From wartime Bosnia to feudal Japan: rising critics review Golden Apricot highlights

The Tree (dir. André Gil Mata, 2018)

Organised by the Golden Apricot International Film Festival and run by critic and mentor Leonardo Goi, the GAIFF Critics Campus is an extensive workshop that provides emerging film writers a vital entry point into the festival circuit. Each year, a select cohort of young critics travel to Yerevan to hone their craft, discussing and reviewing the most exciting titles from the Caucasus and beyond.

As part of Klassiki’s partnership with the 2023 edition of the festival, we are publishing exclusive reviews of the highlights of the Golden Apricot programme from this year’s Campus participants. Today’s dispatch features two films about war and the distorting effect of violence, but with radically different approaches to the subject: Forrest Cardamenis writes on André Gil Mata’s ethereal film poem The Tree, about the intergenerational impact of war in Bosnia, while Joshua Bogatin takes on Kubi, the outrageous new period epic from Japanese cult icon Takeshi “Beat” Kitano.


André Gil Mata’s Strong Roots Blossom with The Tree

Forrest Cardamenis

A confrontation with the new in cinema often leaves one grasping for referents: this similarity to one director, but with this component of another, perhaps filtered through a third. But such an approach threatens to minimise what is invigorating and unique. So it is with André Gil Mata’s The Tree.

The Tree begins looking out a window onto the snowy roofs of distant houses, but the camera slowly tracks backward to reveal a boy looking out, and then breathing and drawing on, the window. The ticking of a grandfather clock gives the shot a self-conscious rhythm as the camera pulls further and further back and reveals the boy’s mother cleaning. As the camera recedes yet further, it begins to track laterally across a wall. The ticking of the clock fades out, and we sense we are moving from the marked, linear time it indicated toward something metaphysical. As we traverse the empty expanse of the facade and emerge into space once again, we see a sleeping old man in a similar room. The camera pushes forward this time, toward the now-broken window, and as it does, we hear only the man’s breathing until, eventually, the jolt of a gunshot shatters the serene silence, and the muzzle flash mangles the chiaroscuro of Gil Mata’s immaculate composition. Only when the camera makes it through the broken window do we cut.

What follows is equally rigorous and equally beautiful. The old man gathers glass bottles, ties them to a stick, and carries them on his back. There is no dialogue, only the crunch of rocks and soil under the man’s footsteps, his strained breathing, the intermittent gunshots, and the tintinnabulation of the colliding bottles, which begin to take on the quality of music, perhaps another signpost for the film’s concerns: Like musique concrète, it turns the ordinary into art by highlighting its material qualities.

Filip Živanović in The Tree (dir. André Gil Mara, 2018)

Are we sculpting in time, as Tarkovsky might say? Or are the magnificent durational takes instead reminiscent of Béla Tarr? Perhaps the lighting and the intense observation of interiors, along with Gil Mata’s Portuguese origins, evoke Pedro Costa? Any would be a flattering comparison, but they risk taming rather than nurturing Gil Mata’s distinct artistry.

The aesthetic precision of The Tree is probably enough to make it worthwhile, but just as empty formalism does not mark the art of Tarr or Costa, it does not mark The Tree. Heard just once, the echoing gunshots might scare or surprise; too low in the mix and they might be dismissed as “mere” details, and more variation might suggest a narrative purpose. As they are, they evoke not only war but the way war both shatters routines and shapes new ones. A more economical filmmaker might be able to suggest this with just a few words and an assist from actors, but such an approach would not generate the same depth of understanding as Gil Mata’s. War as an ambient component of reality and the struggle of the old man are not merely understood but felt through The Tree’s precise control of sound.

About halfway through The Tree, its focus shifts to the boy, and we finally hear dialogue. Puzzle pieces begin falling into place, and the temporal structure and narrative reveal themselves more clearly. These events, we can assume by the film’s end, take place in Bosnia. Bosnia, scarred by two wars, generations apart; time, not linear but cyclical, like Bosnia’s wars; the child and the old man, at once distinct beings but, by their political happenstance, the same. All this and more begins not only to make sense, but to impress itself so deeply that we are left wondering at the end how we did not intuit the entirety of the film from its opening moments. Gil Mata’s eye, gifted as it is, is not unique among cinema’s luminaries, but his sensitivity to sound and his staging of epiphanies are.

