Au Revoir Taipei, Honeymooner and Third Star bring EIFF 2010 to a close
Edinburgh International Film Festival Blog
This article is from 2010.
Sunday 27 June
The closing days of the festival are a giddy affair: you realise that, after so many recommendations and bits of buzz floating about, the EIFF has mutated into this Cloverfield-like monster: there’s beautiful people wandering around everywhere, your vision is slightly shaky, and it’s almost impossible to catch a glimpse of it all. The films will (largely) be available on general release, or at least DVD, at some point in the future, so that becomes less of a pressing concern; the film-makers, however, are not going to be around forever, so you have to cram in as many interviews as possible before they all evaporate into the firmament.
Friday morning, then, and I’m speaking to Arvin Chen about his movie Au Revoir Taipei, a Taiwanese rom-com set against a background of cops and gangsters that Chen says is ‘very influenced by French romantic comedies and Woody Allen movies.’ The film does have a very French feel to it, with a croissant-scented ‘bistro jazz’ soundtrack throughout; the split promise of that dual-nationality title is rounded out by affectionate digs at elements of Taiwanese culture, including extremely low-quality but inexplicably popular soap operas, and the sharp-suited world of real estate – in the film, the legitimate side of the mob’s enterprise. ‘The real estate agents in Taiwan really wear those terrible suits,’ Chen explains, ‘although maybe they don’t go with bright orange as we did! We chose that colour for two reasons: as kind of a stupid homage to A Clockwork Orange, as we have the three thugs with a single guy leading the gang; and also visually, it was just the most comedic colour to us.’
The film is populated by characters obsessed with ‘seeing some action’, which never really presents itself: there’s only one gun in the movie, and it never gets fired. Chen says, ‘I guess that’s more of a personal thing in that, I just don’t know how to direct action! I don’t know anything about cops or bad guys. I guess I was using the tropes of a cop movie to just talk about people having silly dreams or silly notions of what they could be. So I purposefully wrote stuff about them wanting some action, like a big kid who has these ridiculous romantic ideals – well, they have these dumb gangster ideals or these dumb cop ideals. It means that everyone is equalised: they’re all silly, they’re idiots even, and they don’t realise that what might make them happy has nothing to do with their romantic ideals or whatever.’
My enjoyable-but-brief encounter with Chen was followed up by a very quick chat with Shameless star Gerard Kearns, in town promoting anti-rom com Honeymooner. The film follows depressed Fran (Kearns) as he attempts to piece his life back together, after his fiancée leaves him days before their wedding. ‘It was a subtle kind of depression,’ says Kearns of his consistently mopey character. ‘I did have a lot of fun filming though!’ Fran’s mates are not the best of help in his time of need, generally taking a hard line of not pandering to him, while blithely disregarding their own relationships. Kearns mentions that, ‘Fran’s definitely the moral centre of the film, although what he says and what he does are two very different things. I can find him a bit sleazy, actually.’ This is supported by the fact that, when things start going badly for his friends, a small smile can be seen playing around Fran’s lips. ‘I think he gets a certain kick out of other people being depressed – that’s the only that enables him to be happy.’
Saturday got off to an early start when I participated in a flashmob organised by Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins, to celebrate the official launch of their 8 ½ Foundation. Over a hundred people showed up at Festival Square on Lothian Road to re-enact a Laurel and Hardy dance routine, which your humble correspondent managed to stumble his way through. This was followed by a presentation in the Filmhouse, which took on the air of a surreal kids party, as Mark, Tilda and other 8 ½ members danced around the cinema to upbeat glam-pop tunes, waving placards bearing the names of some of their favourite examples of world cinema such as Jacques Tati (already a favourite name circling the fest due to his involvement in The Illusionist). The Foundation aims to establish a new birthday (i.e. eight and a half years old) to be celebrated through cinema. At this age, the Foundation proposes, children are perfectly placed to enjoy and develop an enthusiasm for film, especially world cinema – Swinton mentioned that test screenings in a primary school in her hometown of Nairn resulted in a rapturous response to films such as gender-mixing Chinese flick King of Masks. The presentation was followed by a screening of Jahar Panahi’s The White Balloons, for which parents were encouraged to whisper the subtitles to younger viewers.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the leisure time to watch the film, as I had to dash off to another interview: the legendary Brian Cox had a spare ten minutes to talk to me about his festival film, The Good Heart, which also stars Paul Dano as a naive homeless man to Cox’s grumpy bar-owner. ‘He’s a cynic – he’s probably a distorted romantic,’ says Cox of his character, Jacques. ‘He’s probably been unlucky in love and unlucky in a lot of things. I always imagined him as a sort of failed roadie, who used to go around with a rock band, and finally got a bit of money and decided he’d set up a wee bar.’ Of course, none of this is explicitly mentioned in the film – something Cox is happy to see. ‘There’s not enough of that in films these days – mystery. The whole element of mystery: who are these guys, what are they, and where did they come from? The audience has to make up the other part of the equation. Audiences are too spoon-fed these days – in films like [insert name of brainless blockbuster here], you get what you see, there’s nothing left to the imagination. You go, “Ooh! Wow!” It’s like a ride, it’s like sitting on a rollercoaster, and you can go round a few times, but once it’s gone, it’s gone – it doesn’t linger. I think a film like The Good Heart lingers because it demands that the audience make an effort to go into certain areas to either understand the mystery of things or let the mystery be. You don’t do back stories. Even my roadie back story, when I told that to the writer Dagur Kári after the film, he said, “I’m so glad you didn’t tell me that during filming, it would have ruined it for me!”’
