FILM / The last chance hotel: King of the Hill Director: Steven Soderbergh (US); Desperate Remedies (15) Director: Main / Wells (US); Late Spring (no cert) Director: Yasujiro Ozu (Jap)

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The Independent Culture
The opening frames of Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill (12) are saturated with those dappled yellow hues that usually signal 'period charm'. They're not altogether misleading, since the film goes on to deal in two distinct brands of nostalgia: a specific wistfulness about the Thirties - when America was poor but she was honest - and a more diffuse feeling of warmth for childhood years. It's based on an autobiographical book by A E Hotchner, but we've met resourceful lads like its 12-year-old hero Aaron (Jesse Bradford) before in fiction, and especially in the pages of American storytellers from Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury.

And yet there's also a pronounced streak of darkness in the film, which points back to the hero of Soderbergh's last piece, the commercially disastrous Kafka. Aaron's adventures take place in and around the transients' hotel in which he and his family have fetched up during the Depression. It's not just a grimy place, but a spooky one, too, evidently operated by the same Satanic company who ran the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the flophouse where Barton Fink's psyche began to crack. Aaron's neighbours include a gaunt artist, an epileptic girl and Spalding Gray as an alcoholic who commits suicide in the messy style favoured by Roman emperors.

As money gets tighter, the residents leave, and Aaron's isolation becomes more and more Kafkaesque. His mother goes to a sanatorium and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) goes on the road selling watches. Soon Aaron is so hungry that he is forced to dine off pictures of food cut from a magazine, and events take on a hallucinatory quality.

Indeed, the whole film is slightly dreamlike - there's often a hint of simplification in its presentation of characters that suggests that we are observing the world from Aaron's point of view even when he isn't involved with the action. The hints don't quite amount to a consistent style, though, and the frequent shifts of tone end up looking less like complexity than indecisiveness. One early sequence can serve as an emblem for King of the Hill - a competitive match, shot with the kind of intricate camera flourishes Brian De Palma likes to reserve for massacres of the guilty. All that precision, all that care . . . and all devoted to a kids' game of marbles.

If King of the Hill is a reverie in yellows, Desperate Remedies (15) is a study in scarlet: vast, eye-smacking waves of the colour flood the screen in the form of oversized hoop skirts, lush upholstery, garish make-up and the odd blob of blood - all of which may sound faintly repulsive. But this first feature from two young New Zealanders, Stewart Main and Peter Wells, proves to be that unexpected thing: a genuine oddity. Its outlandish plot involves arranged marriages, opium addiction, commerce and lesbianism . . . none of these elements being as important as its lurid set designs and air of cheery fin de siecle depravity.

Desperate Remedies is certainly a long way from flawless: even allowing for the fact that it's a joke about melodrama - which demands that every line be hissed] gritted]] spat]]] growled]]]] or yelled]]]] Much of the acting is fairly ropey, and the dialogue shows surprisingly little flair for Victorian pastiche. Worse still, there are nasty hints that its makers might actually believe they are busy 'subverting' something or other. But the film's inventiveness and headlong pace offer ample compensation. The thing is gloriously silly and highly entertaining.

Almost nothing could stand in greater contrast to such archness and vulgarity than Late Spring (no cert), the latest of the Renoir's admirable Ozu season. Though the camera is less static in this 1949 production than in his last films, and there are even a couple of tracking shots, its parade of visions and feelings is every bit as stately. It concerns a middle-aged father anxious to marry off his daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara); its emotions are more autumnal than vernal - melancholy, resignation, regret.

One of Ozu's favoured topics was the conflict between the old Japan and its new Westernised ways, and in Late Spring the two are contrasted with particular emphasis. On the traditional side, the film begins with a tea ceremony and, en route to Noriko's eventual wedding, dwells on a shrine, a Noh play and the raked stones of a Zen garden. But Western ways appear to be winning: even Noriko's groom is said to resemble Gary Cooper. Ozu's attitude to these developments seems to be uneasy acceptance rather than conservative horror. He does not labour the parallels between the old man and the old country, but they are there, and help give Late Spring its rare gravity and emotional force.

All films open on Friday; see tomorrow's listings for details

(Photograph omitted)

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