International Screenings from Cine-Excess
Ellis Reed reports back from a recent Cine Excess event, which screened women-led films from six different countries..-
In the rich tapestry of British film festivals, Cine-Excess – founded by Xavier Mendik – occupies a rather interesting niche. Their hybrid events mix cult screenings with academic lectures, attracting industry types, scholars, and members of the public from all over the world.
Between 12 and 14 March 2021, they ran their ‘Distinctive Visions’ event, showcasing the work of seven female directors from six different countries. For my money, the standout film of the festival was a superb, very accessible feature called The Stylist (USA, Jill Gevargizian, 2020). Lonely hairdresser Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a serial killer who keeps the scalps of her victims, using them as wigs for her private role-play. When regular customer Olivia (Brea Grant) needs help with her wedding, Claire becomes embroiled in – and increasingly obsessed by – the personal life of another human being.
The setup might sound schlocky but it really isn’t, largely due to sensitive writing and a raw, very vulnerable performance by Townsend in the lead role. You’ll see the finale coming, because foresight isn’t a strength of mine, and even I was a couple of minutes ahead of the curve – but the build-up is unbearable, the execution is flawless, and I found it utterly devastating. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my mind when I went to bed, which is the highest praise I can give a horror film. It’s currently riding high on Rotten Tomatoes and deserves a place alongside Saint Maud (UK, Rose Glass, 2019), The Witch (USA, Robert Eggers, 2015), and all the other critical darlings of the modern genre.
Flying the flag for the UK was Black Lake (UK, K Pervaiz, 2020), which we had the pleasure of reviewing at a previous Cine-Excess festival. This is a challenging and thought-provoking piece, fusing horror tropes with South Asian folklore, about a young artist who is stalked by a vengeful churail. The film is distinguished by beautiful and indulgent cinematography, which does a great job of conveying the main character’s sensory experience. It’s worth checking out for the visuals alone, although there’s a lot more to the film than pure aesthetic. Since we reviewed it, it’s been included in Prime Video, so we encourage you to check it out – ideally with a friend – because you’ll want to turn it over in your minds once the credits roll, and it makes a great discussion piece.
Another personal favourite was Red Pill (USA, Tonya Pinkins, 2020) by Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins. In her feature film début, six liberal activists follow the campaign trail all the way to ‘Red Country’ (the colours are flipped in the US, so red means Republican). In structural terms, it’s a home invasion thriller – albeit in a rented property – but it’s also got interesting characters, touches of dark humour, and an awful lot of commentary on modern politics. Pinkins describes the film as ‘a Black woman’s gaze on white America,’ adding that ‘as I see in the news every day, white America is still unwilling to look at itself.’(1) Like Get Out (USA, Jordan Peele, 2017), it uses genre tropes as metaphors for modern fears.
You can also enjoy it as a straight-up home invasion if you want because it doesn’t sacrifice narrative drama to serve the message. You’re missing out on a lot if you do, but it functions very well as one and really nails the subgenre. Recommended.
The other films were:
Fornacis (France, Aurélia Mengin, 2018). A road movie where the protagonist (Aurélia Mengin) drives around in a vintage car, being haunted by the ghost of her lost love. It’s an experimental film with a very nice 80s-tinged aesthetic and a whole lot of sensory texture. In terms of story, we’re thrown into an ongoing situation with no explanation and left to find our way through it – which will appeal to some viewers more than others. As per one critic: ‘Oui, nous sommes face à un cinéma symboliste, exigeant et incarné.’(2) Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s got some good buzz in the French-language press, so give it a chance and make your own mind up – especially if you like art-house films with buckets of atmosphere. After all, vive la différence.
Leakage (Suzan Iravanian, Iran, 2018). An interesting magical-realist movie about a middle-aged woman (Armik Gharibian) who starts physically leaking crude oil. Despite the fantastical subject matter, it’s filmed in an ultra-grounded, almost fly-on-the-wall style with very natural performances. Subplots include the woman’s missing husband, battles with bureaucracy, and the lack of paid work in modern-day Iran. The same concept could have played out as body horror, but Leakage focuses on the mundane consequences of leaking oil – hiding the soiled bedsheets, and so on – rather than specific anatomical details. All in all, it’s a strange drama rather than a horror, but it’s certainly worth checking out. Also included in Prime.
Trans (South Korea, Naeri Do, 2020). This is a present-day (or maybe near future?) low budget sci-fi, set in a South Korean high school. After being bullied, Minyoung (Jeong-in Hwang) gravitates to a mysterious classmate, who believes they can become ‘transhuman’ if they administer electric shocks to their own brains. Unfortunately, their experiments have unintended consequences, and Minyoung gets trapped in a shifting time-loop.
Despite the low budget, this one has quite a bit of charm. The giant red Tesla coils make for a very nice visual, and there’s something appealingly daft about the way that everything happens in a high school. Even before the story gets going, it seems to take place in a world two doors down from reality, where a teenager can install a high tech lab on campus with none of the adults really noticing. It’s a niche film that will have its admirers, so watch the trailer and see if it takes your fancy.
In the Light of the Night (Germany, Misha L Kreuz, 2020). Also known by the much better (and certainly more concise) title of Im Nachtlicht, this is a very interesting, very modern reimagining of the werewolf myth. After losing her job and place to stay, Minthe (Diana Maria Frank) is offered a surprising lifeline: a restoration job at an old mill with accommodation on site. However, the gig comes with caveats. She’ll be sharing the grounds with a mute woman, and there’s an equally mysterious outbuilding that she mustn’t enter. Naturally, her curiosity gets the better of her.
It sounds like a straightforward horror setup, but two things distinguish the film. These are the character of Minthe and the unique mythology of the film. There’s a whole web of corruption around the mill, and the meat of the movie is a slow-burning mystery, rather than a high octane creature feature. It might be a little too slow for some horror fans – it weighs in at about a hundred minutes – but it certainly held my interest. Keep an eye out for this one, if you fancy a different take on the werewolf legend.
Those were the films from Distinctive Visions, and as you can see, it was a really diverse and interesting selection. As of 15 March, Cine-Excess has released three of the films as part of their new Digital Film Channel, which is ‘dedicated to promoting diverse new talent in cult cinema.’(3) They have a good track record of finding interesting features, so this is definitely an outlet to keep your eye on.