प्यासा Pyaasa (1957)

A couple of weeks ago I did a themed week around documentaries because of the Sheffield Doc/Fest moving online (it’s still going until 10 July). However, it’s not the first film festival and won’t be the last to open online only this year. Next week Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a short online programme, and just this past week, the London (and Birmingham) Indian Film Festival has launched an online hub, which looks very similar to Sheffield’s. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch up with a few, but it’s a hectic time in filmgoing, albeit a very homebound one! In honour of this, I’m doing a week dedicated to Indian films, starting with some classics and then moving to more recent works (most of which I’ve seen are by women directors). I’ll start with Guru Dutt’s classic from 1957, whose bio makes him seem like he had something of a turbulent life, though it resulted in some great films.


A magnanimous and generous film about people living on the outside of acceptable society. The director Guru Dutt also plays the leading man, Vijay, a struggling poet (much of it sung) who has been more or less abandoned by his brothers and scorned by polite society, and who is only made to feel welcome by a prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). In a bitter twist of fate, he only finds fame after it is assumed he has died. The Wikipedia plot summary deals mostly with the film’s final third, as much of the earlier part of the film is more of an attempt to capture Vijay’s feelings, of being abandoned and shunned, and of failing to find love or respect, though somehow it’s never really depressing: the luminous cinematography, and the generosity of a small number of (similarly outsider) characters keep the film and its lead character from wallowing in misery. When plot machinations kick in, the grasping venality of those around Vijay is revealed.

Pyaasa film posterCREDITS
Director Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त; Writer Abrar Alvi अबरार अलवी; Cinematographer V.K. Murthy वीके मूर्ति; Starring Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त, Mala Sinha माला सिन्हा, Waheeda Rehman وحیدہ رحمن, Rehman रहमान; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

Global Cinema, Argentina: The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

Mi amiga del parque (My Friend from the Park, 2015)

It feels like since the arrival of Lucrecia Martel in the new millennium, there’s been a flourishing of women directors in Argentine and South American cinema, covering a range of genres. Looking at her filmography, Ana Katz, an actor and director who emerged around the same time, has tended towards more populist forms like comedy, though this one sits much more in one character’s head, as a sort of psychological horror film of sorts.


An odd film which starts in the park of the title, then the comfortable apartment of lone mother Liz (Julieta Zylberberg), whose husband is off overseas working, and seems to be telling a story of a middle-class woman’s struggle to parent her baby by herself. It then sets up a meeting with another single mother, Rosa (played by the director, Ana Katz), an older woman who is clearly less well-off, in that park and starts to veer into psychological terror territory. It continues to flirt with playing out Liz’s increasingly paranoid fantasies, stopping just short of that, but nevertheless says something about the incipient terror of motherhood, not to mention being a story of the way class relations play out, as it maintains a constantly uneasy tone in the friendship between the two women.

My Friend from the Park film posterCREDITS
Director Ana Katz; Writers Inés Bortagaray and Katz; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto [as “Bill Nieto”]; Starring Julieta Zylberberg, Ana Katz, Maricel Álvarez; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 3 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 326: Metropolitan (1990)

This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

파업전야 Paeopjeonya (The Night Before the Strike, 1990)

An important battlefield for resistance, aside from in politics and on the streets, is of course the workplace, and trade unions have a strong role to play in that story. One such is this oppositional work made in South Korea against the background of the Gwangju Uprising, an expression of popular discontent which was brutally repressed in 1980 and led to all kind of fallout during the subsequent decade. It was written, shot and directed by a large roster of activist filmmakers, working largely under the radar of major institutions, and so was only restored very recently.


This Korean film was made in the late-80s, filmed (as I understand it) at a factory which had been occupied by striking workers and using a cast which included a lot of these workers in minor roles. Filmed on 16mm it feels like it has a documentary quality at times, akin to some of the low-budget TV plays being made in the UK at the time which dealt with working-class and working issues in a way that wasn’t exploitative or condescending (itself rather rare in our modern media climate). The main character here, for audience purposes, is Han-su, who sort of watches from the sidelines as his workplace (a metal-working factory) is radicalised thanks to the small-mindedness of the bosses coming into conflict with those who are trying to get a union off the ground. His long face and sullen demeanour conveys his confusion at what’s happening, as he slowly gets up to speed on why unionisation makes sense to protect his job. There’s a nice scene as various people who have been drafted in by management to protect the plant against these unionising workers (who are all swiftly laid off when their plans comes to management’s attention) all find out they’ve been made the same promises. For the most part, though, this isn’t a strident sloganising or propagandistic film, but rather a small-scale drama set amongst these workers that unfolds gradually. The director spoke on stage after the film about how the collective’s first film a few years earlier had been criticised by those whom it had been about, and how that meant they wanted to work more closely with the subjects to find a way of presenting their struggles sympathetically. This they did, to the extent that the film was officially banned and had to find its audience via non-cinematic screenings (which probably makes more sense given the content) and has only now been restored.

