In August, Xuanlin Tham took part in our EIFF Young Critics Programme. By October, they were covering the London Film Festival for the very first time. How did it go?


I’m not a huge morning person. Six in the morning is early for me (really early). Usually I’d like to be asleep at this time – but what I’d like more is to catch the 8AM press screening of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (pictured above). So while it’s still a little dark outside and my stomach runs on nothing but a hastily downed coffee in a bid to stay awake, I brisk-walk my way to the Tube, heading to Leicester Square for my first morning at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.

More than an hour before Spencer is due to start, an impressive queue of press and industry delegates is already snaking its way around the cinema. I think to myself, as I repeatedly will for the next 11 days, “Oh god, I’m not going to make it in!” I do a dignified little run to the back of the line and say a silent prayer – it wouldn’t do for my very first screening plans to be foiled, would it? I really want to see Kristen Stewart do this body horror, Anne Boleyn-haunted Diana thing. As more delegates steadily arrive, hot beverages in hand, one jokes, “Alright, we get it. Some of you woke up on your first alarm!” Unfortunately, yes.

But oh, joy – the line finally begins to move as the doors to the cinema open. I make it into Spencer (phew!) and thoroughly enjoy how gorgeously claustrophobic it is, how Jonny Greenwood’s score is the musical equivalent of a dislocated joint (it’s perfect).

A routine emerges. 6AM alarm, look despairingly at myself in the mirror, coffee, throw my delegate badge around my neck, run to the Tube, allow the remnants of sleep to defrost while queuing to get into the cinema. Frantic notes scribbled in the darkness of the theater, hopefully legible. Breakfast is usually squeezed in between the first morning screening and lining up for the next film. I joke that the Pret A Manger opposite St. Martins Lane is an unofficial festival venue. Quick little Letterboxd review bashed out while in line for a sandwich and another coffee. This is my first time in London: I’ve not gotten to see much of it yet, but I am intimately familiar with the brick walls outside Vue West End.

It’s pretty wonderful. LFF brings with it the vast majority of my most anticipated films from Cannes and Venice. An early morning screening of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog catches me off guard; I feel a little dazed as I emerge from the dark belly of the cinema into the morning light. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a respected yet mean-spirited rancher whose intricately layered emotional complexity is slowly, agonisingly teased apart, The Power of the Dog took its time creeping up on me. Twelve hours after watching it, its taut, slow-burn perfection had me absolutely enthralled. Deliciously eerie, incredibly precise storytelling that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into again.

Still from The Power of the Dog - a man (Benedict Cumberbatch) stands in a desert

Another surprisingly eerie film was The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut which brought together three of my favourite women ever: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson. The Lost Daughter follows Leda (Olivia Colman) on a seaside getaway, where she meets a young mother and her family – but like the bowl of rotting fruit that Leda discovers in her holiday rented apartment, things are never as picturesque as they seem. After the screening, I overhear someone in the line say, “The Lost Daughter does for having kids what Jaws did for sharks”. Couldn’t agree more.

Exploring incredibly similar themes of family and motherhood – but tonally on the opposite end of the spectrum – was Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. (She’s just too good, isn’t she?) After a diet of sweepingly dramatic (and long) films, Petite Maman’s 72 minute runtime felt utterly refreshing. Every minute is suffused with a soft magic at once quiet yet momentous, with so much empathy and warmth. It’s beautiful.

Another truly brilliant highlight was Panah Panahi’s Hit The Road, which went on to win Best Film at the festival. Taking us along for a family road trip whose purpose and destination only gradually becomes clear, we’re in for a chaotic, delightfully funny, and always gorgeously heartfelt ride. A deeply compassionate film that doesn’t merely balance tragedy and humour but shows how inescapably intertwined they are in our lives, this is one I wish I could’ve watched with my mother. It also features probably the best child acting of the festival (for which there were many strong contenders this year): Rayan Sarlak’s performance as a noisy, way-too-smart-for-his-own-good little rascal is the beating heart of the film.

I’ve only just started to recover from how exhausted I am from LFF, but I already miss it. Finally getting to meet some friends I made during the EIFF Young Critics programme in person, having awkward conversations with fellow writers in line that go, “Hey, we follow each other on Twitter!”, and above all, getting to feel so completely immersed, body and soul, in cinema for a little over ten days – there’s nothing like it. I loved getting to delete that 6AM alarm off my phone, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t do it all again for LFF. This year’s programme was incredible – here’s hoping next year is even better.


Xuanlin Tham


Portrait of Xuanlin Tham