Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018)

There have been women making films since even the start of cinema, as evidenced by the new documentary about French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, and this documentary takes a personal look at an important indigenous New Zealand woman filmmaker who isn’t perhaps as well known as she should be.


I’m rather surprised this gained a release (however small) in the UK, given that it’s hardly likely many people in this country have access to have seen Merata Mita’s work. I studied film when growing up in Wellington, so I’d seen her key works: Patu! (1983), a documentary about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in the face of anti-apartheid protestors; and Mauri (1988), an evocation of small town Maori life. We get clips of those works here, contextualised within her career, but most fascinating is the figure she cuts: from being a working mum — a teacher in a small town bringing up several kids from a couple of unpromising husbands — to getting into film almost by accident, as a byproduct of her own outspokenness on social issues (which within the context of conservative New Zealand society of the time, made her something of an activist). Her earliest screen appearance is speaking out about an abortion in the late-70s, and from there she went on to make several short films which culminated in the work on Patu! But throughout her career, in the clips marshalled here by her son Heperi (an archivist, who also narrates the film), we see the way she confronted the kind of changes she wanted to see in NZ society and the actions she took to achieve them. Later in her life, she advocated around the world on behalf of indigenous filmmakers, living in Hawaii and working extensively among First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. Hers is an inspiring story, and despite its framing as a family documentary, her voice and work on decolonisation and the representation of indigenous narratives is wonderful to see.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen film posterCREDITS
Director Heperi Mita; Cinematographer Mike Jonathan; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 7 May 2019.

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Holiday (2018)

I couldn’t find a category in my themed weeks in which to house this Danish-Dutch-Swedish co-production (albeit set in Turkey). There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what a “#MeToo” film might look like, but there have always been filmmakers making dramas about the psychological violence of patriarchy, and this is very much a film about that, which may not make it the film you most want to watch when you’re winding down at the end of a year — this is absolutely not to be confused with the more seasonally-appropriate The Holiday (2006), a very different film entirely — but it’s a compelling and direct drama all the same.


It’s probably fair to say this isn’t an easy movie to watch. The exquisitely poised formal style of the film, people framed in bright open, modern spaces (it’s set at a beach house in Turkey being rented by criminals) and with a largely fixed camera, creates the impression of a languid atmosphere, but yet there is evident tension reverberating through every frame. This is created from the start by situating us with a young blonde woman, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who is being picked up by an older man. It’s not clear what their relationship is, but it becomes evident that he is not happy with her and when he slaps her it immediately puts the whole audience on edge. This man turns out to be a minor side character who’s not seen for much of the rest of the film, and when the filmmaker, Swedish director Isabella Eklöf, moves the action on to Sascha with her boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) at the beach house, she momentarily allows us to feel relaxed by their apparently loving interaction. However, it soon becomes clear that he’s keeping her (she refers to him as her boss at one point) and that he’s involved with shady business, so his behaviour towards her and around her slowly comes to seem a little more creepy and insidious, especially when she makes friends with some other tourists in their resort. Although the film follows Sascha, she never gets any monologues to explain how she feels, and much of the emotional journey is mapped out on her face and through her actions. What we’re left with is a film that seems to inscribe patriarchal violence into every frame, into the setting, the architecture, the vehicles, but that hardly lessens those scenes where it erupts into actual violence (even when it’s implied or just heard off-screen), and the transfigurative effect that it plays on the psyche of those like Sascha who are abused; her own turn towards the end of the film feels entirely within the scope of this story.

Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabella Eklöf; Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen; Starring Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Released last year in the States, and garnering most of its awards attention at that time, this teen film was released earlier this year in the UK. It at times has the feel of a film about the kids made by a sympathetic older brother figure, but the key is that it is sympathetic and not too judgmental about what is, after all, a very emotionally turbulent time.