Jacques’ bar almost becomes a character in itself, somewhat akin to its owner – old, neglected, and damaged by years of alcohol abuse and cigarette smoke. ‘The nature of bars is to close you down,’ says Cox. ‘They seem very cosy, they seem very safe, but they actually just ensconce you in all your worst excesses and worst habits. They’re sanction-houses for extremely dubious behaviour.’ The dubious behaviour in this particular bar is supplied not just by potty-mouthed Jacques, but also by a group of hardcore regulars who see the bar as a home-from-home, many of whom have their own back story that we’re left guessing about. Asked whether he thinks such places still exist in today’s healthy-living, no-smoking culture, Cox says, ‘There are bars like that. Only a few though – there used to be a lot more. When I lived in New York in the 80s, there were a lot of bars like that, they were very prevalent. Bars where people would be regulars for 20 years, people lived their lives there and then literally died there, sitting at the bar... To know someone in that kind of situation – it’s about knowing the essence of people without knowing their personalities, being continually surprised by their personalities.’
Taking my (reluctant) leave of the gregarious and fantastic Mr. Cox, my next and final appointment is with some cast and crew members from the Closing Gala film Third Star, which was to have its world premiere that night. Discussing being chosen for this prestigious position in the festival, writer/producer Vaughan Sivell says, ‘It’s amazing! We finished the film about two weeks ago, so they had seen a not-finished tape, which obviously costs you money as a producer as it has no value whatsoever the day after they say, “No thanks, it’s not for us!” Instead you get a call saying, “Yes, not only are you in the festival, you’re the closing gala,” it’s just brilliant.’ Associate producer, actor and resident Scot Adam Robertson is similarly excited: ‘It really just blew us away! It’s a testament to the organisers that they chose a film like this, with a first-time feature director, first-time producers, unknown cast – that’s what the festival’s all about, and they have great integrity about that.’
The film is about James (Benedict Cumberbatch), a young man who has been diagnosed with cancer and wants his best friends – played by Robertson, along with Tom Burke and JJ Field – to take him on a lads’ camping trip in memory of better times. ‘I play Bill, who’s the one of the four that just wants to have a good time over the weekend... He’s the one that actually can camp, as opposed to the other three who can’t really do it... He’s like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance!’ laughs Robertson. Field and Burke are equally mirthful when I interview them together. ‘I got the call that the film was closing the Edinburgh Film Festival, which I thought sounded quite bad,’ deadpans Burke, while JJ cracks up beside him. They end up describing each other’s characters, to avoid the risk of appearing self-serving in any way. ‘JJ plays Miles, who is closest to James, but is terrified of his illness, so he uses a lot of... what’s the phrase, trench humour?’ Burke asks. I suggest ‘gallows humour,’ which seems to be the right answer. ‘Ah yes, gallows humour – it’s trench foot I was thinking of. Right, so JJ has trench foot, he limps everywhere...’ The jokes subside again in time for JJ to discuss Tom’s character, Davy. ‘Tom’s character has been the closest to James through his battle with cancer, and he’s sacrificed everything to nurse him, both physically and emotionally. And my character feels threatened by that, and finds it somewhat disingenuous. So there’s a lot of friction. He’s also the best dressed, with the best facial hair,’ adds JJ, before the conversation descends into further silliness with discussion of 3D hair effects and green-screened eyes to be applied in post-production.
As the director, Hattie Dalton was in charge of harnessing this male instinct for horseplay and channelling it into the relationships portrayed on-screen. ‘I’m fortunate to be really close to my brothers, and I have a lot of friends who are male, and also I’m just really fascinated by how men communicate, paying attention to what’s not said as much as what is said,’ she says. ‘The shoot was amusing, and delightful, and sometimes frustrating, which is exactly what comes across in these male relationships and friendships in the film. It was nice to see that play out on set and in the script, and maybe having a female viewpoint gave me just that little extra bit of perspective, that I could stand back and observe a little more.’
The film, with the tragedy and comedy at its core, is a resounding success at the premiere that evening, with barely a dry eye in the house. The after-party at the labyrinthine Caves is a slightly more subdued affair than the opening gala; this could be down to the nature of the film just watched, or because everyone’s knackered after ten days of late nights, early rises and film-related frenzy. Adam and JJ, who I get a chance to talk to at the party (in between their conversations with Brian Cox and Timothy Spall, I note with envy), are delighted with how the film’s been received, and the only sore point of the evening is the lack of vegetarian canapés. As the red carpets are rolled up and tinted-window sedans pull off into the night, I take a moment to reflect, and think what a shame it is that I didn’t manage to crowbar my new favourite word, ‘blognoscenti’, into my coverage of the festival. Ah well, there’s always next year.