Directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito, released in 2001.
In brief: Virtual reality sci-fi film by Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii, filmed in Poland with Polish actors, featuring a dramatic musical score that rivals that of, say, The Last of the Mohicans.
“I am cold Ash. I’ve been playing Avalon for a long time. I know this game as well as anyone, but I couldn’t tell you how or when it got started, or who controls it, or how it’s supposed to end […] But there is a goal: to go beyond the game – to something more.”
So goes some of the first dialog, spoken in voice over as we watch Ash in battle, her long dark cloak swirling behind her. These lines also serve to sum up what you’re about to see in case you’re unfamiliar with the basic virtual reality storyline. And this does not occur until the 6:00 mark, which should give you an idea of the film’s pace.
Some sci-fi buffs might consider this film slow, boring and pretentious, but for the rest of us this “exercise” is fascinating. I call it an exercise because at times it hardly seems like a film, or rather there doesn’t seem to be enough here for a complete film.
But has the everyday ever been transformed into the otherworldly so easily? In this case, by filming everything with a sepia tint, ordinary modern-day Poland becomes a dreamscape.
Avalon is an illegal virtual-reality game, a product of technology and programming, but one can’t overlook the film’s many references to insanity: from the asylum-like cells where players strap themselves in, to the soup kitchen full of lost souls, to the clinic where “Unreturned” players are institutionalized, their minds lost somewhere in the game. The shot of the catatonic patients lined up in wheelchairs on a balcony, perhaps taking the sun but oblivious to everything, is particularly striking, like a TB sanatorium for the mad.
If you want to rewatch the musically dramatic scenes in this film, skip forward to the 8:00 or 1:28:00 mark and enjoy.
A note on the dialog: The Netflix streaming version of this film is dubbed into English, rather than the original Polish with English subtitles. And the English doesn’t quite match quotes from the subtitled version that I’ve read elsewhere, indicating a different translation was used. Sometimes dubbing and translation can wreck a film, but in this case the uncredited actors doing the dubbing are perfect: their lightly accented English lends itself to the otherworldly feel of the entire production.
And why not dubbed? In Oshii’s Assault Girls (2009), a kind of sequel to Avalon, the players begin speaking in Japanese and the Game Master quickly admonishes them: “Local languages are not permitted in the game” — at which point they switch back to their very odd-sounding undubbed English.
Best line ever: “Real life – is that what this is? I suppose there must have been a time when this seemed more real to me than the game.”
What makes this film a gem: Małgorzata Foremniak’s performance as the world-weary Ash. And of course Kenji Kawai’s music, recorded by the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir.
© 10 Franks 2015