And so we return once again to London for our coverage of the 66th London Film Festival. There are some great films on the 2022 list and we hope to bring you more coverage of the festival itself than ever before. With the Virtual Viewing Library working a little differently this year, we’ll be grouping the films together the same way the Festival organizers did, starting with their ‘Thrill’ program, presenting us with a duology of thrillers from both sides of the globe. .
The woman in the white car (dir. Christine Ko, South Korea)
Thriller is a bit of a miscategorization with our first movie, because even though The woman in the white car presents itself as a conventional thriller of the week with a cable television era aesthetic, the deeper it delves into its own mystery, the more it rewards your interest. Layer by layer, he pulls out his tangle of conflicting flashbacks, each seeming more believable than the last, until the full picture is revealed and you smile at his cunning.
The title immediately evokes that of Wilkie Collins The woman in whiteconsidered one of the first true crime novels and still one of the best. The woman in the white car earns that pedigree, not as a stealthy modernized adaptation – which I’ve repeatedly believed it was about to become – but as a riff on some of the larger narrative traits (a pair of sisters, a kidnapping, mistaken identities, a committed woman, opportunists looking for an inheritance) all approached from different angles. The structuring of these flashbacks sometimes leaves a bit to be desired and it’s not uncommon for films to go through re-releases between their festivals and their theatrical releases and this could be a candidate for some minor editorial changes to create a version that trusts to its audience to remember things a bit longer, but for the most part it’s impressive how writer Seo Ja-Yeon and editor Jeong Kyoung Eun keep audiences up to date with the developing narrative.
Each time we enter a flashback the aspect ratio changes subtly and in the first flashback in particular the image is rendered in an exaggerated and hyper-realistic style which mimics that used by lesser thrillers and pays off when we visit these places in real life and the falsity of these initial accounts is all the more palpable. There’s also a self-reflective quality to the fact that a key character is herself a mystery writer, a minor biographical detail that takes on greater significance as the story progresses.
The film kicks off with a great thriller as a lonely car drives through the wintery mountains (as with many South Korean productions, the natural landscapes are a boon for The woman in the white car), pulls up to a provincial hospital and stuns a desperate woman (Ryeo-won Jung), barefoot, cradling her mortally injured sister (Jang Jin-hee) in her arms. Assigned to the titular woman’s case is police sergeant Hyun-ju (Lee Jeong-eun) who takes the woman’s statement, but soon notices the holes in it. The more she learns, the less her story adds up, but every new alternative always leaves a missing piece somewhere. Almost ago Rashomon-as an effect to the way plausible alternatives are presented, but Ko’s film is less concerned with the abstract nature of truth or the narratives we sell ourselves, but the characters’ emotions and their abilities to see through defenses each other and to relate to each other.
Hyun-ju is a mysterious protagonist with refreshing features, middle-aged and professional in a way that women are rarely allowed to film, her ability to unravel the mystery also through her confident professional conduct and personal investment in filming. ‘affair. She is a woman who knows the effects of emotional and physical abuse when she sees it and has her own demons to wrestle with. It’s a solid central performance from Lee and Jung is even better, giving a rare and surprisingly believable depiction of schizophrenia. There’s more to his character and story that moves in a disappointing direction in terms of maintaining standards of portrayal, but for once people with mental health issues are accurately portrayed as more likely to be victimized. violence than the agents of it and Jung’s compelling, layered performance is critical to the film’s success.
There are some rather formulaic aspects to the story and especially the storytelling style of the film, but these disappear as the film gains momentum and continues to find new ways to twist. Director Christine Ko slowly overcomes the early wobbles and builds a quietly gripping narrative about learning the strength and emotional abuse that made you believe your desires and aspirations didn’t matter. Stories of confrontation and overcoming trauma are still very much in vogue today, it seems, and The woman in the white car is a deeper exploration of these themes than we’ve grown accustomed to. The bonds forged between the characters feel heartfelt, authoritative, and skillfully acted, with little reliance on romance or the sexualization of their empowerment.
