it in Being John Malkovitch, for example – but I thought this film was quite unique. Here, three girls, who are obviously closer already than just friends, find a magic flower that will turn them into boys. As boys, they find they are accepted by the “in” crowd more readily than they were as nerdy, queer-looking girls, and one in particular enjoys it far more than the others, describing it as a kind of awakening. “He” hangs out with one bad-boy kind of character, and they take it further than just friends – they have an erotically charged swimming scene and exchange many furtive glances, although the other boy gets violent when he realizes he’s taken it too far. But her friend isn’t having it, and tries to turn into a boy in a bid to win her back.

It sounds like it’s complicated to remember who’s who, and who’s what gender at any particular time, although it wasn’t in the end – the story was fairly simple and at its heart is a love triangle. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was sad, though ambiguous enough that I can be hopeful about it.

The atmosphere is nice, too – they seem to only become boys at night, and turn back after they wake up the next morning, so a lot of the film is shot at night, and has a fantasy-like vibe with lots of autumnal Swedish forest. There were a few things that didn’t quite fit – they had some kind of pagan dancing ceremony with masks, and it seemed to just add atmosphere rather than having any consequence, but I was confused about that. Also, I didn’t catch where their flower came from.

Anyway, this film wasn’t as popular as the last one I watched, but it worked well in my opinion, and I hope it’ll come out on DVD soon so I can recommend it more generally.

Book #107: Tell Me It’s Real (2013)

TellMeItsRealauthor: T.J. Klune
language: English
length: 624 minutes
finished listening on: 12 July 2016

The author of this also wrote the (slightly ridiculously named) book Bear, Otter, and the Kid, which I listened to on the audiobook about a year ago (along with its sequels), so I kind of knew what I was in for when I chose this one. This one is billed more explicitly as comedy, although some of the descriptions of the characters on the blurb were cringeworthy.

One nice thing is that the main character is a fat gay guy, but it was clear after starting the book that the character, also the narrator of the book, is neurotic and goes off on stream-of-consciousness rambles before jumping to an unrelated conclusion – just as the character Bear did in Klune’s other works, and jarringly, the third book in Bear’s series narrated by the younger brother. This is fine, I guess, as it’s still funny, and I can see that Klune has hit on a winning formula that he’s going to stick to, but I’d like to see if he’s able to write another kind of character. He’s now released a sequel to this story told from the point of view of another character – I’m just worried it’ll be even more of the same.

This story is a romance between the main character, who believes he’s unlovable, and the hot but stupid guy. There are obvious echoes here of the other story too, but it’s definitely its own thing. The main character’s best friend is a drag queen with a kind of split between the male and female sides of his personality, again mirroring a bigender character in The Art of Breathing. The parents are busybodies, constantly trying to manipulate their son’s life. The boyfriend’s parents are politically powerful homophobes, and this leads the main character to seek them out to try and convince them not to hate their son – leading to an awkward filibuster in the closing act directed at the mom in hospital.

The story is basically perfunctory, and it’s the emotion and characters that work well in Klune’s work in general. I think he toned down on the sudden third-act conflict that would come out of nowhere in the “Bear” stories. I enjoyed listening to this one a lot – it had enough in-jokes and humour to pay off, and while some situations and characters were patently ridiculous, it wasn’t too bad. The characters do suffer from a bad case of not being honest with one another, though.

I think I’d still like to check out Klune’s other works (they’re popular and promoted a lot on Audible when I’m looking for more gay-themed audiobooks) – but maybe I’ll try a more seriously themed one next time to see if the tone can be any different. I’m not completely put off by it, but it’s jarring that his main characters tend to be indistinguishable.

Film #207: Gayby Baby (2015)

gaybybabydirector: Maya Newell
language: English
length: 85 minutes
watched on: July 11 2016
(Rainbow Reel Tokyo – 1/6)
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I got a bit confused this year because the Tokyo LGBT film festival officially renamed itself “Rainbow Reel”, but there wasn’t a well-publicized announcement of the fact. Actually, I could have probably found out at Pride this year, as they had a booth, but it was so overcrowded and hot this year, I actually couldn’t concentrate on anything. Anyway, whatever.

