Thursday, November 28, 2002

I caught Mamoro Oshii's Avalon . I had been looking forward to seeing this for a while. Harry Knowles named it in his list of the best films of 2001 (although it is still unreleased in the US). Here we have Oshii, famed director of anime classic Ghost in the Shell making a live action film about virtual reality video games in Polish. And it was, well.... interesting. The plot is relatively simple. We are in a futuristic world in which there is an underground, illegal, dangerous, virtual reality video game called Avalon. Disaffected, marginalised people from a seemingly terminally depressed real world play it and watch it. The players play for money, but are obsessed and driven and you get the impression they would play it even without the money. Sometimes people get too obsessed with the game, and don't come out, ending up in catatonic states in hostpitals. Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is a star player, possibly with a little of a death wish. She plays alone, which is seen as dangerous, but refuses to join a team. She was a member of what was perhaps the greatest team of the past, and something went wrong, and the team disintegrated and one of its players didn't come out. She may or may not have been responsible for this. She sees peculiar clues in the game, some of which apparently lead to a new, top secret level of the game in which her questions of the past may be answered.

Okay, that sounds more exciting than it actually is. The film is slow, and puzzling, has a lyrical quality, and doesn't explain anything. The film is visually extraordinary, with both reality and the game shot in a weird, sepia like way. It's strictly in colour, but most of the colour is washed out. Both the real world and the game are full of conventions from video games: weird aircraft that people shoot at that could not exist in reality, shadows that aren't quite right, very limited characters, costumes, locations and sets.

As happens in this sort of movie, questions as to what actually is reality and what is a game do come up, but nothing is resolved at the end of the film. The decision to film it in Polish works in a weird sort of way. It (and the choice of music) gives it an otherworldly quality. That's Poland, mixed with the whole Eastern European thing: the Soviet style of architecture and engineering combined with being in transition, combined with a certain wild west quality feels right for underground virtual reality games, and yet somehow gives it some Poetry as well.

In the end, the film feels like a mixture of Ghost in the Shell and Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique . That perhaps sounds incongrous, but like the Kieslowski film, this is visually striking and narratively frustrating. The films use music in a strikingly similar way. In both cases a lot of viewers are going to be impressed but irritated at the end.

Including me, to tell the truth. Although this film is striking, it's in the end quite derivative. Most of the plot points were done much better by David Cronenberg in eXistenZ . If you want to think about the issues raised in this film, see that one instead. (It's also much funnier). And although this film feels different, the feel isn't that original either. It's the juxtaposition of the two things that is novel. And it doesn't entirely work. As I said, an interesting trip to the cinema more than an enjoyable one.

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