The Night Before the Strike film posterCREDITS
Directors Lee Eun 이은, Chang Yong-hyun 장윤현, Jang Dong-hong 장동홍 and Lee Jae-gu 이재구; Writers Kong Su-chang 공수창, Kim Eun-chae 김은채 and Min Kyeong-cheol 민경철; Cinematographers Kim Jae-hong 김재홍, Oh Cheng-ok 오정옥 and Lee Chang-jun 이창준; Starring Go Dong-eop 고동업, Im Yeong-gu 임영구; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 3 November 2019.

Set It Off (1996)

In many ways this is a genre heist flick, a product of the Hollywood system, but unlike most such products it’s very clearly rooted in a systemic understanding of class and racism as it applies to the home of the movies, Los Angeles, where haves and have nots are strictly separated. It’s about four women just trying to get by, but being repeatedly failed by a corrupt, racist system — the one that every so often the rest of America is forced to admit is broken before everyone moves on, and then it’s all repeated once again. This is precisely the world of state and police violence against Black communities that so many films in the 90s were about, and which has continued to recur ever since in popular culture and, sadly, in reality.


In the 90s, it seems, it was difficult to get funding for films about Black lives or experiences unless they were gritty, set in the projects, and had an almost moralistic sense of come-uppance for those whose lives dared to transgress the boundaries strictly set by authority, so I regret that we didn’t get an Oceans 11 style heist caper in which everyone managed to get away, but that’s not what this film is about. In fact, one of its particular strengths is in making it clear just what exactly is oppressing our heroines, and it’s not other Black women. This is Los Angeles, after all, and there aren’t many opportunities available to these women. Through a series of events that are as brutally predictable as they are unsuprisingly still very current, each is beaten down to the point where committing a bank robbery seems like a viable option, and so it goes. The action when it comes is pretty thrilling and grandly done, and even the token figure of white empathy feels somewhat rounded (John C. McGinley, who seemingly always used to play these sorts of authority figure roles), even if in the current climate it feels difficult to believe he’d actually Care. This is a strong film that bucks certain trends while playing into others, but it’s never unclear who the empathetic heroes of this film really are, and that’s as it should be.

Set It Off film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier; Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky; Starring Jada Pinkett Smith [as “Jada Pinkett”], Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Mid City, Wellington, May 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 21 April 2020).

Pop Aye (2017)

This film is made by a Singaporean director, and I can’t really include that state in my ‘mainland SE Asian cinema’ theme week because it’s an island, albeit one very close to the mainland, with a long history of connection (historically with Malaysia), as well as a number of physical bridges. However, this film was made and filmed in Thailand, so it deserves to be part of this week on that basis. It’s also rather delightful, and though I’m not sure how one might watch it now, it’s worth looking out for.


After only a few films into the 2017 London Film Festival, already this felt like a highlight. At a certain level it maybe isn’t anything new per se. After all, it’s essentially a road trip buddy movie, in which a disenchanted elderly man (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) takes a slow trip back to his family’s roots, as the filmmaker contrasts urban and rural living with a critique of capitalist building developments, and offers a poignant view of those lives lost somewhere in between. But then again, the buddy on the road trip is the titular elephant (actor name Bong), and the man (who is an architect) uses it to reconnect with his younger life, as he reassesses his life’s work and his marriage. The film feels profound in the way it considers the fullness of this man’s (and indeed the elephant’s) life, even as it wears its peripatetic narrative lightly. It also manages to fit in a few beautiful and haunting shots, and some strong supporting character work.

Pop Aye film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kirsten Tan; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Thaneth Warakulnukroh ธเนศ วรากุลนุเคราะห์, Penpak Sirikul เพ็ญพักตร์ ศิริกุล; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 5 October 2017.

Knives Out (2019)

This is very obviously neither an indie film nor exactly is it much related to “mumblecore” in any way, but rather it’s a knowing genre film that uses these familiar murder-mystery whodunit tropes to tell a somewhat sub rosa story of class and race in modern America. At some level I guess I still think of Rian Johnson as indie, perhaps because of his first film Brick (2005), though he very quickly took to rather bigger productions, which this of course is. Still, my blog my rules, so I’m putting it in this themed week.


A very polished and fun whodunit murder-mystery thriller set amongst a rich family at their stately old New England pile, which revolves ultimately around capitalism, class and immigration, though without ever really overtly digging into these topics. In fact, nothing ever feels more important than when it’s prefiguring another twist or leading to some well-crafted satirical repartee, but that’s all part of the film’s easy charm. The old man who has died mysteriously (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned author, and we discover in flashbacks — because the film starts with his dead body being discovered — that most of his extended family basically live off him, much to his increasing chagrin. Saying more about it would be to trade in spoilers, which I do not care to do, but there’s a wealth of delightful little character details, as well as some big chewy roles for the assembled hams to have a crack at (none moreso than Daniel Craig’s Sherlock-like drawling Lousianian private investigator), and some fine casting does a lot of the work, but Ana de Armas as the old man’s nursemaid turns out to be the stand-out role in the starry ensemble. It’s all intricately plotted as you might expect, and its charms are fairly surface-level, but see it in a big audience and there’s plenty to delight.

Knives Out film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 1 December 2019 (and again at the Genesis, London, Sunday 8 December 2019).