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.

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Melancholia (2008)

Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour epic The Irishman is out in UK cinemas on Fri 8 November, ahead of it dropping on Netflix (for whom it was made), and it got me thinking about other very long films. I have a tag for such films, which I define as more than three hours, but it’s impossible to think of durational filmmaking without also thinking of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, who has made his name making intensely long films, where something the length of Scorsese’s latest, something like Norte, the End of History, would be considered a fairly short work. In any case, I’m doing a themed week around excessively long films, so if you’re trying to watch what I’m writing about, you may well run out of time.


I don’t tend to do plot summaries in my write-ups (I hesitate to call them “reviews”) because that kind of thing can be discovered elsewhere, or by watching the film. For example, Melancholia‘s Wikipedia page has a pretty thorough summary that’s mostly quite accurate and yet I noticed at least one stretch of about an hour that took place between successive sentences of that summary, and that’s hardly an anomaly. Because that, after all, is Lav Diaz’s filmmaking, a man not unreasonably known as an avatar of the modern “slow cinema”. Melancholia does have more ‘plot’ than some of his other works (I’m thinking of Heremias or even Norte or A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery): the setup of two people and their zvengali-like ‘therapist'(?) who are enacting real-world role-playing scenarios suggests the theatre group in Out 1 gradually breaking up, ripping apart not just their interpersonal relations but the narrative of the film itself. There is, of course, a lot of wandering about in the jungle (particularly in the film’s last act), with Diaz’s beautiful fixed long shots of mountainous roads a familiar sight from anyone who’s seen any of his films. And within the film’s psychodrama, there’s a story of what I suppose is the Philippines itself, colonised and cast aside, featuring an elaborate end game that makes no sense except in the mind of the power-mad manipulator. I can’t really describe it better than that, I’m afraid; if you don’t like durational cinema, you may not find much that will sway you, but there are interesting games being played here.

Melancholia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz; Starring Angeli Bayani, Perry Dizon; Length 450 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 31 March 2018.

Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel

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.

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Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

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Women Filmmakers: Yim Soon-rye

Even by my standards, this is a mini-Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday entry, as I’ve only seen two films by Yim Soon-rye. However, born in 1961 and having studied film in Paris, she’s had a long career in the Korean film industry. Her films are characterised by their focus on women protagonists, that are a bit more contemplative than much mainstream cinema, though having only seen two I can’t really extrapolate much further myself. However, I will certainly be seeking out more opportunities to view her films.

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35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Denis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.

This Is the Life film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Cinematographer Isaac Klotz; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 65: Rushmore (2008)

I suppose one could call this Wes Anderson’s breakthrough movie after his debut Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s certainly eye-catching, with its saturated colours and carefully-honed set design and graphical effects, like the bold blocky typeface that sets out the titles and immaculate calligraphy, the theatrical curtains that part to open each chapter, and its clearly elaborately-storyboarded shot sequences. In fact, it’s one of the films that mines the most comedy I know just from the framing of the characters, as when Jason Schwartzman’s perennially overambitious underachiever Max Fischer steps into a two-shot with Bill Murray’s property developer Herman Blume, who looks suitably flabbergasted to find himself in such tightly-framed confines. This in many ways seems like his special skill — as if the fictional character had the power to force the film’s director to re-frame him in ways more befitting his overinflated sense of himself. In being such a boundary-busting egomaniac, Max is for much of the film an only barely-likeable dick, and much of the film’s pleasure lies in those supporting performances from Murray, from Brian Cox as Rushmore Academy’s matter-of-fact headmaster, and from Olivia Williams’ accommodating schoolteacher Rosemary Cross. If in looking back at Rushmore, it all seems a little bit arch at times, a little bit too-perfectly constructed and orchestrated — in ways that hamper the kind of emotional transference that Anderson’s later films would more successfully achieve — it’s still an excellent calling card, in many ways quite out-of-step with what was being made in the late-1990s and all the more refreshing for that.

Criterion Extras: There’s a rather fuller schedule of extras with this edition, all of which are interesting. First off, the commentary by the director, co-writer and star is chatty, with Anderson and Wilson taking up much of the chatter in the early portions, and Schwartzman pitching in more later. There’s a rather slight ‘making-of’ by the director’s brother Eric, some scratchy video audition footage, and some short works by the ‘Max Fischer Players’ that present amateur theatrics productions of scenes from three other nominated movies of the 1998 season. Most substantial is the episode of The Charlie Rose Show which features a lengthy interview with Bill Murray, who seems relaxed and talks at length about the film and some aspects of his career and persona, as well as a shorter head-to-head with the director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 22 May 1999 (and subsequently at home on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, on many occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 December 2015).

El olvido (aka Oblivion, 2008)

I’ve not seen a great deal of documentaries by Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, but all those I have are quite wonderful — no doubt she’s highly regarded in the documentary world, but that’s a fairly closed-off clique. Indeed, I only saw this film of hers because it was attached as a DVD to a documentary-focused magazine in a bargain bin at the BFI film shop. However, it’s a fascinating piece about Honigmann’s birth town of Lima in Peru, which uses its street performers and service industry staff to tell a story of political disengagement from society as it’s lived. Shop owners and waiting staff in restaurants and bars are asked if they’ve met the President or any politicians, and each of them has their own story, many of them fairly dismissive of these people — a minister of the economy who doesn’t know how much a newspaper costs, or a President who doesn’t know which way round the ceremonial sash is worn. Meanwhile there are poor families who rush out in front of cars at traffic lights to try and make a few coins, whose stories are the most affecting because the most bleak, particularly a young boy who stares out empty-eyed while being unable to recall any bad memories or any good ones either. Honigmann talks to her interview subjects in their places of work and at their homes, and there’s a subtle observance of how life is lived for society’s have-nots. Interspersed amongst these scenes are TV clips of Presidents assuming office, though the ongoing political context in Peru is only alluded to in passing by the interviewees (one gathers it involves dictators, corruption and, particularly in the 1980s, widescale economic collapse). An affecting and affectionate portrait of a capital city that is worth watching even for those — like me — with no knowledge of Peru itself.

El olvido film posterCREDITS
Director Heddy Honigmann; Writers Honigmann, Sonia Goldenberg and Judith Vreriks; Cinematographer Adri Schrover; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 January 2016.