江湖儿女 Jianghu Emu (Ash Is Purest White, 2018)

So Long, My Son, a new Chinese epic drama by director Wang Xiaoshuai, opens in UK cinemas today — a film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. At last year’s LFF I saw another Chinese film, which opened in UK cinemas earlier this year, the latest by Jia Zhangke. I did a big post of four of Jia’s films yesterday, but his A Touch of Sin is up there amongst my favourite of the decade, even if his previous film Mountains May Depart didn’t thrill me quite so much. Still, he has plenty to say about modern Chinese society, and continues to work closely with actor Zhao Tao.


Jia Zhangke has always been making films that concern themselves with the enormous shifting forces in society, economic change and capitalist exploitation tied into enormous infrastructural projects of change and development of particularly our urban landscapes. It just feels like more and more he’s tying them to individual stories that don’t always feel like they have the expansiveness to sustain this kind of thematic weight (though his films remain epic in length and sweep at least).

This story is about a woman (played as ever by Jia’s long-time collaborator Zhao Tao) in love with a small-time local gangster (Liao Fan). She goes to jail for five years for pulling a gun on some thugs who are trying to beat him up, but he doesn’t stick around for her. It’s a film that stretches over about 17 years of time (from 2001 to the present), marking its passage of time not by title cards but by small changes like the use of mobile phone technology (or by large ones, like the sudden presence of huge modern development projects in the heart of a northern city like Datong), and, surprisingly to me, has quite a few laughs in it too.

If I’m not always convinced that the running time and tripartite structure is exactly earned by these characters’ lives, there’s still plenty of detail in its depictions of the changing Chinese landscape and economy to reward a viewing, and the performances are excellent as ever with Jia’s films.

Ash Is Purest White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Liao Fan 廖凡; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 13 October 2018.

嘉年华 Jia Nian Hua (Angels Wear White, 2017)

Following my review of Dead Pigs earlier today, another recent Chinese film to make waves, and not just because it was the only film directed by a woman in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2017, is this one, Angels Wear White. In it second-time director Vivian Qu challenges sexually predatory men within Chinese society, part of what is implied to be wider corruption at the heart of the society, and a welcome challenge no doubt.


There’s a lot of discussion these days (and rightly so) about the destructive effect of sexual violence within patriarchal and authoritarian power structures can have on young women, and this film is a fine example of a situation in which institutional deficiences fail the people society is supposed to protect. It sets up a scenario involving a number of characters, each of which has their reasons for overlooking or excusing a horrific crime (the rape, not seen on camera, of two young girls by a corrupt police official). In many ways this is the same setup as another film I saw in the London Film Festival the same year (Beauty and the Dogs) but it’s done far more sensitively to my mind. The girls’ point of view is necessarily laconic, but we see their parents find reasons not to press charges, preferring to think about payouts and education in an area deprived of resources for this, while another strand follows a witness to the crime: a slightly older girl who has similarly been mistreated, having run away at a young age and is now living without the necessary government ID required to receive any support, doing menial cash jobs for little reward. In many ways she represents the younger girl a few years later, having toughened up and run away to a bigger city, but still prey to predatory men hanging around, offering the basic necessities of life in exchange for money or favours. It’s a corrupt society, no mistake, only exacerbated by the literally enormous metaphor of female sexuality on high heels that stands overlooking the seaside resort where it’s set.

Angels Wear White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Vivian Qu 文晏; Cinematographer Benoît Dervaux; Starring Vicky Chen [or Wen Qi] 陳文淇, Zhou Meijun 周美君; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

团鱼岩 Tuan Yu Yan (Turtle Rock, 2017)

There are no shortage of challenging documentaries about Chinese history (such as last year’s Dead Souls), many of which get a little bit too political for the Chinese state. However, films like Turtle Rock take a less overtly political viewpoint in tracking the rhythms of life in a small Chinese village. (NB Although the main credited director, Xiao Xiao, is a man, the co-director/producer is a woman, Lin Lin, hence my use of the ‘directed by a woman’ tag and inclusion on related lists.)


