My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).
I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.
Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.
In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.
I’m going to kick off my (hopefully regular) Wednesday series on women filmmakers with the one to whom I’ve most recently been introduced, courtesy of the streaming platform Mubi, whose canny programming has brought my attention to a number of directors I’d never previously encountered. Latin American cinema, in particular right now, seems to be booming with talented women directors, and in that regard one may look to the career of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, who came to prominence at the turn of the millennium with La Ciénaga (2001), and about whom I shall undoubtedly write in coming months. She is hardly the first woman to direct films in the Latin American world, but she is among the most rigorous and visually precise of all active filmmakers in the region, and one of the foremost (and most championed) auteurs in the world, I would say. In her wake there has been no shortage of excellent films by women working in the cinemas of Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru, amongst others.
I worry that this is a film for those who like to vaunt the magisterial status of author William S. Burroughs, or who laud the cinematically outré and self-consciously cultish qualities of David Cronenberg as director — and I assume many of the same people will rep for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam and/or Thompson) in many of the same ways, or perhaps something out of the filmography of David Lynch. For this is a film about being a writer as well as a habitual user of narcotics, and is made with an attendant kind of insane dream logic that leads to hallucinatory bugs-as-typewriters who speak through anus-like holes and set up complex plots in alternate worlds (the Interzone) that touch as much on Burroughs’ own life (his well-known murder of his spouse for one) as on any kind of verifiable reality. Peter Weller is a capable straight man for this carnivalesque creepshow, which has some of the qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (maybe I’m thinking of the prosthetics) and a typically Gilliam-esque crowded mise en scène, while of course the spirit of Kafka seems to hover over it all… and if any of these swaggering artistic men do not thrill you, then perhaps this is not the project for you.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William S. Burroughs); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 16 July 2018.
Watching this on a plane means I was probably more predisposed to tears than usual, but I did find the central character’s story to be rather affecting. It follows Rosie, a part-Chinese part-Iranian young woman, learning about her father and his life in Iran, and one can only assume that the director’s own mixed ancestry contributes to her feeling for the way Rosie is torn between two disparate cultures (or three indeed, given she lives in Canada). The animation is eye-catching and takes in multiple styles on various poetic digressions (formally integrated into the narrative, as Rosie is literally a poet). I also love diaspora/immigrant stories, though I did find the rendering of Rosie’s eyes distracting (in the sense of not feeling like I was getting the same range of emotions from them as from the animated non-Chinese characters). Still, it’s a lovely little work, which you might not get much of a chance to see if you don’t happen to fly via Canada.
Director/Writer Ann Marie Fleming; Starring Sandra Oh; Length 89 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Vancouver, Wednesday 5 April 2017.
I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel); Cinematographer David Johnson; Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016.
There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)
Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.
The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.
The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.
As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.
So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel); Cinematographer Danny Cohen; Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016.
It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Maddin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson; Writers Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Maddin; Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.
David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Cronenberg; Writers Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015.