Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom

Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.

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Celia (1989)

This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.


This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 224: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Sam Fuller had made a few movies by the time he made this, so he had started to hone his style a little, enough to make this fantastic, concise film noir about a man who pickpockets the wrong woman and finds himself mixed up with international espionage and Communist agents. The dialogue rattles off with all the appropriate relish, and it has a particularly great role for Thelma Ritter as an ageing stoolpigeon, sharing information to the highest bidder with a devil-may-care abandon — though even she has lines she won’t cross, and the Red Menace is one of them (well, it is a film from McCarthy’s 1950s, after all). Jean Peters is an actor who should have been in a lot more films, and the look of both her and the film is a constant delight, with the high-contrast monochrome photography affording the city a lustrous splendour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope, 2013)

I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.

Director Andrzej Wajda made his first feature in 1954, making him rather a veteran filmmaker and giving him an historical perspective on the events that younger filmmakers might lack; indeed, he made a couple of similarly-titled films during the era the film depicts — Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). For this one, he has co-opted a lot of the textures of archival film, in order to more seamlessly blend in period footage. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, full of fuzzy out-of-focus shots, blurred framing and occasional lapses into black-and-white stock, giving a lot of the film the quality of a newsreel. This also ensures an up-close look at the man, played with wonderful conviction by Robert Więckiewicz. There are massed crowd scenes and group meetings, but for the most part this is Wałęsa at home with his wife (a beatific Agnieszka Grochowska) or in prison, being pressed by government interrogators (Zbigniew Zamachowski being only the most prominent of these).

It would be difficult to really convey in any film what is a very slow-moving struggle that took up almost two entire decades. Big events are depicted, like the 1980 strike originating at the Gdańsk shipyards which paralysed the country, and with such grand scenes it can be difficult to grasp their national importance (except for a few characters arriving to tell Lech what’s happening outside the shipyard’s walls). Instead it’s those periodic interrogations — the subtle movement of time tracking Wałęsa’s months spent in interment, putting on weight away from his family — that move the story forward. Wałęsa shows dogged resistance to the government, refusing to submit with a self-assured cockiness that he retains in a framing interview with journalist Oriana Fallaci.

It’s a film that seems to have rather slipped through into distribution in this country and it will probably disappear from cinemas rather quickly, but as a portrait of an era and of a defining figure in European history, it’s well worth watching. It also shows that even nearing his 90th birthday, Wajda is no slouch as a director.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope film posterCREDITS
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Janusz Głowacki; Cinematographer Paweł Edelman; Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013.