'Bankers worse than triads': Johnny To at Edinburgh film festival

Hong Kong director's appearance among highlights of event in Scottish capital, which also saw actor Robert Carlyle's directing debut and a Walter Hill retrospective

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:35pm

The Edinburgh International Film Festival has been through a rocky period of late, with funding cuts and personnel changes shaking its foundations. But the overriding feeling during this 69th edition was one of genuine optimism. The atmosphere was buoyant, the audiences were out in force and incoming artistic director Mark Adams, a former critic from trade paper Screen International, assembled an intriguing programme of events and screenings.

Top among them, from a Hong Kong perspective, was an appearance by director Johnnie To Kei-fung, who spent more than an hour being interviewed on stage after a screening of his 2006 film Exiled. With clips shown from Election, Mad Detective and the frenetic shoot-out from 2003's PTU, the director proved an engaging guest, even if the difficulties of answering through a translator slowed the conversation down.

Topics included To's early years at TVB (including one fraught period where he slept no more than 20 hours in a month and started hallucinating), and his interest in triad culture and its place in Hong Kong society ("bankers are worse than triads", he half-joked). He also shared his thoughts on last year's umbrella movement, admitting he was keen to make a film on the events.

Police corruption, both real and fictional, was also under the microscope. Precinct Seven Five was a riveting real-life look at Brooklyn cops on the take, in particular Michael Dowd, who wound up serving 12 years in prison for racketeering and narcotics distribution. Piecing the story together with fresh interviews and archive footage, director Tiller Russell does a fine job in keeping the story succinct and sizzling, even if the film is guilty of lionising these law-breakers at times.

Pleasingly, Scottish cinema was given a real platform as the festival opened with The Legend of Barney Thomson. Marking the directorial debut of actor Robert Carlyle ( Trainspotting), who also stars alongside Emma Thompson and Ray Winstone, it's a pitch-black comedy about a barber whose life takes a chaotic turn when he gets drawn into a murder probe.

With the jury including Guardians of the Galaxy's resident Scottish star, Karen Gillan, other homegrown titles included Colin Kennedy's Swung, about a couple who get drawn into the world of swinging. Rather than treat this sexual practice as a joke, Kennedy smartly kept the wink-wink humour to a minimum with a story that touched on male-female dysfunction - both physical and mental.

The best Scottish title I saw was Hector, the directorial debut from Jake Gavin. It stars Peter Mullan in the title role, a homeless pensioner wandering the highways and byways of Britain, shivering in motorway cafes and holding onto a huge emotional tragedy from his past. Co-starring Keith Allen and Gina McKee, it boasts a typically thoughtful, understated and moving turn from Mullan, who just seems to get better with age.

The festival's big talking point was the no-show of actor Malcolm McDowell, due in to support Bereave, an awkward LA-set family drama co-starring Jane Seymour. The A Clockwork Orange star pulled out due to issues over another project - serial killer thriller Monster Butler, shot back in 2010 - that he was a producer on. Never completed due to funding problems, McDowell made unfulfilled personal assurances to crew members that they'd be paid. As a result, trade union Bectu targeted McDowell's appearance at the festival, pressuring the actor into cancelling.

If his non-appearance was a disappointment, this year's retrospectives were anything but. "Little Big Screen" showcased movies originally meant for TV - including Steven Spielberg's Duel and Tobe Hooper's Stephen King adaptation, Salem's Lot. "The early years of Walter Hill" also brought the chance to see some of the director's first films, including The Warriors and The Driver.

When it came to prizes, Andrew Haigh's 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a Norfolk couple with cracks appearing in their marriage, took the prestigious Michael Powell award for best British feature. Rampling also claimed a prize for her acting work - sharing it with James Cosmo for his portrayal of a lonely boxer in The Pyramid Texts. Proof then that the EIFF is still a bastion of good taste.