Certificate: 15
Running time: 107 mins
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring: Malgorzata Foremniak, Jerzy Gudejko, Wladyslaw Kowalski
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Country: Japan/Poland

After a wait of six years Mamoru Oshii returned to the genre that he re-defined with the groundbreaking and visionary Ghost in the Shell.  A lot had changed in his absence but Avalon sees Oshii take control of the reins for a trip back inside the machine.

In a bleak future the youth of society are escaping reality and into an illegal RPG called Avalon to work out their tension and disillusionment.  When top player Ash (Foremniak) discovers there are advanced levels unknown to anyone before she decides to team up with others in order to complete the game and venture into the uncharted territory of Avalon.

Unlike the neon world of Tron and the glossy Matrix trilogy Avalon exists somewhere between an ultra realistic (and devastated) warzone and an expressionistic manifestation of the players discontent.  It manages to feel real and yet beyond real at the same time and to Oshii’s credit it never treads too deep into either side.  The shattered architecture and heavy set shades are reminiscent of German Expressionism and adds a level of rich subtext to the narrative.  There are subtle links and references throughout to the second World War and cinematographically the chiaroscuro lighting means that Germany is still casting a shadow over Poland.  The use of imperfect computerised graphics to create elements of the gaming world is a wonderful touch.  Where Tron’s visual effects look dated now they were cutting edge for the time, the CGI in Avalon is intentionally out of date as it’s an illegal game that’s been roughly coded by rogue gamers.  What makes the film look and feel realistic to the audience is the marriage between the gritty, emotionally realistic cinematography and the raw and edgy CGI.  Oshii has not just created a physical but a psychological landscape you can believe in.

Foremniak (as Ash) is great, unfair comparison have been drawn (due to physical appearance) to Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix trilogy but Ash is a much darker, much more complicated and distant character than what would be acceptable in Hollywood cinema.  Foremniak plays her with a great balance between the lone wolf of the early film and the driven competitive gamer of the later.  Her gesturality and characterisation all hint at a turbulent past but this is never dealt with narratively.  Like the shattered landscape of Avalon her past is heavily shadowed and is filled with danger, loss and despair.

Gudjeko (as Murphy) gives an extremely strong performance in the role that is, effectively, key in Ash’s progress within the game.  Like Robert Shaw in Jaws he has the skill set, knowledge and experience to guide Ash to where she needs to be.  He is also, crucially, a match in regards to strength, determination and wit for Ash and the relationship between the two is one of mutual admiration that plays like combat chess to the benefit and delight of the audience watching.  The real driver of the narrative (arguably) is that of the Game Master (Kowalski) and it’s an excellently subtle performance.  With the game being illegal the role of Game Master is one of law maker amongst the lawless and there’s a degree of sympathy for him but when Ash makes her move for the advanced levels Kowalski stiffens as the role of Game Master becomes that of the authoritarian in a world set up to escape the authority and in turns transforms not just the performance of the Game Master but also the status of the game.  Politically it’s a situation a lot of countries find themselves in, the only way to control a past time or drug is to legalise it in order to legislate and tax it.  Again the theme of World War Two returns to the undercurrent of the film and the political nature of the allied decisions to get involved.  It works on this level and on a pure cinematic narrative level adds the necessary tension to carry the film into the final third.

Like the cinematography the score is a beautiful marriage between two worlds.  The use of both Polish and Japanese orchestras to create a unique and fanciful score that somehow manages to sit alongside the rough and dystopic visuals beautifully.  It’s worth an added note of interest that the analogical connection to World War Two continues in the scoring of the film as both countries weren’t just involved but arguably came out having been dealt the hardest blows (Poland having been invaded by Germany and Japan having been decimated by U.S nuclear blasts).

There are some blemishes on an otherwise strong film, the script is typically (for Oshii) underwritten and at points falls into some clearly sign posted clichés that are shockingly untypical of Oshii.  The biggest issue though is the sensibilities of the Japanese director as some of the more spiritual moments, though work well in Anime, are problematic in live action and jar severely with the gritty mise-en-scene created.

Avalon is a welcome return for a director with limitless vision and a true love of storytelling.  An interesting and challenging take on a time of great conflict carefully crafted by a group of individuals who are steeped in genuine understanding of the word.


Gabriel said...

Despite it's limitations, I absolutely loved this film. Oshii's so damn talented. Great review.

John Baxter said...

Oshii is excellent, it's the visual depth that allows the film to get away with narrative shortcomings. Amazing.

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