Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This was released back when cinemas were still open, but has since gone to streaming-on-demand services (where you can pay some money right now to rent it). It got a bit of flack from the usual quarters, but it’s a really solid, colourful and beautifully-orchestrated superhero action film, a genre I have been very wary in recent years of dipping back into (having gone to see far too many of the Marvel films, and having been burned on some of the DC ones) but this one somehow managed to renew my interest. The director’s 2018 debut film Dead Pigs had some success on festival circuits, certainly a distinctive if divisive work, and she gets a bigger budget and brighter palette here.


I swore off superhero movies some time ago, but I was drawn back in by the creative team. It’s surprising to me too the way that Margot Robbie has really come into her own in the last five years; there’s a scene in this film where a girl is in awe of all of Harley Quinn’s achievements (that’s the title character played by Robbie), but it feels like she’s talking directly to Robbie. No, it turns out that between director Cathy Yan, the producer/star, the fabulous ensemble and the tireless work of her production designers and set dressers and costumiers, that I low-key loved this film. It does its critiques of toxic masculinity (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, both on top form) without ponderousness, giving them vignettes of pure malevolence and just letting them linger without distracting soundtrack choices or cutaways: when things are bad, they are allowed the space to be bad. But then there’s the fun, colourful, hyper, truly comic book fizz of the rest of the film, especially the kinetic fight sequences which make most of the Marvel ones (in fact, most of the fights in most other comic book films) feel badly staged. The ensemble camaraderie is real, and Winstead is a particular stand-out, albeit perhaps just by virtue of sort of playing against the cartoonish colourfulness of everyone else, but this feels like effortless fun (and I imagine it was anything other than effortless to create).

Birds of Prey film posterCREDITS
Director Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Writer Christina Hodson (based on characters from DC Comics); Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 11 February 2020.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

La Vérité (The Truth, 2019)

Although this isn’t strictly a Japanese film — in fact, as mentioned in the review below, it feels very much French — it’s from director Hirokazu Koreeda, who rarely seems to do the things people want him to. He’s made his name with gentle family dramas like I Wish and Our Little Sister, but as I’ve covered in a post earlier this week, he also has a tendency to do odd little films that don’t quite fit in. This one doesn’t feel entirely successful, but it’s certainly a family drama, with rather fewer cute kids than some of his previous ones.


There are a number of reviews out there expounding on how very ‘French’ this film is, despite being written and directed by a Japanese man, but I suppose I can’t deny it. It’s essentially a two-hander between Catherine Deneuve as the film star diva mother and Juliette Binoche as her daughter, and I can’t think of any more iconic French stars of modern cinema. Binoche plays Lumir, now based in the States and married to Ethan Hawke’s somewhat less successful actor Hank, while Deneuve is Fabienne (which is her real middle name, suggesting to me some level of meta-textual play going on). It’s about families and about the stories they tell about themselves, specifically the stories that Fabienne tells about herself and her family in an autobiography she’s just had published (called La Vérité, obviously). Still, it’s not one of those films where half-lies tear a family apart, and maybe that’s the bit which comes from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda — indeed there’s a touching, almost sentimental, sense in which maybe things can be patched up and even an old diva can learn humility. I wouldn’t place this in the first rank of Koreeda’s work, but it’s a sweet and well-acted film all the same, and I can certainly identify with Hank, who, as family drama constantly swirls in French around him, is just stuck there going “uhhhh, vin rouge?” to an indifferent room.

The Truth film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Éric Gautier; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.


I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.

Viceroy's House film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.

Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 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.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)

Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)”

The Farewell (aka 别告诉她 Bie Gaosu Ta, 2019)

Last week’s new release also takes us back to last week’s themed week, which was what I termed ‘Asian diaspora cinema’, which deals with Asian identities in the West, and this one tells of a clash of cultures between the US and China, two of the modern world’s great competing superpowers, through the story of Awkwafina’s suitably awkward artist.


This is a sweet, reflective film that doesn’t shout too loudly, though occasionally the characters in it try to make statements about what it means to live and die, at least in Chinese society. In that respect, having the young family members — most notably Awkwafina’s budding writer Billi — having grown up in different countries meant that it got to explain things a little bit, which is probably just as well given the central conceit is the idea of not telling a dying person that they are dying (or “based on an actual lie” as the film puts it on its first title card). Billi is a muted presence, which already marks a change from Awkwafina’s usual on-screen persona, though it does mean she shuffles around in a slump, looking dejected and sad for rather too much of the film, even as those around her are trying to encourage her to fake a smile — to the extent that I found it hard to believe grandma (and I don’t think she’s ever named aside from the Mandarin Chinese word for grandmother 奶奶 nai nai) didn’t immediately figure out what was going on. Still, there’s a lot of unforced emotional heft just from the set-up, as well as an examination of what it means to be torn between two very different cultures (the film itself is fairly scrupulously balanced, and avoids denigrating either). The final credits reveal therefore comes as rather a surprise, but it’s a sweet end to what’s otherwise quite the weepie.

The Farewell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lulu Wang 王子逸 (based on Wang’s story “What You Don’t Know”); Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano; Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍, Tzi Ma 馬泰, Diana Lin 林晓杰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 26 September 2019.