Film Festival Review

Review: Make Me Up (Dir. Rachel Maclean, 2018)

LFF 2018

For those unfamiliar with Rachel Maclean’s work, the Edinburgh-born multimedia artist created one of the 50-feet portraits of Billy Connolly which adorned the streets of Glasgow for The Big Yin’s 75th birthday. She also submitted a short: Spite Your Face to last year’s London and Venice film festivals. This piece focussed on a Pinocchio-type character – played by Maclean – who chases the lure of wealth within an abusive patriarchal power. It was made as a response to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign. Within the mise-en-scéne its colours of choice were (Tory) blue and (Trump) gold.

The artist’s first full-length feature – included in the BFI’s 2018 festival programme – uses bubble gum pinks, violets and blues in every frame, and like its predecessor zones in on the post-Brexit zeitgeist in a similarly confrontational and acerbic manner. Make Me Up begins with the familiar aural tone and visual most Apple users attribute to the Siri application, when a disembodied male voice asks, “Siri, when is the world going to end?” before a woman screams “I don’t know!” and her cries resonate over the black screen.

Siri (Christina Gordon) in this case is a woman, pink of hair, born of a gelatinous lump of flesh. Unsure of how she ended up in such an inexplicable place, she becomes allies with Alexa (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and is forced to compete against several other women (there’s even a Cortana too) in a hyper-real game show of sorts. All under watchful Orwellian eye(s) which fall from the ceilings and monitor everything and everyone via facial expressions and status updates.

In charge is the Figurehead (Rachel Maclean). An equally magenta-haired woman who schools her audience on the role of women within civilisation and through the history of art. Like her ‘pupils’ she has no voice of her own but is a conduit for the dulcet tones of historian Kenneth Clark, and specifically his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation. She has other voices in her arsenal, namely those belonging to Andrew Graham Nixon and critics E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes, all stored within a device embedded in her arm. Her mannerisms scream Thatcher as her lips sync to the pomposity of the white, male patriarch. The girls before her know to mind their Ps and Qs and if they don’t? Well, naughty girls are punished, pitted against one another before elimination. The winner gets to eat.

Every inch of the film is aesthetically pleasing – although some may find it on the kitsch-side (when is that ever a bad thing?) – from Maclean’s production and costume design (she is also editor and responsible for the compositing and 2D effects) to Grant Mason’s prosthetics and Scott Twynholm’s score; it is all substance and style. Maclean asks us to consider the toxicity of social media, the depiction of women in politics, art iconography and beauty culture. The use of The Woman of Willendorf and the Venus de Milo is particularly powerful to illustrate the evolution of the female image, with nods to the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Munch later on.

Make Me Up is a biting and thought-provoking satire which could not be more timely, not least in its celebration of the Suffragist Movement. It presents the violent and submissive fears, desires, control and pressures surrounding women. It asks questions of the role of women in contemporary feminism and art, as well as realigning the male gaze albeit sardonically amid Freudian visuals (the breast-shaped door handles and phallic dinner meat are particularly delightful). It has aspects of Alice in Wonderland by way of Sucker Punch via Hartbeat.

There is, however, no all-encompassing decorative pink bow of a conclusion – as Siri plots her escape thanks to the support of the sisterhood, you will recognise a few – and some may even find the final shot dispiriting but thankfully women persist. Director/Writer/Artist and all-round multitasker Rachel Maclean has put together something highly intelligent and imaginative. It deconstructs the beauty myth (perfection paint, anyone?) and reconsiders art history, criticism and all with a grin on its face and a knowing wink. More please.


Review: Tag (Dir. Sion Sono, 2017)

When watching any film by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, it is safe to say no two films are ever the same. He can turn his hand to all forms of genre cinema and yet doesn’t conform to any. From his last, gang rap musical in Tokyo Tribe to the gritty noirish neon of Guilty of Romance through his masterpiece, the epic romantic opera Love Exposure to the wonderfully weird hirsute horror Exte, one is always guaranteed an aural and visual experience of radical proportions and Tag, which would make an excellent companion piece to Sono’s 2001 feature Suicide Club, is no different.

Opening on the road with two coaches full of schoolgirls on a class trip all – except Mitsuko (Reina Trendl) who’s writing poetry in her journal – engage in a playful pillow fight as girls are prone to, apparently (it also sets up the recurring motif of falling feathers). A supernatural event then leaves her as the only survivor and she’s stranded with only her legs to carry her. This invisible perpetrator chases her to a lake, leaving more victims in its wake, where Mitsuko can wash off the majority of the blood spatter covering her stark white school uniform. She replaces the outfit with a second variant of a uniform and takes refuge in another all-girls school where everyone seems to know her despite never being there before. It isn’t long before death and chaos follows Mitsuko and she is, once again, on the run to the next reality and the next uniform, this time with a different face as she races to survive.

Tag offers up some interesting and philosophical musings about life, death and destiny as Mitsuko (in a couple of guises) spends the majority of the film running away yet, towards something. Participating in the human race has us all running from/towards death and experiencing the absurdity of life; a concept which is taken very literally here but then, thankfully, subtlety has never been Sono’s forte when combining his arthouse sensibilities with bloody action and horror. Yet, this film seems to take some cues from mainstream culture like Alice in Wonderland via seventies comedy horror classic, House.

Keeping the cast predominately women until the very end leads us through a womanhood of sorts: adolescence, love, laughter, and freedom to marriage when everything, or so it appears, ceases – the Groom with the animal head who resides in a black coffin certainly signifies as much – cue more carnage. This then culminates to a meta end and one which can also be read as a deliberate and timely response to the GamerGate controversy. However, as Mitsuko battles the new realities and does finally enter The Male World, it all goes way beyond a 2014 harassment campaign. It’s a largely silent and grim place where, surprisingly, women are decorative objects and all for the playing pleasure of a wizened old man (astutely cast Japanese heartthrob Takumi Saito under convincing prosthetics). He is the personification of patriarchy bending the world to his will, playing with his dolls and twisting reality to suit.

Tag, (inspired by Yusuke Yamada’s Riaru Onigokko) is a highly intelligent and exhilarating ride. The creativity and aesthetic of Sono is the driving force behind this provocative and surreal little tale. It is a bloody riot yet beautiful in its macabre weirdness, not least in those first five minutes – only in something so very artificial and unconventional can reality resonate even louder. It is a shame that there are no extras on the disc as a featurette or director commentary could shed more light on the inspiration for it, however, the not knowing is also what makes Tag such a pleasing experience. You, just like Mitsuko, get to choose and decide its fate.