I was fortunate enough to able to attend the Hong Kong International Film and Television Market (HK Filmart) again this year. Among the panel discussions and analyses of trends–and one inquiry about whether I wanted to purchase rights to a documentary–I was lucky enough to see five movies: Black Substance / Substance Noire (France, 2021); Blue Eyes / Occhi Blu (Italy, 2021); Dreamover (Russia, 2021); Pack of Sheep / Ageli Provaton (Greece, 2021); and, Soul of a Beast (Switzerland, 2022). I liked some films more than others, but none were bad. So let’s don our helmets, hop on our scooters and ride through the streets of Rome, Moscow and Zürich and keep our boots on as we walk the fields and forests of France and Greece.
Black Substance / Substance Noire (France, 2021)
Black Substance’s mix of drama and genre is exactly my kind of thing. I am notoriously terrible at favorites, but it might’ve been my favorite movie that I saw at Filmart this year. Three men live in the forest. Victor (Anton Miossec) is a misanthropic recluse who moved to a house in the woods to get away from people. His only neighbor is Robert (Frédéric Darie), a former forestry official who lives with his teenage nephew, Sam (Thomas Daloz). Sam likes to play video games, wander the woods in his bare feet* and break into Victor’s workroom. But there’s something else in the forest. There’s something dangerous. A black fungus so toxic it is killing all animal life, from fish to human beings, is spreading fast. Carl Carniato’s Black Substance / Substance Noire is a quiet film with a nice slow pace and comparatively little dialogue. It’s believable both in terms of the men’s interactions and the behavior of the fungus. The substance spreads fast, but in comparison with other fungi. It is fast like a slime mold not fast like the Blob**. It is very much in line with current biological science. We never see the fungus move. We see it has moved. The fantastic elements work well and I appreciate a movie that doesn’t explain everything. We know about as much as Sam and Victor do by the end. The shots of nature are both gorgeous and ominous. And the film itself is almost shot in green, black and white, making any other colors stand out. The synth soundtrack is ominous but not overdone. Gorgeous, thoughtful, well-crafted, Black Substance kept me tense in a good way and looked gorgeous while doing it.
Blue Eyes / Occhi Blu (Italy, 2021) directed by Michela Cescon
If you are the kind of person who likes a detective story that is a puzzle the audience solves alongside the detective, you might find Blue Eyes / Occhi Blu frustrating. If you like crime thrillers that are 75% style and use all the forms of noir and Euro-crime, you will likely enjoy Michela Cescon’s Blue Eyes. There is a lot of signification of the elements of crime film in Blue Eyes, down to a mournful saxophone in the beginning. The excellently named Valeria (played by the excellently named Valeria Golino) is an ideal employee. She’s thorough, fast, and quiet. She’s also the best robber that Rome has ever seen, stealing over €2 million in 35 robberies and speeding away on stolen, souped up scooters without a hitch. She’s way more than a step ahead and has never even raised suspicions until Rome’s police commissioner (Ivano De Matteo) asks his friend, “the Frenchman” (Jean-Hugues Anglade), for help catching the thief. The Frenchman, meanwhile, hopes to find the motorcyclist who killed his daughter years ago.
The film has so many of the things I love about neo-noir and Euro-crime films: Valeria’s motorcycle helmet and leather jacket reflecting Rome’s lights at night; the impeccably groomed commissioner wearing a turtleneck, jacket and aviator glasses barking into a radio as a daring criminal genius implements her plan; cool maps; photographs from the crime scene made into transparencies that the Frenchman examines with a lightbox to try to glean some clue as to who the robber is; detective and criminal encountering each other. They’re all there. If it seems slight or Blue Eyes moves through these stylized plot points a little foo fast, well, I don’t really mind. I am here for a slick, stylish crime film with a 50 year old woman played by soulfully eyed Valeria Golino on a souped up scooter pulling off the most perfect crimes Rome has ever seen.
Dreamover (Russia, 2021) directed by Roman Olkhovka
Roman Olkhovka’s Dreamover (Russia, 2021) is a melancholy, lo fi science fiction story about love, hope, and regret. It begins with a man floating underwater, fully clothed and disoriented. Dmitry (Ilya Chepyrev) has been dreaming of drowning. It’s the only dream he has anymore. Night after night, he dreams of himself drowning, shocks himself awake, and reads to calm himself. One day, Dmitry comes across a card on the subway: “Having bad dreams? We can help.” He meets with Inventor Arthur (Ioann Lahin) in the shabby basement office/treatment center of Chronic Comfort Ltd. In an enjoyable piece of science fiction exposition, Arthur explains that he can replace Dmitry’s nightmares with memories of love using Cognitive Resonance Hypnotherapy and a non-invasive device. Because love is an intense neurological event, Arthur explains, it creates the most vivid memories. As a man who claims to have had an unending string of love affairs, Dmitry agrees to try the treatment. But love is complicated and despite Dmitry’s expectations of diverse pleasant memories, his dreams all involve one woman, Masha (Angelina Savchenko). As Dmitry continues to dream of Masha, he begins to open up in his waking life. He plays his guitar again. He reaches out to an old friend. At the same time, Dmitry becomes convinced that if only he had done things differently, he would not be alone. And so he wants to change things in his dreams and he starts to be able to.
