One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
Following my review of Dead Pigs earlier today, another recent Chinese film to make waves, and not just because it was the only film directed by a woman in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2017, is this one, Angels Wear White. In it second-time director Vivian Qu challenges sexually predatory men within Chinese society, part of what is implied to be wider corruption at the heart of the society, and a welcome challenge no doubt.
There’s a lot of discussion these days (and rightly so) about the destructive effect of sexual violence within patriarchal and authoritarian power structures can have on young women, and this film is a fine example of a situation in which institutional deficiences fail the people society is supposed to protect. It sets up a scenario involving a number of characters, each of which has their reasons for overlooking or excusing a horrific crime (the rape, not seen on camera, of two young girls by a corrupt police official). In many ways this is the same setup as another film I saw in the London Film Festival the same year (Beauty and the Dogs) but it’s done far more sensitively to my mind. The girls’ point of view is necessarily laconic, but we see their parents find reasons not to press charges, preferring to think about payouts and education in an area deprived of resources for this, while another strand follows a witness to the crime: a slightly older girl who has similarly been mistreated, having run away at a young age and is now living without the necessary government ID required to receive any support, doing menial cash jobs for little reward. In many ways she represents the younger girl a few years later, having toughened up and run away to a bigger city, but still prey to predatory men hanging around, offering the basic necessities of life in exchange for money or favours. It’s a corrupt society, no mistake, only exacerbated by the literally enormous metaphor of female sexuality on high heels that stands overlooking the seaside resort where it’s set.
Director/Writer Vivian Qu 文晏; Cinematographer Benoît Dervaux; Starring Vicky Chen [or Wen Qi] 陳文淇, Zhou Meijun 周美君; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 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).
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.
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.
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.
Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).
One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
I’ve decided to nominate Saturdays on my blog as ‘revisit a theme you’ve already done a week about with a film you’ve watched recently’ so hopping back to my African-American cinema week with this recent release, which is the one whose release I was working my themed week around. It’s directed by a white guy, but (at least partly) written by its star Jimmie Fails, aspects of whose life it tells. It’s a very striking debut feature certainly, and very much worth checking out.
This was a film that surprised me. Obviously it’s impossible to make a film set now in San Francisco without it being at least obliquely (though here less so) about gentrification and the nature of modern capitalism, and I thought that Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy had captured all that perfectly well ten years ago, but this is a completely different film in every aspect. I’m rather surprised, indeed, that it’s a debut film, though at times the denseness of the music and image does feel a little bit cluttered. Still, it has a real poetry to the way it evokes — and at the same denaturalises through its aesthetic choices — modern San Franciscan life. It’s about what it means to live in a place, and love it (“you don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it”), but also be pushed away and alienated by it. Jimmie, the lead character who also contributed to the screenplay, has the quality of a young Don Cheadle, and seems to encapsulate something at times quite profound about the city (and most modern cities), while his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) seems to stand equally outside the place, if for different reasons. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m not just being a bit distracted by the deeply mannered sense of aesthetics, though I can’t deny it caught up with me on several occasions.
Director Joe Talbot; Writers Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails; Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra; Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 27 October 2019.
The 1990s and 2000s were a fertile time for films about a very specific strand of Black American urban experience, specifically around gangs, drugs and violent crime. It is beyond the scope of my own lived experience to suggest how this media portrayal might have made an impact on society itself and the perception of African-American lives in the United States, but it is unquestionably the case that these are the topics which were getting funding by the studios, and so filmmakers used it to make some hard-hitting dramas about people living at edges of society. There were of course also a number of rather patchy, exploitative films that just gloried in the drugs and the guns, the hookers and the blow, but occasionally even in this crowded field, a film would have a more nuanced point of view, with expressive acting and a stronger screenplay than often required by those with the money.
There have never been any shortage of filmic depictions of the Black experience of inner city crime, both as victims of it and perpetrators, and there’s already a deep and troubling lexicon of terms to describe these experiences. It feels like the 90s were a particularly prolific era of films about hustlers and thugs in the ghetto, but Paid in Full rises above a lot of the sub-par efforts by telling a story that has sweep and a certain operatic trajectory, without succumbing to some of the mythologisation and worn tropes: in short, it feels rooted in real experiences. The acting is all excellent too, an early pre-The Wire role for Wood Davis as Ace, who sort of brings the whole story together, with more showy turns from Mekhi Phifer and Cam’ron as people more inured to this world. I’ll obviously never really be able to judge its accuracy, but I certainly enjoyed the compelling way it played out on screen.
Director Charles Stone III; Writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis; Cinematographer Paul Sarossy; Starring Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam’ron; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 4 January 2019.
It wouldn’t be right to do a themed week around the musical and not cover at least one Bollywood film, an industry whose entire production in every genre seems to be somehow informed by the genetic material of the musical. It just so happens that some of them are rather closer to the form than others, and this film is at heart a film about music and the performance of it, as well as being something of a musical.
I suppose I was primed beforehand to be resistant to what appears (and, to a certain extent, is) the Bollywood reimagining of 8 Mile, with its aspirant rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh), who has to be coaxed into performing and then finds himself on stage trying out for the big time, with moneyed half-American hangers-on tempting him with their aspirational lifestyles. But really, this is a film that’s far more in its element when it’s dealing with the slums that Murad has come out of, about his secret relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt, whom I adore) — whose family are wealthier and whose parents would never consent to their being together — and about the difficulties he has just trying to live his life. After all, he has friends who are mixed up in carjacking and drug dealing, and so their easy access to money at times becomes too tempting. In some ways, class seems even more ingrained into the Indian films I’ve seen than in any other cinema, and it’s explicitly addressed here by the director Zoya Akhtar, as are the double-standards of Murad’s father, who has married a much younger second wife and then treats his first one badly — his actions are hardly excused, but we do get a glimpse into the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities he’s been given in life, and the extent to which he has given up hope of it ever changing. Given the film’s big-budget production background, none of this context was ever likely to be as gritty and depressing as it could be, but all the themes are very much there. Still, for all that, and for all the enjoyment in its big musical competition scenes, any lead character who could even think about cheating on Alia Bhatt will never fully have my sympathy.
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি; Cinematographer Jay Oza जय ओझा; Starring Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 20 February 2019.
Day seven, aside from being my birthday, was a day of just two films, both of which were fairly decent as films go, if rather earnest, but both of which shone a light on their respective countries in quite revealing ways. Being directed by women, they had lessons particularly about the role and status of women in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.
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.