Actually, I was excited to go again this year, because I missed it for one reason or another over the last three years – I had been to one film in 2012, which wasn’t so good, but I was optimistic this year and wanted to get back into going to the cinema more. But in 2013, they changed the date to July from September, and I found out too late – then in 2014, I was working, and in 2015, I was back in the UK, so I kept missing it. This year, I could take adequate time off to see things. It was a bit expensive, because I didn’t take advantage of any deals (and I had to go all the way to Omotesando just to buy the tickets, because Ticket Pia adds a commission to every ticket, rather than the whole sale), but I bought six tickets to various movies, and this one was the first.

So, Gayby Baby is a documentary about families with same-sex parents in Australia. It was apparently made as a kind of protest about the political situation there, as for some reason, homophobic politicians are still prominent there. It was banned from being shown in schools, which is terrible, because it’s a pretty good and still important film. It focuses on four kids (the parents are basically background characters) – they never meet, or anything like that, so it’s telling four stories at once.

It quite effectively shows the variety and diversity of gay parenting, and as far as I remember, each of the families come to be parents by different means. It starts with a blond kid telling us he was a born from a donor, but he made me crack up almost immediately by mispronouncing “sperm” as “spam” (not translated in the subtitles, so I think I was the only one in a rather crowded cinema laughing at this point). He’s obsessed with wrestling – another kid is in the process of making up his mind about religion and clashing with his religious mother. A third is auditioning to go to a prestigious music school, but her mothers aren’t so well-off, and just getting her there is a challenge when she has a baby brother who often has seizures. The last is a bit of a mystery – he’s still learning to read and write at age 10, and it’s hinted that he and his older brother went through some abuse with their birth parents, and he didn’t learn to speak until over the age of 5. His dads struggle to teach him to read. And they move to Fiji near the beginning of the movie.

The movie is well-told, and the documentary makers stand back and let the stories tell themselves. There isn’t much in the way of judgement from them – obviously, there’s a very explicitly political motive to creating the movie in the first place, but the movie stands back from that as well. We just get to see these people in something close to their natural habitat.

It’s also obviously a very important movie, and it sold out at the festival – I later learned this was not the case for the rest of the movies I watched, and this one did particularly well by comparison. In a country which is only just starting to have these conversations, about what it means to be a family, but also in countries like my own which have been having them for some time, movies like this are always going to be important. I’ll admit I was skeptical going in, but by the end of it I will whole-heartedly recommend it. I think I’m basically preaching to the choir here – I don’t think I know anyone who’s explicitly against gay marriage and gay families, but if you are and you could be swayed, I want you to watch this. If you aren’t, I still think it should be watched.

TV: Please Like Me season 1 (2013)

plm1creator: Josh Thomas
language: English with a bit of Thai
length: 6 episodes of 28 minutes each
finished on: 7 July 2016

This series was swept up in my quest to consume all LGBT media in the world – it’s been around for a while now and is often recommended by the places that recommend LGBT media, but it was after I came to Japan and I never had easy access to it. I think you can pay for a premium service to watch it online, or something.

I actually started watching it before, but only got a few minutes into the first episode – I think I found the main character, an autobiographical depiction of creator and principal actor Josh Thomas, too awkward and annoying. I still kind of think that, but this time I persevered and got through the first season pretty quickly. I started the second, but I stalled on the third episode or so – I should pick it up again.

The awkwardness doesn’t really let up, though. Josh’s character is one that gets anxious over unimportant things – he also moves robotically. I was at some points internally screaming at him to get over himself.

He has a boyfriend for the majority of the first season, but they’re obviously completely different kinds of people. I instantly distrusted the boyfriend when he outed him to his parents – like, have some respect for your compatriots and understand that you may not know as much about others’ situations as you think. I know it’s a sitcom in which everyone is awkward, but there’s basic gay decorum and this is breaking it. I also found it jarring how quickly he was referred to as a boyfriend. They barely fooled around in the first episode, and in the second they were in a relationship. I think the show was going for something like a slice of life, in this case.

Aside from him, though, I enjoyed the rest of the characters, especially the homophobic aunt, but also the mentally ill mum. I found a lot of them were also true to life. I also enjoyed the series in general, I think (aside from the awkwardness) it was well-observed and the jokes were frequent. And like with a lot of the other things I’ve written about recently, I liked to be reminded that LGBT stuff is becoming more mainstream, to the extent that there are actually TV shows like this at all. When I was growing up there was only Queer As Folk (though I like it, it’s decidedly not suitable for younger teens). Nice to have more variety now. The genre is still a niche, but perhaps that’ll always be the case.

