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.
Following up on my Korean week, I return to one of the most lauded of recent works from that country, by prolific filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. It finds an almost spiritual register to deal with themes of dislocation and abuse, while also running at under 90 minutes.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about this film, but one thing I think is clear is that it lays out a space somewhere to the side of reality — maybe one that’s surreal, maybe one that’s imaginary or rather I should say mythical (there’s certainly a sort of folkloric undertow to the whole concept). At the heart of the story is a wife (Lee Seung-yeon) abused by her husband who tries to run away from him, and the attachment she forms to an itinerant young man (Jae Hee), neither of whom speaks (the wife or the man). He moves from home to home on a motorcycle, posting flyers over their locks so as to identify which aren’t being occupied when he returns later, and who then breaks into the homes to spend the night and eat their food, while mending broken items and doing the washing. At this point, it seems fairly clear — for such people don’t really exist except in stories like this — that he’s somehow other-worldly, though I suppose I could just as easily label him a plot device. The point is, there’s something magical about his presence, which allows the wife to hope for a better future even as she finds herself stuck with this horrible man she’s married to, and the dynamic between the three of them makes the ending rather a melancholy one, even as it is lift up by the promise of love, however spectral it might be. The lack of dialogue between the leads means the film never quite has to explain itself in so many words, leaving it an enigma, like these characters.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-duk 김기덕; Cinematographer Jang Seong-back 장성백; Starring Jae Hee 재희, Lee Seung-yeon 이승연; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.
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.
A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Michelle Krusiec 楊雅慧, Lynn Chen 陳凌, Joan Chen 陳沖; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017.
There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf حنا مخملباف; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017.
It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.
Director/Writer Amma Asante; Cinematographer Ian Wilson; Starring Stephanie James; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017.
Surely everyone who likes this genre of film (the high school teen comedy) has seen Mean Girls by now, and either they’re unimpressed or they’re constantly quoting writer Tina Fey’s catchiest lines, possibly online with some kind of animated gif behind them. It’s in a clear line of descent from Clueless (1995) and a template for plenty of other increasingly anodyne takes on the same setting. I’ll admit to loving it the first time around, but I’ve seen it a few times since and I think some of the shine has worn off. Possibly this is down to a certain level of nastiness at the core of many of the characters, Lindsay Lohan’s protagonist Cady included, as she is increasingly co-opted into the vain status-obsessed circle of school royalty, the ‘Plastics’ (Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert). I mean, to be fair, that much is kinda cued up by the title, but it’s sometimes difficult to care about the fairly conventional sitcom-like narrative arc, as Cady goes from geeky outsider to cool leader-of-the-pack, then back to a point of (almost) harmonious resolution. Still, it does have plenty of great and quotable lines, I can’t deny that — it is the film’s greatest strength — and Tina Fey does double work as both the film’s writer and one of its (pretty large and impressive) supporting adult cast. Among the teens, Lizzy Caplan stands out as the alienated and sarcastic Janis, while I always enjoy the appearances of Kevin G and his Mathletes. So I certainly don’t want to write it off; it still has much to recommend it, even if it’s not the enduring class act of Clueless.
Director Mark Waters; Writer Tina Fey; Cinematographer Daryn Okada; Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 15 August 2015 (and many times over the past ten years).
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.
Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)
I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.
That framing device has Jonathan Pryce as the archangel Gabriel, come down (apparently to London’s beautiful Wilton Music Hall) to take the elderly and infirm Porter (Kevin Kline, under heavy layers of prosthetics) through scenes from his life, starting with his meeting the beautiful Linda, played by Ashley Judd. In real life, she was eight years his senior, but this is a show, and such details aren’t to get in the way of the feelings. The subsequent couple of hours gamely skip through scenes from their life together, his marriage to her at the tail end of the 1910s, his increasing success on Broadway in the 1920s, his (at least privately) unconcealed gay lovelife, his crippling horse-riding accident in the 1930s, and then the couple’s decline from there in the 1940s and 1950s, neatly avoiding any of the significant world events that may have happened in this period. This is, above all, a portrait of the artist, with only tenuous connections to the world at large.
What anchors the film, then, are the performances from Kline and Judd in the lead roles. Kline captures a benevolently patrician gravitas along with a self-laceratingly comic worldview, while Judd foregoes suffering — Linda was, it appears, quite aware of Porter’s sexual orientation, and their marriage had plenty of genuine and closely-felt love. It’s a difficult line to walk, but there’s a wonderful affection between the two, which reaches some moments of unforced pathos towards the end, even if the swiftly advancing passage of time in the film’s final third means the prosthetics and make-up are laid on rather quickly and heavily.