Forrest Cardamenis is a film critic based in Queens, New York. His writing has appeared in MUBI, Reverse Shot, Filmmaker Magazine, Indiewire, and other publications.

Kubi (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2023)

Losing It: Takeshi Kitano’s Kubi

Joshua Bogatin

A crab crawls out of a decapitated soldier’s neck followed by a fade to black. It’s the opening image of Takeshi Kitano’s latest and possibly final film, Kubi, and, like the scorpion-killing children at the start of Sam Peckinpah’s similarly august and weary The Wild Bunch, it’s an image that not only encapsulates and sets the stage for the violence that’s to follow, but teaches us how we’re meant to see it. In Peckinpah’s case we watch with juvenile awe and trepidation; in Kitano’s we watch with a good heaping of deranged indifference and bemusement. As Kubi’s brutal carnage comes on frequently, suddenly, and nonsensically, Kitano repeatedly deploys these characteristic fades; each one a pause in the action, a palate cleanser. Instead of an emotional reaction – a scream, a tear, a gag – it’s as if Kitano can only muster a placid smirk, a cool shrug, and a slow turn toward the next gory scene.

A long-gestating project the director first realized as a 2019 novel of the same name, the title refers to a Kubi Bukoro, a type of basket made for carrying decapitated heads; an apt image for a movie about a bunch of power-crazy men losing their minds. Set in 1582 during the Honnō-ji incident – when general Mitsuhide Akechi (Hidetoshi Nishijima) killed emperor Nobunaga Oda (Ryo Kase) in an attempted coup, and was himself killed by then general, and future emperor, Hideyoshi Hashiba (Takeshi Kitano) as revenge – almost all the characters, be they emperors, samurai, ninjas, or alcoholic peasants aching to be samurai, are after one thing: their enemies’ heads.

More than a simple historical retelling, Kitano portrays the events of the era as a delirious fugue of manoeuvres and deceptions, introducing so many characters in the first fifteen minutes – and killing so many off so quickly – that it’s impossible to keep up. Landmark figures in Japanese history are cast as a bunch of perverted fools frequently manipulating one another when they’re not being manipulated themselves. Grotesque body humor and raucous same-sex affairs pave the film, with each character racing to outdo the next in levels of debasement. Even Kitano’s Hideyoshi, known as one of the great unifiers of Japan, is here portrayed as a bumbling, illiterate fool prone to giggling over the death of his enemies, groveling like a servant before potential allies, and puking on his bodyguards as they ferry him from one battle to another. Like Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God or František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, this is history rendered as a grimy insane asylum; what’s going on might be too nonsensical to follow, but the bleak absurdity and all too human character failings are ever clear.

Kitano applies a layer of cool indifference to the film’s proceedings, never fully identifying or emotionally investing in any of the myriad character arcs, but shuffling between them as if the whole historical period was nothing but a series of dirty jokes. Even the film’s many large-scale battles eschew both epic Kurosawa-esque panoramas and gritty shoulder-level psychological realism in favor of middle-distance casualness. Battles pass each other rapidly, one after another rendered in quick, uninflected views of anonymous soldiers slaughtering each other while barely identified warlords passively look on.

Like a bastard child of Ran and Dr. Strangelove, Kubi might be this decade’s first great anti-war film. It’s a relentlessly despairing vision that grinds you down with its repetitive gore and opaque politicking, while delighting you with plenty of gleeful black humor and deftly-handled lyrical violence. Judging by the sheer number of walkouts in what was, at start, a standing room only crowd at Golden Apricot, Kubi is wickedly effective at getting under your skin and mocking the sanctity of power and decency.

Joshua Bogatin is a New York-based writer and filmmaker whose work has been published in MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, Brooklyn Rail, and In Review Online. He also works as a film programmer at Spectacle Theater, an independent micro-cinema in Brooklyn.

Klassiki’s partnership with Golden Apricot International Film Festival runs until 30th July. Find out more here.