There’s such an enormous range of documentaries in the world, it’s ridiculous to put this in even the same category as something you might find hyped on Netflix. In its textures and its setting, this is far closer to a filmmaker like Lav Diaz — it is, after all, very much in the vein of ‘slow cinema’, with long tracking shots in lush black-and-white, with very little in the way of narrative to drive it. That said, it’s not boring: it presents this small mountainous village (where the director grew up), the rhythms of daily life and ritual, the gossip amongst the inhabitants, and little vignettes of their existence. Bamboo cropping early on provides the indelible sight of these enormously long stalks being carried precariously by a man and woman to a truck in the background, but the film manages to find wonderful images throughout, whether misty vistas or close-ups on pets, looming haggard faces crunching through nuts, or a woman chopping up garlic and chillis while haranguing an unseen neighbour about his poor tiling skills. It tends to avoid any overt political commentary aside from the postscript that this community had been formed many generations ago by those escaping mid-20th century war, and one imagines there have been many hardships over the intervening years, but people in the film seem to be getting along just fine without much of the modern world.

Turtle Rock film posterCREDITS
Directors Xiao Xiao 蕭瀟 and Lin Lin 林林; Cinematographer Xiao; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 21 January 2019.

Under Capricorn (1949)

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).


One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.

Under Capricorn film posterCREDITS
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

Two Comedy-Drama Films by Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Support the Girls (2018)

Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.


Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.

Funny Ha Ha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.


Support the Girls (2018)

I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).

Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.

Support the Girls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).

Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.

Continue reading “Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)”

London Film Festival 2019: My Favourite Films

I’ve written up reviews of all the films I saw over the last twelve days, so you can find them by following the London Film Festival tag, but it’s time to reflect about the festival as a whole, and also rank my favourites of course.

First off, there were plenty of really good films, both in competition (an overall competition, a first feature competition and a documentary one too) and in the galas, and I imagine we should credit that to the festival’s director Tricia Tuttle, whose first year this was at the reins (though she was acting director last year).

However, as with every year, I largely eschewed the big gala screenings as well as films that were certain to return to our screens, with a few exceptions (and these generally rank high in my favourites, because they have buzz for a reason). I prefer to go to films with no distributor attached, and mostly films directed by women. Of the 31 films I saw at the festival, 24 were directed (or co-directed in two cases) by women, and 17 of those were women of colour. (The fact that male-directed films rank quite highly in the list below is probably because they have to be pretty special for me to make an exception and go see them.)

The other statistic is that most of the films I saw were not in English, which seems fairly obvious but it’s nice to avoid anglophone cinema occasionally. Even of the three American films I saw, Lingua Franca was focused on a Filipina transwoman so chunks of the dialogue were in Tagalog (and Cebuano). I managed a couple of archival films (from the Treasures strand), but most of those I see at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in June.

It’s fair to say that from most of the critical coverage I’ve read, there are plenty of films I am excited to see upon their return. Professional critics (somewhat by necessity) have to see the big names to have an opinion and be part of a wider conversation, but it does mean that a lot of critical coverage (certainly the anglophone British/American critics) tends towards the same narrow list of titles. Many of the big director names started with smaller features, perhaps ones that were a little less assured, and for all the quality found amongst first-time directors, you can’t expect a director’s finest work to be their first, so some of the debuts tend to lurk further down my list.

I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of the LFF 2019 films over the next 12 months or more, as distributors’ release windows can sometimes stretch on rather a long time; one of my favourites from last year, Tehran: City of Love, only got a cinematic release last week in the UK. Already some of the titles are on Netflix, but I hope I don’t have to wait so long to see such lauded films as Bacurau and Atlantics, both films I was very close to adding to my list.

10 The Sharks (2019)

9 Lingua France (2019)

8 A Thief’s Daughter (2019)

7 Overseas (2019)

6 Star-Crossed Lovers (1962)

5 So Long, My Son (2019)

4 And Then We Danced (2019)

3 The Unknown Saint (2019)

2 Sweet Charity (1969)

1 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer, I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.

LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)

My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”

LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)

My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)”