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From Leeds Film Festival: Khadak, A Taste of Tea & Paprkia

taste-teaA trio of films from the east exploring the subconcious world offered a mind-expanding taste of world cinema at the 20th Leeds International Film Festival.

Khadak, A Taste of Tea and Paprika each show exactly why international film festivals are so important, as they opened a wardrobe door into a Narnia both culturally and aesthetically on the other side of the world. Maybe you would see these films late on FilmFour or through a DVD club, but rarely on the huge screen of a Vue cinema, and even then perhaps only if the TV listings writers are smart enough to make it pick of the day rather than the latest Ron Howard. But at a festival with as strong a programme as Leeds (also famous for its Asian cinema strands) and with an access all areas pass costing just £60 (or a press pass in my case) there is no excuse, and very little risk of being disapointed, as I found out, over three days during the festival.


Friday: Khadak 

An endless white landscape. Bagi leaves his family drinking in a warm welcoming yurt to hunt for a lost sheep. He rides through the snow and on finding the lost animal returns but is struck by a terrifying vision of his home on fire. He breaks into a fit and collapses.

Khadak is a mesmerising film which threads in and out of the warp and weft of everyday reality and the subconscious world, a world we are later told that would lead to the deaths of those who speak of it. Bagi's father was a shaman, and he too has inherited the abilities yet having seen his father die he does not want to carry this burden. But when a  government fueled terror-alert forces the nomadic Mongolian dwellers to head to the city things start falling apart.

khadak3The crisp ice blue skies still backdrop Rimvydas Leipus beautiful cinematography. But in the high rises of suburbia, missionaries lurk on street corners, handing out perfect green apples and bible readings. As his family starts to fall apart - and him with it - his extra sense lead him to find a girl thief, buried under coal. The rescue leads to him being arrested and sentenced to forced labour. When he has a fit, he is placed in an asylum where he is fed apples and told he has epilepsy. Continuing to connect with the shamaness outside he drifts closer to the irrational before a remarkable dreamlike revolution climax - fought with shards of light and complete with an electro-punk nomad soundtrack ("this is not how it is meant to be")khadak4

The film, exquisitely told by Belgium writer-director partnership Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, acts as a very fragile bridge between west and east; modern and traditional; the everyday and the spiritual - all of which stand at odds with each other in the film. I was left deeply affected, silenced, wanting to talk to people about the journey I had shared with Bagi, yet at the same time not wanting to say a word.

I wondered around a rainy busy night-time in Leeds hoping to find a quiet place to sit and let it sink in, even tried a church, before settling into a modern Japanese-Thai-Vietnamese-Chinese noodle bar that used a blow torch to crispy up the dumplings.

khadak5 "The very preciseness of the way the film (script) captures Mongolian cultural expressions, beliefs and myths, the crude and beautiful reality of living, fused with essential and universal humanity...make this film a potentially unique piece of art. I envision a silence falling down upon an audience after watching the film. Silence where beauty, harmony, courage and thought translate the film into our inner universes, allowing us to open up a space and time for an inner conversation."
Nomin Lkhagvasuren on Khadak


tasteoftea_03Saturday.. A Taste of Tea

Katsuhito Ishii is a new director for me, best known in the west for his animation work on Kill Bill. His 2004 masterwork A Taste of Tea has oddly never been seen in the UK and if there was ever a case to be made that a) film distributors have no taste and b) the Leeds Film Festival does, here it is.

We are introduced to an everyday run of the mill sort of  family. Save that the daughter is being watched by a giant version of herself, granddad teaches mum how to get the perfect manga pose for her animation and the eldest son has been chased by a dead man with a turd on his head.. So far so Japanese, I guess. tasteoftea7But somehow these elements are woven together into a tender, amusing, human and beguiling morality tale which puts at its centre the liberating, reflective yet forgiving quality of art and creativity. I would say more but I went into this film knowing little and I suggest you do too. Suffice to say that the film is peppered with touching and funny moments which show great generosity and compassion to a Mad Hatters tea party of eccentrics, which like a good Charlie Kaufman is surreal without ever seeming out of place. taste-tea

Without giving anything away, the conclusion reveals Ishii's deep love of animation on several levels: to display the fantastic, to empower the creator and as a way of saying the unsayable.

I left the cinema uplifted, yet 20 minutes late for the final jury meeting to decide the Louis le Prince short film prize. Co-juror Ian MacDonald, who runs the research centre at Leeds Met later revealed that he was the researcher on the Clive James show responsibile for my first - and surprisingly impacting - induction to Japanese culture, Endurance.



paprika2Sunday..  Paprika

Sunday started like a dream. Approaching the corn exchange from the hotel I heard the call 'one, two, three, four' and the second I turned the corner a steel band began to play. I kept walking, now with a spring in my step following a stream of floating bubbles, and as I stepped onto a big shopping street the sun burst through the clouds, turning them into glowing orbs. A photo of a tiger stares at me from a street exhibition by the WWF. A busker sings a beautiful song I don't know. Leeds rocks.

But I'm running late and at the ticket queue Darren from the festival lets me know Paprika has just started. I run in and grab my seat mid way through a whirlwind technicolour leap through cinema inspired dreamscapes. A noirish struggle on a train, Tarzan jumping through a jungle, a crime thriller shoot out, and then back to reality. Perhaps.

paprika3Paprika is the charming flying alter-ego of an operator for a company which has developed a technology that can control dreams. Once awake you can replay what you dreamt on a Final Cut Pro-styled timeline, and overcome personal issues and traumas through subtle manipulation. Which is all very well, but inevitably if misused things can start to go a little strange, with the warping of reality and random outbreaks of egomaniacal delusional, spam-speaking side effects in former patients.

ll sounds like the work of the classic evil science geek who means no harm, yet in his quest for knowledge and the new devours and destroys ever more and more of the world around him. 

paprika1And devour indeed it does. Like Khadak we see the lines between reality and the collective subconscious melt, but at the opposite aesthetic and cultural end of the spectrum. And where the sacred knowledge of a parallel world in Khadak brings relief and peaceful revolution, in Paprika, it becomes a dark never-sated power hungry to consume and control all it surveys - across dreams, the Internet and reality.

For a film which on the surface is a fast paced romp through Kaufman territory anime-stylee, there's a clear warning about the modern world's ever increasing merging of the mental and technological environments and a pretty smart look at psychology, the ego and evil entreprenerds. The Taoist resolution also brings the film's glaring modernity back to a sense of something much older and more timeless, which was a relief.

paprika4It's a very clever and enjoyable film, but unlike Khadak, barely gives you chance to breathe, let alone think. On leaving I took refuge - dazed and overwhelmed - in Leeds city art gallery where an exhibition of Da Vinci drawings hammered home the sense, once more, that Leeds really has it all.

Shaken, stirred, it worked. Three films chosen by me largely by chance, and all amongst the best I've seen this year, especially when coupled with Ahlaam and the short film and animation programmes.

Thank you to the team at Leeds for inviting this hack to visit a rare jewel in the festival circuit. What is achieved on such tight resources by Chris Fell and his team is quite a miracle.