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Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Of mice and misery -- the Ramsay view

The idea of a Celtic Film Festival is a good one: Although cinema has certainly become a global culture, there's still a strong case to be made for regional diversity. Tokyo distributor Moviola has assembled an eminently watchable lineup of a half-dozen feature films and two collections of short works from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which plays this week at Aoyama's Sogetsu Hall.

While this may seem a somewhat obscure corner of world cinema, there are a few well-known names among the lineup: There's David Thewlis as a drunken, caustic Irish journalist in "Divorcing Jack," Pierce "007" Brosnan starring in and producing "The Nephew," Brendan Gleeson ("The General") playing a gangster again in "I Went Down," and actor Peter Mullan's powerful directorial debut, the gritty short film "Fridge."

If there's a must-see among the lot, it would have to be young Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's debut feature, "Ratcatcher." (Also playing is her short film, "Gasman," which took an award at Cannes in '98.) An alternately bleak and beautiful film, "Ratcatcher" mixes dreams and death, the mundane and the mesmeric, in a strikingly original fashion. Its grim Glasgow setting of dilapidated council estates, ale-soaked pubs and casual violence is punctuated by strange moments of oneiric wonder, like when a child's dreams float off over heaps of uncollected rubbish, following a pet mouse on a trip to the moon, via balloon.

Surreal? Quite. In an interview with The Japan Times, a slightly jet-lagged Ramsay lights up at the mention of avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren's 1943 classic, "Meshes of the Afternoon." "I think it was the film I saw that really made me want to pursue filmmaking," explains Ramsay. "I was a photographer until then; I was only about 17, and it blew me away. She looks at things in a very particular way; she's able to go from reality to something that feels surreal, and you can't really interpret how you got there.

"I guess in some ways that's what I tried to do with 'Ratcatcher,' to come from one direction (and) to change that perception into something else. Because for me, that's what life's like, especially for a child. So it goes from fantasy to reality pretty easily. Things don't sit happily with each other."

"Ratcatcher" starts with a sudden and accidental tragedy, when two boys are tussling in a canal and one goes under and doesn't surface. The surviving boy, James (William Eadie), returns home too shocked to say anything, and withdraws further inward. The claustrophobic reality of the rat-infested estate offers no relief from the constant, silent reproach of the canal, but James dreams of a fresh chance, symbolized by the pristine new estates being built amid open fields outside the city.

Central to Ramsay's style is her camera's point-of-view, which somehow manages to focus on events and details with an immediacy most of us lost somewhere around age 10. "I guess it's just something to do with being a photographer, the way you look at things. For me, part of being a kid is you're not biased, there's no moral judgement, not as much as when you're an adult. So I try and see things in a different way, and try to be open to things that other people might think are a mistake."

Ramsay's certainly able to capture the innocent side of childhood -- how even a pile of rubbish bags can become a fascinating diversion -- but her vision is too honest to stop there. "People try to make childhood seem all idyllic and idolize it, but for me, it can be a really brutal place," explains Ramsay. "Because it's very direct: 'I don't like you' -- slap. Kids are very straight about how they feel emotionally. I've got much more of a 'Lord of the Flies' viewpoint, I guess." (Laughs)

If there's one thing Ramsay loves in her characters, it's their contradictions. James' father (played by Tommy Flanagan) is an alcoholic lout who's cold to his son, and quick to strike his wife -- but he's also capable of a quick act of unhesitating bravery when a crisis occurs. Ramsay admits, "I quite enjoy playing with people's perceptions, so it's never quite what you expect. I'm trying to show different aspects of each character."

Beyond that, Ramsay never lets her film settle into any one perspective: "In a conventional film you're always 'with' one character, which is normally how people pull your heartstrings," says Ramsay. "But for me, objectivity brings you closer to the emotional core than it does to be subjective all the time."

When asked what inspired her to start with a drowning, Ramsay points to her own childhood growing up in Glasgow: "There were a couple of kids who drowned in the canal; it was a dangerous place, but when you're a kid, you're always drawn to these places that you're not allowed to go to.

"I remember my brother told me about an experience he had, when he and a friend had pushed somebody in, an old tramp, and they never knew what happened to him. And for the rest of his life he felt like he'd murdered someone. He probably didn't, y'know, but I think it's that kind of guilt that hangs over you for the rest of your life."

The film is certainly a bit "dark" by any standard, but one need look no further than this year's Academy Awards -- "American Beauty," "Boys Don't Cry" -- to see that emotionally complex, "dark" films are where the action is. "People were saying 'this is a bit dark, where's the audience?' " admits Ramsay. "But I don't think you should be thinking about the audience all the time. The world becomes a more homogeneous place the whole time, and you can't please everybody. So I stuck to my guns, hoping very much that if I made something that I can relate to, that other people would as well.

"I think that's the most you can hope for anyway, to do something with as much integrity as you can, and hope that people will get it."

The Celtic Film Festival runs from today through Sunday, April 9, at Sogetsu Hall near Aoyama-Itchome subway station. Call (03) 5366-1675 for schedule and ticket information. "Ratcatcher" is screening April 5 at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A with the director, and on April 8 at 11 a.m.

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