I don’t know anything about being an 8th grader (which is I believe age 13/14) in the United States, and I’m too old to really understand the kids now, but this film captures some what we might nowadays call “emotional truths” of being at that age, just before reaching high school, the awkwardness and the desperation, which feel very real and understandable. In a sense, it’s the base of just about every American coming of age high school movie, about the cliques and the fitting in, and the dealing with your parents, but this is done not so much as a boldly-coloured satirical comedy, but as something a little deeper and more complex. It has a lot of laughs (although some of them are laughs of anxiety in the face of potential humiliation), but it’s also pretty gruelling at times. When I think about it, nothing particularly awful really happens, but the way it’s framed, it’s all turmoil and heartbreak and so every detail feels a lot more life-threatening than any individual one might be, and that’s where I think the strength of the film is. Also, there are lots of canny shots and nicely-realised scenes that make it seem as if the director has a great sense of how to set up these moments.

Eighth Grade film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bo Burnham; Cinematographer Andrew Wehde; Starring Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson, Josh Hamilton; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 21 April 2019.

Lasting Marks (2018)

I don’t usually devote reviews to short films, but I really liked this short documentary subject and it was particularly good to see it with a panel discussion afterwards (with the filmmaker present) to talk out the issues it raised about sex, consent and the legal frameworks of justice. It can be watched on YouTube.


While the screening I saw this film at was in a partly academic setting, that’s not to say the film is only of academic interest, though the rather unusual A4 aspect ratio makes it feel tailored to that kind of audience — in formal respects, it is perhaps the most literal interpretation of “documentary”, in visually presenting only document-based evidence (reports, newspaper clippings). However, the images are accompanied by vocal testimony from someone involved in the case being covered (one from the early-1990s involving sado-masochistic sex acts amongst a group of consenting men), which in some senses has come to define the boundaries of p0rnography and the “acceptable” limits of sexuality in the UK, and still has troubling implications for consensuality quite aside from what it says about our toxic media and political debates. This voice we hear speaking is one of the men who participated in what we see in the documents described as a loathsome, morally depraved sex crime, but he is by some measure the voice of reason and stability against which the pictured voices of authority (of the police and the media and its commentators parroting the police’s official line) lose their power. The film, in its quiet way, effectively confronts and destabilises the accumulated power of the “official” accounts, suggesting the limitations not just of what we think to be true from what we read, but also the way that such assumptions are embedded into our very legal system, and the systems of control that are exercised over our (consensual) bodies and behaviours.

Lasting Marks film posterCREDITS
Director Charlie Lyne; Length 14 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Goldsmiths, London, Thursday 21 November 2019 (and before that on YouTube streaming at home, London, Saturday 13 April 2019).

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

江湖儿女 Jianghu Emu (Ash Is Purest White, 2018)

So Long, My Son, a new Chinese epic drama by director Wang Xiaoshuai, opens in UK cinemas today — a film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. At last year’s LFF I saw another Chinese film, which opened in UK cinemas earlier this year, the latest by Jia Zhangke. I did a big post of four of Jia’s films yesterday, but his A Touch of Sin is up there amongst my favourite of the decade, even if his previous film Mountains May Depart didn’t thrill me quite so much. Still, he has plenty to say about modern Chinese society, and continues to work closely with actor Zhao Tao.


Jia Zhangke has always been making films that concern themselves with the enormous shifting forces in society, economic change and capitalist exploitation tied into enormous infrastructural projects of change and development of particularly our urban landscapes. It just feels like more and more he’s tying them to individual stories that don’t always feel like they have the expansiveness to sustain this kind of thematic weight (though his films remain epic in length and sweep at least).

This story is about a woman (played as ever by Jia’s long-time collaborator Zhao Tao) in love with a small-time local gangster (Liao Fan). She goes to jail for five years for pulling a gun on some thugs who are trying to beat him up, but he doesn’t stick around for her. It’s a film that stretches over about 17 years of time (from 2001 to the present), marking its passage of time not by title cards but by small changes like the use of mobile phone technology (or by large ones, like the sudden presence of huge modern development projects in the heart of a northern city like Datong), and, surprisingly to me, has quite a few laughs in it too.

If I’m not always convinced that the running time and tripartite structure is exactly earned by these characters’ lives, there’s still plenty of detail in its depictions of the changing Chinese landscape and economy to reward a viewing, and the performances are excellent as ever with Jia’s films.

Ash Is Purest White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Liao Fan 廖凡; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 13 October 2018.

海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

Peterloo (2018)

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.

Peterloo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.