The director Irwin Winkler has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time, working with the directors of the New American Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly his work producing the likes of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) have rubbed off, and there are some bravura sequences of technical virtuosity, particularly a single-take scene in a Los Angeles gay club as both the sultry lounge singer onstage as well as Kline quickly change costumes and re-enter the frame of the sinuously moving camera to mark the passage of time. Elsewhere there are some similarly well-staged movements through time, as the elderly Porter remembers his youthful self, not to mention the almost off-handedly integrated song numbers. Famous musical faces of the early-2000s pop up in passing to perform his songs, and the line between stage and life is effectively blurred (remembering that this is all very self-consciously framed as a pageant), so Robbie Williams mingles amongst a restaurant crowd singing the title song, Kline himself mugs through “Be a Clown” in front of producer Louis B. Mayer on a Hollywood backlot, and John Barrowman starts out reheasing “Night and Day” before segueing into a nighttime tryst in Central Park. Given the film’s way with staging, it’s entirely appropriate that we even see Cole and Linda watching the 1946 film Night and Day with Cary Grant, and commenting on the depiction of their own lives on screen.
It’s a strange blend of musical sequences, stagy flashbacks and romantic melodrama, and it clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but I enjoyed it. It’s all staged with flair and virtuosity, not to mention impeccably costumed. It’s like something out of time, a strange curate’s egg of a film, which I imagine as further decades roll past will be ever more consigned to a curious and dusty little corner of film history. However, it’s a corner worth exploring.
Director Irwin Winkler; Writer Jay Cocks; Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014.
I’d been told in advance that the third film is where the series gets good, and indeed the attachment of director Alfonso Cuarón should surely have been a good hint of this — even if I still at heart feel that this year’s Gravity was overpraised, it’s undoubtedly a visual tour de force, though even of his contemporary work, I recall enjoying his Great Expectations (1998) a great deal upon its cinematic release, primarily for its stylish visuals (if not its Gwyneth Paltrow turn). Something of the same trick has been conjured up here. In just about every respect, this is a far stronger film than the previous two, and it’s the first I can even imagine wanting to revisit.
I don’t want to get carried away with praise for Cuarón’s visual sense, as some of the credit must go to the trio of actors at the film’s heart. More time has passed between this film and the previous one, as between that and the first, and the three actors are both visibly more mature and just better at acting. There’s less childish screechiness and more nuance, and finally Emma Watson’s swotty know-it-all persona seems grounded in a genuine sense of self-confidence and learning, and she is thus rewarded with a more significant role than she had in the previous film. Nuance is something that can also be observed in the guest roles, and in fact Gary Oldman’s escaped criminal Sirius Black (the Azkaban prisoner of the title) and David Thewlis’s teacher Remus Lupin both effectively play on an expectation of one-dimensionality that comes from earlier guest acting turns (from say Branagh and Isaacs, both of whom were enjoyable but hardly suggested any depth of character), and lead to genuinely memorable surprise twists to their characters.
The script too seems tighter and more controlled, relying less on its characters rehashing events in exaggerated exclamations (except perhaps in one late scene when Harry exclaims “You were right Hermione!” and then describes exactly what we’ve just seen, though perhaps that was a self-aware joke at this very propensity in the first two films). Important plot devices are effectively foreshadowed without too much clunky exposition, and the physics of the film seems more believable (albeit yes, it’s still predicated on magic, after all). That said, there’s still plenty of plot — almost too much at times — which leads to occasional stretches where it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on, such as when one of those aforementioned character twists takes place and suddenly you’re wondering who this Peter chap is after all. Undoubtedly a lot of this must make far more sense to readers of the books.
But as I suggested earlier, ultimately it’s the film’s visual sense which has most improved, and for this it must surely be the director who can take the credit. The first two films made far too much use of very ostentatious crane shots, all swooping and gliding in dramatic show-offy ways, and although the camera here is hardly at any point still, it nevertheless feels more organic to the action. There are some really very well-handled transitions, such as one glorious shot following Harry’s pet owl that takes us swiftly from summer into winter, though that’s just one example. Elsewhere the set design has an inventiveness that recalls similarly fantastic films by Cuarón’s Mexican compatriot Guillermo del Toro, like the Monstrous Book of Monsters, itself a monster, or the wraith-like demons who stalk the castle grounds (these Dementors also allow for some tentative social critique, providing a strange little hint into the existence of an autocratic police state, as despite their professed task of hunting down the criminal Sirius, the students are warned that the Dementors can still pose a danger even to those who are not lawbreakers). Finally, there’s even some genuine levity amongst the darkly-tinged drama, such as the jaunty Knight Bus ride, the broad comedy of Emma Thompson’s Divination teacher, or the sight of Alan Rickman dressed as a fashionable old lady.
This, then, is a film that brings the Potter world alive in a way that finally makes some cinematic sense. The series is opened out with a sense of wonder that hints at a darker, more adult world to come, appropriate to its ageing (though still adolescent) stars. It’s also the first of the films to make me genuinely want to know more of the story and the characters, and that’s not something I’d have considered saying ten years ago.
Next: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Michael Seresin; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 December 2013.