Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.
Continuing my theme of films about China, these two are made in and about China by Chinese women, that elucidate certain aspects of Chinese society one imagines were not particularly pleasing to those in power in that country. It’s about young people and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them upon graduation.
My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).
I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).
An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.
One of the more interesting releases at the end of this week in the UK is The Farewell, a new film directed by Lulu Wang about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China to deal with the death of her elderly grandmother. Therefore I’m inaugurating a week focusing on what I’m going to call Asian diaspora filmmaking (mostly, to be fair, from the United States).
I should clarify what I mean here, because it’s fairly common for films to feature characters in (often glamorous) overseas settings. For example, the Chinese film Finding Mr Right 2 (2016) is set in Macau and Los Angeles, while Bollywood film Shaandaar (2015) is set amongst the posh country homes of the UK. However, while these were made within their local film industry, there have always been filmmakers in the US and UK with Asian ancestry or who have relocated to the West to make their films, stretching back even to silent cinema (Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon from 1917 is a recently-unearthed, if sadly incomplete, example).
There’s been quite a proliferation of Asian-American films in recent decades, and while tentpole films like the recent Crazy Rich Asians or, earlier, The Joy Luck Club (1993) are often mentioned, it’s been in smaller scale indie filmmaking that the presence has been most felt. On this blog I’ve already reviewed the thoroughly delightful Saving Grace (2004), the sci-fi film Advantageous (2015) and the Indian-American documentary Meet the Patels (2014), but there have been many other interesting genre exercises that I hope to feature in the upcoming week. One such was by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, who made a name for himself with little cinephile short films about his favourite auteurs, but his own work turns out to have its very own delights.
I can’t pretend this film doesn’t hit exactly the kind of tone and style that I love in cinema, and obviously it turns out it’s directed by a man who has studied (and made short films about) all the great auteurs, so I’m sure he’s out there just as pointedly referencing Bresson and Ozu and Antonioni when he’s making the film as anyone watching it (like me) is reading into it. Which all retrospectively makes me suspect some of the craft a little — as if it’s just too carefully controlled, just too preciously wrought. I’ve never seen a film that features architecture so heavily (Antonioni, or La Sapienza perhaps) that’s not a little bit about alienation, about people not connecting with one another, broken families and the like, so at a certain level it’s hardly breaking new ground. But John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson have proper screen charisma — without any confectedly creepy relationship drama — and, as I said, I love the openness and space of the framing, and the deployment of quietness (along with the occlusion of sound at times, or the use of untranslated foreign language). I’ve been watching quite a few Ozu films recently; I suspect Kogonado may have been, too.
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다; Cinematographer Elisha Christian; Starring John Cho 조요한, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 October 2018.
One last film for my week of South American cinema, is another Brazilian film that blends a fictional narrative form with documentary elements to create a beguiling blend of the two, reminiscent somewhat of another 2017 Brazilian film, Baronesa, which I reviewed earlier this week (and whose director was also involved with this one).
There have been a number of hybrid fiction-documentary works in recent years, not least from Brazil and South America, and here too there is this sensibility at work. While the film is clearly fictional in form, it takes stories and situations from real life, showing sequences of real work by people with very little agency. The framing narrative is the journals of an ailing worker called Cristiano, and the film quickly moves from its original story to follow Cristiano’s words in a sequence of scenes that have a mysterious building power to them. The film washes over me such that I can’t, even at fairly short remove, remember a lot of the details, but I’m left with the sense of a lyrical vision — the opening images are of a young man on a bicycle to the 60s singer-songwriter sounds of Jackson C. Frank. As the film develops, it laces in these ideas of itinerant work and the dangers to one’s livelihood, and then of storytelling itself, who tells the stories and who has the power (both in fiction as in life), and like with a lot of hybrid films, the form becomes a way to give a voice to society’s traditionally voiceless.
Directors/Writers Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans; Cinematographer Leonardo Feliciano; Starring Aristides de Sousa; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 14 September 2019.
One of the most noticeable trends in cinema, of the last decade in particular, has been films which intentionally blur the lines between documentary and fiction, interrogating the ways in which we approach filmed media and the values we place on what we see onscreen. Women filmmakers like Alma Har’el in LoveTrue (2016), and women from South and Central America such as in some recent Mexican films, seem to have taken up this hybrid filmmaking with particular success, not least in these Brazilian examples.
Pendular (2017) [Brazil/Argentina/France]
I rather liked this film about a relationship between two artists, as largely expressed through space and movement. Certainly they never quite seem very comfortable with one another, but he has an enormous warehouse loft and at the outset they demarcate each others’ space. This soon becomes a line of contention and tension, as she does her dance work while he engineers enormous sculptural pieces which rely on suspension and balance — another metaphor for their relationship, of course. Oh and there are some rather intimate sex scenes between them, which have a natural feel, and extend the sense of two people who are alternately pulled together and keep each other apart.
Director Júlia Murat; Writers Murat and Matias Martini; Cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez; Starring Raquel Karro, Rodrigo Bolzan; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 11 March 2019.
This is a curious film, which deals with people from an impoverished background living in a favela in Belo Horizonte (familiar territory perhaps for a number of filmmakers), but while it comes across very much in the style of a documentary, it does appear to be a fiction film. If so, the actors and director manage to strike an incredibly accurate, naturalistic tone — women hanging out, discussing their partners, touching on sex, alternately laughing and, at one point, running from gunshots. It all feels very unforced, and scarcely exceeds one’s attention at a concise 70 minutes. I notice some reviews namechecking Pedro Costa, which seems odd (perhaps they are reviewing the poster image), given that this seems to bear little relationship to his work. It feels very much like its own thing, another of many recent entries that blur the lines between drama and documentation.
Director/Writer Juliana Antunes; Cinematographer Fernanda de Sena; Starring Andreia Pereira de Sousa; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 2 October 2018.
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.
In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).
Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.