Book #106: On the Road (1957)

9780141182674author: Jack Kerouac
language: English and a few lines of Spanish
length: 281 pages
finished on: 5 July 2016

I was moderately impressed with some of the other Beat Generation works that I’ve consumed over the past couple of years (such as The Wild Boys or the biopic Kill Your Darlings), and picked this book up thinking it might have some LGBT content (I’ve been pretty single-minded about that recently, sorry to my detractors and all that). It’s not so unreasonable – after all, that seems to be most of what Kerouac’s contemporaries (Burroughs and Ginsberg, anyway) wrote about, and the cover suggests something between the two men on the cover, but actually it’s not like that. There is subtext, to be sure, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

I eschewed the introduction, which explained in detail which characters equalled which real-life people, but it might have been more interesting to read the book and understand who he was talking about at any one time. It also might have prepared me for the book’s unique style.

On the Road is fairly transparently autobiographical – it seems that the only way Kerouac would get through a whole novel was if he didn’t have to invent the story – and is, also obviously, a quintessential road novel. Its story consists of the main character Sal, representing Kerouac, travelling across America multiple times with his best friend Dean, representing Neal Cassady.

The book is written in stream-of-consciousness style – more accurately, Kerouac was basically writing without stopping to collect his thoughts, as a kind of experiment to push the boundaries of fiction. He wrote the whole thing in the space of a couple of days, so it is often repetitive, or introduces story points without properly developing them. I often also didn’t feel a proper sense of continuity or development in the story – the characters often return to the same conceptual space. It’s also difficult to follow at times, because characters or new obstacles for the main characters seem to spring from nowhere, and consequences aren’t always followed up.

The book’s main strength, then, is in documenting an era – it is very evocative and goes into the gritty underbelly of the post-war United States, which few other books do. For me I noticed the prices being ten times what they should be – $5 is $50 in today’s money, for instance. Small things like that, or (weirdly) how racist the language would be considered today – those things firmly root it in a bygone era.

So I recommend it for that, and the final sequence in Mexico – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it overall. I didn’t really like the unorganized style much.

Films #203-206: Campfire (Bavo Defurne shorts)

campfiredirector: Bavo Defurne
watched on: July 1 2016

I bought this DVD when I was in London a year ago (that shows you how long I keep stuff before bothering to watch it, I guess). It was in the BFI shop, when I was wandering around the South Bank, so not exactly a normal shop, but it makes me lament that there’s almost nowhere in Japan that sells LGBT works together with other films, or precious few that signpost it (shout out to Tsutaya in Kichijoji for having a small LGBT section, by the way – unfortunately I’d seen almost all of them already). They have BL comics, but they’re not even for us.

Anyway, it’s a set of short films by Belgian director Bavo Defurne, who directed North Sea, Texas. I was surprised to realize I watched that two years ago, come to think of it. They all share themes with that film, concerning themselves with longing looks, a bit exploitational towards younger teenager main characters, and largely or completely devoid of dialogue. They were all made in the 90s or early 2000s, but shown out of order – I’m sure if they were shown in the correct order it’d be even easier to see the director’s development process.

As before, I’ll do a quick review of each below, but as with the last short series I watched, seeing gay guys on film again has been good for my mental health, I think. I also liked these ones in general more than the other series – as they’re by the same director, they fit together more coherently. However, they’re also a little slow and contemplative for my liking. Anyway here goes:

campfire1Film #203: Campfire (2000)
aka: Kampvuur
language: Dutch
length: 20 minutes

The titular film of the DVD, this one is about two boys on a camping trip. They go out to the forest together and things get a little hot under the collar – and it kind of follows the standard trope that the other boy freaks out when they get back to civilization. Then they play Spin the Bottle and are forced to confront it in front of everyone.

The story is nothing new, but the visuals of the countryside (I forget which country – perhaps Belgium, but maybe in France) are positively lush, and the use of colour is cartoonish and bold, but striking. The characters seem to be colour-coded: the main character is bright red, and the other boy’s girlfriend starts wearing bright purple when she accepts him later in the film. The other characters wear boring colours. There’s also a lot of naked flesh bouncing around – as seems to be standard by the rest of this guy’s films…

pnisFilm #204: Particularly Now, in Spring (1995)
language: English
length: 8 minutes

This was the most purely fetishistic of the films – it is a monochrome series of images of boys doing sports and exercise, with a monologue in English about things they’re doing. It’s evocative, and as with the later film Saint, the camera is a bit blurry, adding to the atmospheric effect. However, there is little substance to the movie itself. It’s more like a silent movie, as indeed the other movies also are.

