In the Family (2011)

The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.


I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.

Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).

There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.

In the Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis”

Pariah (2011)

An excellent debut feature by Dee Rees (who went on to do a fine Bessie Smith biopic), about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world and become comfortable with a gay identity, while dealing with the demands of her religious mother. I can’t speak to the specific feelings or setting obviously, but it’s​ a strong piece of filmmaking. The turbulent emotions seem mirrored by the restless camera (wielded by the excellent Bradford Young), the colours by turns saturated and warm, cold and unflinching. The acting is superb, as is the use of music. It’s a film, too, which resists any simple stereotyping: the fact that our lead character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is top of her class academically is barely mentioned, and while it doesn’t help her through some knockbacks, it does add up to a rounded character.

Pariah film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dee Rees; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Adepero Oduye; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat, Portland (OR), Friday 7 April 2017, and later at BFI Southbank (NFT3), 13 June 2017.

شرایط‎ Sharayet (Circumstance, 2011)

I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.

Circumstance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz مریم کشاورز‎; Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard; Starring Nikohl Boosheri مریم کشاورز‎, Sarah Kazemy سارا کاظمی, Reza Sixo Safai رضا سیکسو صفایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

O le tulafale (The Orator, 2011)

I was given a DVD of this years ago, but I haven’t watched it until now for whatever stupid reason. Anyway, I guess there aren’t really that many stories out there, because there are familiar contours to this one (a family split apart, further feuding after a death, a person who feels set apart from the others), but by grounding it in a culture that, I imagine, most of us are unfamiliar with, this film makes it all seem new and fresh. Set in Samoa, Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote) is a man short in stature and husband to a woman who has been rejected by her tribe and family. He’s the son of a deceased chief, but, perhaps due to feeling shunned for his height, has never claimed the right to be chief — and therefore orator of the film’s title, because public speaking is one of the community’s chief virtues in this film (though arguments that aren’t solved this way involve rock-throwing instead). Nevertheless, the film builds a quiet power, with beautiful cinematography and just the right pitch to acting. It could easily tip over into the unbelievable or melodramatic, but by virtue of its very quiet focus, it never does.

The Orator film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tusi Tamasese; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Fa’afiaula Sagote; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.

Les Adoptés (The Adopted, 2011)

Actor/director Mélanie Laurent (still most frequently credited as one of the leads in Inglourious Basterds) picked up quite a few plaudits for 2014’s Respire (Breathe), but it’s been a couple of years and still no sign of it in the UK so I can only assume it never got picked up for distribution. Thankfully her first film is available online, and it’s certainly a stronger debut than many actors manage. The story itself has a downbeat cast as it follows a pair of sisters, Lisa and Marine (played by the director and Marie Denarnaud), the younger of whom is adopted — a detail which seems from the title like it must be central to the film, but isn’t really — and who falls into a coma following an accident. The tripartite structure means that each of the three leads, including Marine’s boyfriend Alex (Denis Ménochet), gets to be the central character for a bit, and this gives a little bit more depth to the evolving drama. There’s some nice stylish camerawork and framing, an underlying sense of referentiality (Marine runs a bookshop specialising in anglophone authors and watches plenty of Hollywood films), and the film generally looks lovely. It’s certainly worth watching.

The Adopted film posterCREDITS
Director Mélanie Laurent; Writers Laurent, Morgan Perez and Christophe Deslandes; Cinematographer Arnaud Potier; Starring Mélanie Laurent, Denis Ménochet, Marie Denarnaud; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 January 2016.

W.E. (2011)

I think it’s fair to say that W.E., which depicts the love affair between King Edward VIII (or “David” when he wasn’t the king) and Wallis Simpson, got a bit of a critical kicking when it came out. That’s not to say that certain elements of the film aren’t easy to deride — some of the scenes just seem misjudged or laughable (an elderly Wallis dancing for her ailing husband comes to mind), and the camera has a tendency to wander a bit loosely — but I imagine a lot of it comes down to its framing narrative, which uses historical objects as a means to enter the past. This fetishisation of material things is, indeed, an overriding element of the story — objects, clothes, set design, hairstyles and make-up, all of these things are fawned over by the camera and lavishly depicted — though it shouldn’t really come as a surprise given the film’s creator. But that needn’t be a drawback or a criticism — if anything it’s just making explicit the pitfalls of recreating historical events for the screen. In any case, the history is very much nested within a modern story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), who has grown up obsessed by the historical romance, and in communing with their personal effects at a Sotheby’s auction, via flashbacks starring Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as the royal couple, comes to understand that their love affair wasn’t perfect. At the same time, her own marriage is foundering and she is falling for a security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), hence the “W.E.” of the title refers to both of these couples. The film isn’t perfect, but the actors are all excellent, and moments of absurdity aside, this is on the whole a handsomely-mounted period production.

W.E. film posterCREDITS
Director Madonna; Writers Madonna and Alek Keshishian; Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski; Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 9 January 2016.

桃姐 Tou Ze (A Simple Life, 2011)

This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.

A Simple Life film posterCREDITS
Director Ann Hui 許鞍華; Writers Susan Chan 陈淑贤 and Roger Lee 李恩霖; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Deanie Ip 葉德嫻, Andy Lau 劉德華; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.

We Need to Talk about Kevin film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Ramsay; Writers Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015.

Dreams of a Life (2011)

As readers of the small print on my reviews may have noticed, I go to see films at the Cineworld in Wood Green a lot (it’s one of the closest cinemas to where I live), which is the last place I expected to see featured in a film, but that shows how much I know. But while Dreams of a Life might be memorable to me for that small fact — the woman whose life it presents met her end in a flat in that same building — it is instead a fantastic film with an emotional effect I can only pinpoint as Uncanny (or Unheimliche if you will). Of course, director Carol Morley has form with that: her most recent film, the eerie The Falling, was one of my favourites at last year’s London Film Festival.

Outwardly there’s not much to say about Dreams, for it’s ostensibly a documentary about a woman called Joyce who was discovered dead in her Wood Green flat in 2006, having lain undisturbed for over two years. But grisly details of her end aside, the film is more interested in trying to find out about Joyce’s life, largely filtered through the recollections of her friends and lovers. As part of this, and perhaps to make clear that this is a film interpreting who Joyce may have been, rather than merely presenting the strange facts of her case file, the film is built around dramatic reconstructions of her with actor Zawe Ashton portraying her onscreen. For it turns out that Joyce was no maladjusted outsider for whom such an end seemed predestined, but instead — it seems — a beautiful, intelligent and apparently happy person. There are darker hints that domestic violence and abuse have contributed, so in a way it’s as much a film about what people keep hidden and how that can be undetected by even those closest to them.

However, perhaps most of all, it’s a film filled with the hopefulness of human contact, and the sadness of losing touch, which is perhaps the real reason for my calling it uncanny, for there’s something strangely familiar that I imagine to it that all of us can relate to. Over its running time, the film casts a real spell, one that is only broken by the end credits, as we hear Joyce singing, her voice dreadfully out of key, almost painfully reminding us that this is still a real person who has died, no mere dream.

Dreams of a Life film poster CREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley; Cinematographers Mary Farbrother and Lynda Hall; Starring Zawe Ashton; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2015.