Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)

One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.

Continue reading “Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)”

One Child Nation (2019)

This Friday sees a UK cinematic release for Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, which I saw at the London Film Festival a few months ago. I’ve already done one themed week around films about China (generally Taiwanese or Hong Kong films, or otherwise films not themselves produced by China). However, China is an enormous country with a great deal of varied filmmaking, and has a long and rich history and culture, so it’s worth returning there for a second themed week. This one will have more films actually made in and by the Chinese, although as ever there are films which aren’t exactly sanctioned by the state, and that’s the case with this film, about China’s controversial ‘One Child Policy’.


A powerful film combining the personal testimony of the filmmaker(s) with documentary footage uncovering the extent of the “One Child Policy” in China, which ran from 1979-2015. Nanfu Wang seems to be the dominant voice on the film, but it’s co-directed with Jialing Zhang (or Lynn Zhang, who was also involved in the 2017 documentary Complicit about the lack of environmental protections afforded to Chinese workers), and the film is prompted by the birth of Wang’s child. We see, in pretty graphic terms at times, how the policy affected generations of Chinese families, leading to forced abortions and even infanticide; we see too the propaganda aimed at encouraging families to follow the policy; and then there are the many layers of government, both national, regional and local, aimed at enforcing it. Clearly some areas were more ruthless than others (one interviewee recounts how there are two children in her family because of rather more lax rules in rural areas), but there’s also a persuasive picture of how the policy dovetailed with patriarchal attitudes, meaning a huge number of young girls were essentially sold or taken into “orphanages”, which then placed these children with overseas families, and one strand of the documentary deals with a couple helping to track down such children. It’s a sad film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

One Child Nation film posterCREDITS
Directors Nanfu Wang 王男栿 and Jialing Zhang [or Lynn Zhang] 张嘉玲; Cinematographer Wang and Yuanchen Liu; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 16 October 2019.

幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.


Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.


Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.


This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.

The Limehouse Golem film posterCREDITS
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.

Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.


I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.