Columbus (2017)

One of the more interesting releases at the end of this week in the UK is The Farewell, a new film directed by Lulu Wang about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China to deal with the death of her elderly grandmother. Therefore I’m inaugurating a week focusing on what I’m going to call Asian diaspora filmmaking (mostly, to be fair, from the United States).

I should clarify what I mean here, because it’s fairly common for films to feature characters in (often glamorous) overseas settings. For example, the Chinese film Finding Mr Right 2 (2016) is set in Macau and Los Angeles, while Bollywood film Shaandaar (2015) is set amongst the posh country homes of the UK. However, while these were made within their local film industry, there have always been filmmakers in the US and UK with Asian ancestry or who have relocated to the West to make their films, stretching back even to silent cinema (Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon from 1917 is a recently-unearthed, if sadly incomplete, example).

There’s been quite a proliferation of Asian-American films in recent decades, and while tentpole films like the recent Crazy Rich Asians or, earlier, The Joy Luck Club (1993) are often mentioned, it’s been in smaller scale indie filmmaking that the presence has been most felt. On this blog I’ve already reviewed the thoroughly delightful Saving Grace (2004), the sci-fi film Advantageous (2015) and the Indian-American documentary Meet the Patels (2014), but there have been many other interesting genre exercises that I hope to feature in the upcoming week. One such was by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, who made a name for himself with little cinephile short films about his favourite auteurs, but his own work turns out to have its very own delights.


I can’t pretend this film doesn’t hit exactly the kind of tone and style that I love in cinema, and obviously it turns out it’s directed by a man who has studied (and made short films about) all the great auteurs, so I’m sure he’s out there just as pointedly referencing Bresson and Ozu and Antonioni when he’s making the film as anyone watching it (like me) is reading into it. Which all retrospectively makes me suspect some of the craft a little — as if it’s just too carefully controlled, just too preciously wrought. I’ve never seen a film that features architecture so heavily (Antonioni, or La Sapienza perhaps) that’s not a little bit about alienation, about people not connecting with one another, broken families and the like, so at a certain level it’s hardly breaking new ground. But John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson have proper screen charisma — without any confectedly creepy relationship drama — and, as I said, I love the openness and space of the framing, and the deployment of quietness (along with the occlusion of sound at times, or the use of untranslated foreign language). I’ve been watching quite a few Ozu films recently; I suspect Kogonado may have been, too.

Columbus film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다; Cinematographer Elisha Christian; Starring John Cho 조요한, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 October 2018.

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Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, 2018)

I have been doing a week of South American cinema building up to the release in UK cinemas today of the Argentinian epic La flor (2018), so I am finishing the week off with a review of a recent Chilean film (albeit with financing from around the continent, including Argentina). I saw this film at last year’s London Film Festival, and it featured high in my favourite films of 2018. It was given a UK cinematic release in 2019 and I got to see it again, and still very much liked it.


There’s a sense in which this film reminded me of the previous year’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017), being a Spanish language film about young women set in the 1990s in a verdant forest setting at the edge of civilisation, but beyond that I should probably accept they are doing quite different things. For a start, the protagonists of this film are largely older (there’s one young girl, Clara, who I interpreted as the director’s surrogate) but this mostly focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her relationship with various boys (and her dad) in the small commune they live in just outside Santiago. It never feels so much driven by a plot as by a need to represent all the different people within the community, and with great economy show how they feel about one another, and it’s Sofia and Lucas (Antar Machado) who become the film’s focus — though never to the exclusion of others.

That may all make it less immediately accessible than Summer 1993, but it’s somehow even more beautiful and poetic in the way that it conjures an era, never heavy-handed in the way it layers on these meanings — there aren’t even any on-screen titles suggesting when it’s set, given away just by the absence of electronics, the older models of car, some of the clothes (though the fashion wasn’t emphasised), the toys, and the music choices (a piece of music by Mazzy Star — in a particularly beautifully-shot scene in a bathtub — suddenly took me back 25 years, and I suppose that was precisely the point). It’s about a time in history when Chile was emerging from a period of dictatorship, but it’s also about the director’s childhood, and it’s about growing through that turbulence and into yourself as a person. Also, there’s also rarely a scene without a dog in it, who become almost as important to the community as some of the adults (at least to the kids, who have pretty conflicted feelings about their parents).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dominga Sotomayor; Cinematographer Inti Briones; Starring Demian Hernández, Antar Machado; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 14 October 2018 (and most recently at ICA, London, Saturday 1 June 2019).

Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel

Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel”

La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile, 1975/1976/1979)

The “Third Cinema” movement may have kicked off with Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), but in a decade of revolutions few made as many waves throughout the continent and internationally as the one that deposed Socialist leader Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. This period is covered in detail by Patricio Guzmán in a series of films made in the late-1970s, and followed up decades later with the reflective Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997).


Primera parte: La insurrección de la burguesía (Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, 1975)

This first part of Guzmán’s trilogy about the downfall of Salvador Allende is urgent political filmmaking that still feels relevant today. To a large extent, it is a careful laying out of events early in 1973 around a plebiscite and subsequent tactics by the opposition to Allende to unseat him from government and derail his policies, so in a sense it does feel like a lot of footage of protests and vox pops with people out on the streets. However, the footage has clarity and seems carefully structured and researched, and images of middle-class Chileans screaming out for impeachment of the left-wing Allende does seem to resonate through time. It also builds to a real coup de cinéma, which is chilling at the same time as setting up the imminent events for the coup against Allende. If anything, I’d have liked a bit more discussion of what exactly Allende’s policies were and where his unpopularity was rooted, but it is filmmaking with passion and purpose.

Segunda parte: El golpe de estado (Part II: The Coup d’État, 1976)

This second part moves from the abortive coup attempt in late-June 1973 through to the events of 11 September 1973, when Pinochet was installed in power to turn back the Marxist policies of Salvador Allende. Again, Guzmán goes into great detail about the way events evolved, from the transport strikes and street protests in favour of Allende, through to the fragile political situation involving the Christian Democrats (and the Catholic Church), the hints of a coup being organised by the military forces in Valparaíso (and the assassination of a high-ranking officer loyal to Allende in order to prevent word getting to him). Throughout the film are these teachable moments about how fascist, anti-revolutionary forces organise and destabilise a country, before pledging to restore the stability they themselves undermined (in collusion with business, media and powerful political interests) in a show of military force. The end of the film still shows that the angry determination of the workers was an obstacle yet to be dealt with by Pinochet and the coup leaders, which takes us into part III of the documentary.

Tercera parte: El poder popular (Part III: Popular Power, 1979)

The third part steps back from the messy end of Part II (September 1973) and turns its focus instead to the people, the workers and their bosses, those who were wanting the government to deliver on their promises and were trying to lead the attempts to make Chile a better place for the workers. It shows their struggles and difficulties, the ways in which strikes and bourgeois actions prevented certain elements of the grand plans to nationalise industries, and the way in which government support didn’t always deliver on its promises. It’s a little more diffuse than the previous parts in lacking its focus on Allende himself and the attempts to topple him, but it provides an interesting epilogue to the work of revolutionary activity at all levels of society.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Patricio Guzmán; Cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva; Length 263 minutes (Part I: 97 minutes; Part II: 78 minutes; Part III: 88 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 2 July/Wednesday 4 July/Thursday 12 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (2018)

I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.

And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.

But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.

Continue reading “Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)”

beDevil (1993)

Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.


An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.