The woman in the white car is a rare film for having no recognized romantic dimension, without a single character whose sexuality is ever hinted at. The platonic bonds between characters are all the more genuine and not made to undergo fetishization or contrived character pairing to provide cheap resolutions. It’s an approach that feels distinctly feminine and mature, nurturing the story’s generic roots and taking it in a less sensationalized and more character-driven and emotive direction. With so many mystery thrillers and dramas in the field, it’s this kind of approach and emotional grounding that makes The woman in the white car feeling one of the freshest of the bunch.
Ashkal (dir. Youssef Chebbi, Tunisia)
The festival’s “Thrill” program also offers us this Franco-Qatari-Tunisian co-production, Ashkal. As The woman in the white car it’s a detective procedural where the definition of a thriller is expanded to include drama and supernatural horror, and unfortunately runs out of thrills too. Presented this year at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes, the film opens with the local history of the district of Tunis where it takes place, “Les Jardins de Carthage”, a residential area promised to the wealthiest of the city which was abandoned in the midst of construction following the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2010, leaving barren concrete block towers, mere pencil sketches of the luxurious homes they were once intended to be. Eerie music plays and these edifices are framed like remnants of 70s sci-fi sets. Inside one of these cold envelopes, the body of a night watchman is found early one morning, dead by apparent suicidal self-immolation and though her superiors quickly try to close the case, Detective Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) is convinced there is more to the mystery as similar deaths begin to follow.
The historical and political context Ashkal wastes no time before placing himself in is deeply relevant to his story, and although culturally specific in many ways, the contested place of police surveillance and the desire to hold officers accountable for their actions has become a topic of increasingly global discussion. One of the first scenes where Fatma walks past freshly placed graffiti reading “ACAB” could be from a movie set in the US, Britain or many other countries. Unfortunately however, Ashkal fails to delve deeper into issues much deeper than that. The investigation into the killing is taking place alongside an investigation by an oversight committee into officers accused of committing human rights abuses under the previous regime, an investigation which Fatma’s superiors are eager to hear. divert attention and resources, the high-profile case seeming like a perfect opportunity to do it.
There are comments out there about authorities stoking hysteria and exaggerating their accomplishments to make themselves look irreplaceable, but that’s about it. Fatma’s own father testifies against the force, which earns her some childish distrust and some hostile comments from her colleagues, but that too doesn’t really go far, Fatma never discussing her own feelings about it with her father or anyone else. Fatma’s partner, Batal (Mohamed Grayaa), was part of the force at the time and likely took part in the killings and unlawful arrests, and is also planning to come clean and testify against his superiors, but this decision does not is also not explored in detail. Credit where it’s due though, this storyline comes to some sort of conclusion, which unfortunately is more than I can say for others.
Director Youssef Chebbi clearly invests far more in aesthetic storytelling than dialogue, relying heavily on the actors to convey their inner turmoil non-verbally. Considering the slow pace and low stakes of the drama, one can’t help but feel that it asks too much of its actors, giving them too little to work with. As The woman in the white car made with its remote mountainous countryside, Ashkal makes fantastic use of its urban locations, where the buildings’ dark, empty windows create frames for its tragedy and the flickering of flames carries blocks past after dark. Ousaifi gives a fine performance, but there is no doubt that the partially reconquered Jardins de Carthage are themselves the real star of Ashkal.
There are enough loose ideas in Ashkal, about corruption, the legacy of dictatorships, the narrow-mindedness of authority, the inhumane treatment of migrants, and how social media spreads political radicalization, but they’re just kind of… there. They don’t go anywhere, develop or evolve, and the story doesn’t do much to advance a perspective on any of them. With so little real character development to create stakes, and so many slow and often repetitive scenes, we are left to ponder the mystery mechanics and abstract themes the film explores. The mystery may or may not be supernatural in origin, so it’s hard to tackle it in a satisfying way, to resolve itself in as abstract and mysterious a way as it began in.
Despite the fact that there are many compelling frameworks in Ashkalthey reinforce each other little and while The woman in the white car only got more engrossing as it went on, in the final minutes of Ashkal my interest was out of breath.