Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Larry Manda | Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio | Length 485 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017

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Barakah yoqabil Barakah (Barakah Meets Barakah, 2016)

If I were being flippant, I’d call this the best Saudi romcom I’ve seen, but of course the Saudi film industry is hardly developed (the only other film I can recall seeing from that country is 2012’s Wadjda, itself a German co-production). However, its existence in a very small industry aside, it’s actually — on any terms — a sweet story of romance, with two fetching leads (Hisham Fageeh as the male Barakah, and Fatima AlBanawi as the woman, though she goes by Bibi for short). It deploys many familiar structures to the romcom genre — the meet cute, the flirting, meeting the family — but these take on new meaning against the background of harsh social strictures designed to prevent any of these things from happening in real life. Barakah’s work as a civic functionary affords him little additional power (the unseen religious police have far more authority), and while it seems that Bibi’s far wealthier life makes her more able to shrug off religious obligations, even she has little power outside the private sphere of the home. Still, the film hardly dwells on such matters (given the wide-reaching grip of religious fervour within this society, it hardly needs to), and the tone remains light throughout: there are some great, properly funny scenes, and some touching ones too, as the two get closer.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Mahmoud Sabbagh | Cinematographer Victor Credi | Starring Hisham Fageeh, Fatima AlBanawi | Length 88 minutes || Seen on a flight from Beirut to London, Monday 29 May 2017

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, 2016)

At a certain level, this is a classic story of revenge, as Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years of false captivity and seeks out the rich man who set her up. However, this is a Lav Diaz film, so events unfold slowly, in high-contrast black-and-white. As Horacia formulates her plan she comes into contact with a number of poor street people, and getting to know them becomes in many ways more important than the plot. It is, then, I suppose a film again about Filipino society (at a specific point in time, the late-90s) but also about time taken away — which is a little bit of meta-commentary for the patient audience, given the usual length of Diaz’s films (though this one is under four hours).


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Charo Santos-Concio | Length 228 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Sunday 5 March 2017

Bar Bahar (In Between, 2016)

A story of three Arab-Israeli women who live together in Tel Aviv, this at its best feels effortless and modern. The linchpin is Leila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer and party animal who has a blithe abandon to living her life which is delightful to watch. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is her lesbian housemate, an aspiring DJ who takes work in a bar and hides her sexuality from her traditional (Christian) parents. They take in Nour (Shaden Kanboura) as a houseguest, a cousin’s friend who wears a headscarf and has a more traditional Muslim family. Thus is the set-up for the rest of the film, and it’s a venerable one at that, mined for plenty of films and especially television sitcoms. I really wanted it to be more upbeat, but plenty of stuff happens to the three that’s not exactly cheerful (thanks, traditional religious cultures and the patriarchy), and it moves towards a very much downbeat denouement, as the three regroup — not without hope, but at least a little knocked back. Still, picking up on one of the most commonly cited comparisons (Girls), I’d happily watch an entire TV series about these women because their lives seem set to continue apace.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: International Women’s Day
Director/Writer Maysaloun Hamoud | Cinematographer Itay Gross | Starring Mouna Hawa, Shaden Kanboura, Sana Jammelieh | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Wednesday 8 March 2017

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lone Scherfig | Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans) | Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov | Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017

Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden (My Brothers and Sisters in the North, 2016)

In telling the story of a South Korean woman who travels to the North (via her German citizenship; it’s a German-produced film) and makes a documentary there, this film seems to know it hardly need do more than just point a camera and bear witness to a still largely-unseen society. The North Koreans we hear often brim with enthusiasm (for the cause, for their fellow citizens, for possible reunification one day, for their leader), their daily rituals filled with songs and dances — almost all of them mentioning their dear political leaders, present and past — but the director doesn’t mock or belittle them. It’s more a frank testament to the people she encounters in various places — not just Pyongyang but a smaller city on the coast, and rural settlements where people farm the land. There’s some of that same spirit that Joris Ivens captured in How Yukong Moved the Mountains (albeit that was about the Chinese Cultural Revolution). There’s also a simplicity to the style — lots of slowed-down tracking shots, beautiful landscape and skyline photography, interviews between director and workers. We get a sense of some of the way people live, in so far as we are allowed to perceive it directly. Quite how accurate it is may not be knowable but it’s a fascinating document nonetheless.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sung Hyung Cho | Cinematographers Julia Daschner and Thomas Schneider | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 May 2017

The Levelling (2016)

As a film about guilt and grief, those mainstays of the low-budget indie drama repertoire, this does better than many films. It gets into the character of Clover (Ellie Kendrick) very well, as we get to understand her relationship to her father Aubrey (David Troughton) and recently deceased brother better over the course of its taut running time. There are thriller elements as she slowly gathers the information about her brother’s last days and hours, but there’s also an almost documentary interest in the day-to-day running of her dad’s farm, from which she left (or was forced out) to go to university. The acting has a peculiar way about it, perhaps from the screenplay, and to me it all seems a bit too stagy, deliberate and careful, but those are positive attributes in the editing and pacing of the film, which remains quite beguiling. I’ve seen a lot, lot worse films in this vein.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hope Dickson Leach | Cinematographer Nanu Segal | Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 May 2017

Aquarius (2016)

For a film that’s been controversial in its native country (though I gather it’s more to do with politics external to the film itself), and for one with an 18 certificate, this isn’t quite what I expected. Primarily it’s that the tone is so unhurried, and lacking in melodrama. It’s a quiet film that takes its time to observe the elderly Clara as she lives her life by the beach in an upscale area of Recife. Recounting the plot (her desire to stay where she is leads to conflict with the building’s owners, who want to redevelop the site) suggests a kind of film that this really isn’t. Through this pleasant miasmatic haze of beachfront living there are periodic little breaks — tiny brief shots that jolt the audience: a body being disinterred, a baby which has messed itself being cleaned, some graphic sex — but these are just hints at the direction perhaps a flashier more insecure director might have gone. This is a character study, and a very fine one.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kleber Mendonça Filho | Cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu | Starring Sônia Braga | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 29 March 2017

Mãe só há uma (Don’t Call Me Son, 2016)

Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s​ clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Flare Film Festival
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert | Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez | Starring Naomi Nero | Length 82 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017

All This Panic (2016)

There are, I suppose, no shortage of films — no shortage even of woozy impressionistic documentaries — about the teenage experience of girlhood, but this one seems pretty engaged. Its New York-based subjects are, for example, hardly idiots (frustrating, piqued, flighty at times, but not stupid). Indeed, there’s some discussion amongst its (mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class) subjects of how young female voices are routinely mocked and ignored — an argument I’ve seen recycled quite a bit over this past winter of Teen Vogue‘s growing political ascendancy. Well, there’s no such danger here, as we watch this loose group of friends grow up and go to university (or not). It’s sweet, sad, and hopeful, often all at once. It’s also shot in tight close-ups, hazy in the camera’s focus, and always gorgeous to look at.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jenny Gage | Cinematographer Tom Betterton | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 25 March 2017