Ilya Chepyrev is excellent as the older Dmitry. We watch as his resigned despair moves towards a restrained joy and hope. And his reaction to Moscow, the city he loves, shows Dmitry is not quite entirely gone. As Masha, Angelina Savchenko does a fine job of projecting her own desires and autonomy even in Dmitry’s imaginings of her. And Roman Olkhovka plays Dmitry’s younger self with a doofy, likable confidence. He plays a man certain that if he waits, love will come to him in a beautiful and beloved Moscow. Dreamover is a lovely, sincere, melancholy film and a solid debut from writer/director Roman Olkhovka.
Pack of Sheep / Ageli Provaton (Greece, 2021) directed by Dimitris Kanellopoulos
Dimitris Kanellopoulos’ Pack of Sheep / Ageli Provaton (Greece, 2020) is a smooth, well-made and well-paced blend of Western and crime film. And it has an excellent premise: A group of men organize rather than pay a loan shark double for their loans. Thanasis (Dimitris Lalos), owner of a plant store, owes Stelios the loan shark (Giorgos Valais) €40,000. Eventually he discovers there are 7 men in town who owe Stelios money. Six of them decide to organize–refusing to pay Stelios, but Stelios doesn’t want to negotiate. Through a partner, he sends two young gangsters to frighten the men into paying what they owe. But it doesn’t work out the way it usually would because the men have discovered the power of solidarity. One of the gangsters, Paradisis (Lefteris Polychronis) has a broken foot. And though he is still intimidating when he wielding his crutch, he is overwhelmed by the men as they find their own power to wield intimidation and violence. They kidnap Paradisis, but there are fractures in their unity. And Thanasis becomes wrathful as Paradisis insults them all and attacks their masculinity.
Pack of Sheep feels like a Western, particularly Sam Peckinpah or Clint Eastwood Westerns exploring masculinity, violence, and the cruelty of power even among, or particularly among, men who think they are justified. The film uses the whole screen, filling it with the sky and mountains and the bodies of the men as they react to the violence they have wrought.
Soul of a Beast (Switzerland, 2022) directed by Lorenz Merz
In Soul of a Beast (Switzerland, 2022), Gabriel (Pablo Caprez) falls in love and his life and the entire city of Zürich become chaos. He is a teen father living with his toddler son, Jamie (Art Bllaca). He and his son’s mother, Zoé (Luna Wedler) have split. Gabriel divides his life between caring for Jamie and, with the caretaking help of his friend Afua (Angelique La Douce), daredevil exploits with his friend Joel (Tonatiuh Radzi). I look forward to seeing more from Radzi, by the way. One night Joel introduces Gabriel to his girlfriend Corey (Ella Rumpf). They take mescaline together and break into animal enclosures at the zoo. Intentionally or not, they release a giraffe, a peacock and two pumas into the city, precipitating a curfew and later protests and a riot. Writer/director Lorenz Merz meant to recreate a feeling with Soul of a Beast–one he experienced in his own life. And Soul of a Beast is more of a feeling than it is a drawn out narrative, though it is a narrative film. Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer / director Christopher Doyle’s influences on Soul of a Beast are evident. The cinematography and editing are slick and colorful. Joel smoking and riding on his scooter first with Gabriel behind him and later Corey feels straight out of Wong’s Fallen Angels (1995) as Takeshi Kaneshiro rides in Hong Kong’s neon night. And Soul of a Beast, with its very chambara name and occasional narration in Japanese, brings in the Lone Wolf & Cub manga and film series as Gabriel picks up his katana and goes on the run with Jamie. I do wish the film had left out the unpleasant depiction of two modern Japanese women as submissive courtly handmaidens to Zoé’s mother (Lolita Chammah). I get that Gabriel sees himself storming the castle of his enemy, but Merz could’ve found a better way. (And, so you know, there is a sexual assault, but you can see it coming).
Soul of a Beast focuses not on the facts of Gabriel’s life but the story tells himself based on how his life feels. In Gabriel’s life there are escaped animals, riots, curfews, an apparent earthquake, a Japanese voiceover and life on the run as a ronin after he falls in love with this best friend’s girlfriend. Merz had a story he wanted to tell, and while I felt distant from Gabriel and feel like the film could used 5-10 minutes less running time, sometimes people have to tell their stories their way.
*Please wear shoes or boots at all times in contaminated areas. Thank you.
**No disrespect to the Blob.
As a soulful saxophone wails, Carol Borden pulls on a motorcycle helmet and rides her souped up scooter into city at night. Read about these films at greater length at Monstrous Industry.