IFFR 2011: AARDVARK Review

(Noir is noir, documentary is documentary and never the twain shall meet?)

When I started writing for Twitch, I did so under my forum monicker of "Ardvark". Years of being chided for misspelling the word did not stop me using it (it's a play on my ACTUAL NAME, dammit!), but when distributors started asking Todd if I was a really existing person or not I grudgingly switched to using my real name instead.

Fast forward a few more years, and I see a film appear at the International Film Festival Rotterdam which is called "Aardvark", one of several narrative-documentary hybrids being shown this year. The name pulls at my eye for obvious reasons, and pushes it to the synopsis. It turns out to be a Film Noir style revenge-thriller featuring a true-life blind martial artist. Made as an American-Argentinian co-production, written and directed by Japanese-American Kitao Sakurai.

Sometimes you need a valid reason for watching a film, sometimes a catchy name and an intriguing synopsis is all it takes. Was it worth my time though? Read on!


The Story:

Larry Lewis is a blind man with a drinking problem he is trying to conquer. As part of his effort to get in better physical and mental shape, Larry starts practicing Jiujitsu. Impressed by the spiritual side of the sport, he becomes close friends with his trainer Darren, but Darren appears to be involved in some shady business and soon Larry gets pulled into a sordid story involving murder.

Blind but with newfound confidence in his martial arts prowess, Larry embarks on a private investigation which takes him straight into a Film Noir...


The Movie:

Imagine knowing a really cool guy and deciding to make a short documentary about him. Not too odd a notion, right? Especially if you are a filmmaker.
Now imagine how cool it would be to have your subject get involved in a crime thriller.

Writer-director Kitao Sakurai didn't stop at imagining: he made a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his blind friend Larry Lewis. Larry is a very likable guy with a friendly charisma and a no-nonsense attitude, both about his handicap and his drinking problem. Seeing him enlist for martial arts training and earning his first colored belt may not be particularly deep or enlightening, but it sure is easy to watch and the camaraderie on display is addictive. You want to get to know Larry.

This changes however once the artificial narrative creeps in. The idea is intriguing enough: you have your cast of characters established through watching half an hour of true-life documentary, and then have them get involved in a made up story. Because the characters look and feel real, the conclusion might be that the audience will feel more involved with the story as well because we have all these real people in it, right? But unfortunately it doesn't quite work out like that in this case.

The problems start with the script. If Sakurai had written a kick-ass Film Noir story the whole exercise might have more merit, but the plot we get here is artificial, inconsistent and, frankly, not all that interesting either. Some people do very weird things without explanation, for no other reason but to further the story a bit. And Larry himself, while being swell when he IS himself, turns remarkably wooden once he must do any acting. Some of the supporting actors fare better and it has to be said that Kitao Sakurai (turning up briefly in his own movie) has a great villain voice, but overall the inconsistencies give an amateur feel to the whole endeavour.

When the film ends (granted, with a surprise) I felt underwhelmed. The cool-factor of the concept did not manage to win from my disappointment with its execution.

Having said that, congratulations to Kitao Sakurai for some successful screenings in Rotterdam: in general the audience at the IFFR was kinder than me and awarded the film a 3.3 out of 5.


Conclusion:

While the idea in itself is a fun one, "Aardvark" was not for me. The documentary parts are interesting enough but in my opinion the thriller parts lets the film down by poor plotting and acting.
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