I’m pretty sure the acronym of this title isn’t a coincidence, by the way. I had a little giggle when I noticed.

matroosFilm #205: Sailor (1998)
aka: Matroos
language: silent
length: 17 minutes

This immediately reminded me of the gay French artists Pierre & Gilles, although the movie doesn’t get as explicit as some of that artwork. As with the last movie, there is no dialogue in this. The use of colour in this is even bolder than the first movie, which was actually more subdued, despite all the brilliant images of nature. Here it’s almost cartoonish at points and belies a director experimenting a lot with form and symbol – it’s fairly obvious that any red object is the main character (the same actor as in Campfire, incidentally). This also features images of nature – apparently from Belgium’s national botanic gardens. The story is about two boyfriends, one of whom leaves to be in the navy. They keep in contact by post but it’s not to be in the end. Out of the four this was my favourite.

saintFilm #206: Saint (1996)
language: silent
length: 10 minutes

This is about the execution of Saint Sebastian, famous for being tied up naked and killed by arrows, and one of the most evocative images possible just by itself. This pretty much takes it to the next level. The buildup to the moment of execution is astounding and the anticipation is palpable. The eroticism of the moment is what makes this short.

Sebastian’s image has been portrayed many times in this kind of erotic manner and is famous as a gay icon of sorts – Derek Jarman’s movie is a notable example, although I still haven’t seen it. I personally don’t see the appeal of being shot by arrows, to be honest, but it’s not that, it’s the nakedness and torturedness of the character that appeals to people.

Again the camerawork in this is great, with a monochrome image, but blurry in a way that makes it genuinely look like it came out of the 1920s, and it adds to the atmosphere well. I thought the actor who portrayed Sebastian was the same as in Campfire, but evidently they just look similar – this guy was also in the earlier Particularly Now, In Spring.

Overall I recommend this set of movies if you’re at all interested in erotically-charged LGBT movies. I liked it a lot.

Film #202: Nikita (1990)

nikitaaka: La Femme Nikita (in America)
Director: Luc Besson
Language: French
Length: 115 minutes
Watched on: 29 June 2016

I watch new stuff all the time, and this was one of the few things I’ve watched recently that I’ve seen before. I’ve caught wind that there’s been an American remake of this movie much more recently, and a TV series, but this is the original by Luc Besson, following the story of a drug addict who is forced to become a secret agent for the French government.

The film is a good balance of some light and very, very dark humour (a sequence near the end with Jean Reno comes to mind), and a bit of action-thriller and romance thrown in. Ultimately it’s a very complex film and it’s entertaining. It shows Luc Besson’s talent developing strongly close to the beginning of his career – there are obvious signs of later films such as The Fifth Element.

Perhaps unfairly to the film, that’s not what I wanted to write about today. I last watched it during my year of films in 2008, and it was somewhat drowned out in the surrounding haze of other films – so watching it again this year I noticed a lot more than I remember from before. I paid a bit more attention during the opening sequence in the training facility, and the film felt more connected together – although as it is, it’s structured as separate episodes in Nikita’s life.

No, the main thing is that I noticed how utterly dated the movie feels now – especially things like the hairstyles and the contemporary idea of what a strong, confident woman should look like – a three year period disappears without so much as a montage, and Nikita comes back looking like a parody of late-80s/early-90s fashion. I think the last eight years since I watched the film have made all the difference, actually – now that the 90s is two decades ago, this movie 26 years old, such differences are more stark.

In exactly the same fashion, I rewatched two more of Besson’s movies recently, The Fifth Element and Leon – and also Trainspotting (I don’t want to re-review any of them, that would be overkill). None of them have dated quite as much, and it’s been less time since I watched them (Leon and Trainspotting were both in 2011, and The Fifth Element maybe two years ago) but I had to stifle a groan at some of Trainspotting’s soundtrack, which screams 90s from every corner.

Leon has also dated a bit, but perhaps just because the New York depicted is grimier than I’m used to seeing in other movies. The Fifth Element has hardly dated at all, of course, but there are references to 90s songs like All Night Long, and I reckon if it were made today it would look slicker and have more CGI. Incidentally, I did get the “ultimate edition” DVD of The Fifth Element, mainly to see the behind the scenes bits that I hadn’t seen before. The most interesting is the “full” Diva Dance without cutting back and forth to a fighting scene as happens in the movie itself.

Anyway, that’s all an aside – 90s atmosphere notwithstanding, Nikita is good and you should watch it too!