Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Global Cinema 35: Chile – Beyond My Grandfather Allende (2015)

Chilean cinema has been through periods of strength over the years, and there have been some notable international talents that have flourished after early starts in Chile, like the prolific Raúl Ruiz and veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán (who made the epic The Battle of Chile). Modern filmmaking has continued to flourish under a new vanguard of directors, both of features (like the excellent Too Late to Die Young by Dominga Sotomayor, or No by Pablo Larraín) and documentaries like the one covered below. This personal story should be viewed alongside a wider overview of the events of Allende’s overthrow (as in Guzmán’s epic three-part film mentioned above), but it gives a different perspective on such an important modern figure.


Flag - ChileRepublic of Chile (República de Chile)
population 17,574,000 | capital Santiago (5.4m) though the legislature is based in Valparaíso | largest cities Santiago, Valparaíso (804k), Concepción (666k), La Serena (296k), Antofagasta (285k) | area 756,096 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (36%) | official language Spanish (español chileno) | major ethnicity (estimates) white (64%), mestizos (35%), Amerindians (5%) | currency Chilean peso ($) [CLP] | internet .cl

The southernmost country in the world occupies a narrow stretch of land (64km at its narrowest) between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, covering a huge number variety of landscapes and climates, and controlling a number of island groups including Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Juan Fernández Islands. Its name is theorised to come variously from the name of a tribal chief via the Incas, or from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or the Mapuche for “where the land ends” or the Quechua for “cold”. There is evidence for some human presence in southern Chile 18,500 years ago, though more permanent settlements date back 10,000 years. The Incan empire briefly extended into the northern area of modern Chile, but the Mapuche in the south resisted successfully, ending with the Battle of the Maule in the late-15th century. Magellan was the first European to set foot in 1520, and more Spaniards (including Pizarro’s lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia, who founded Santiago) followed in the mid-16th century, annexing it for its fertile central valley. Mapuche insurrections (including one resulting in Valdivia’s death) persisted into the 17th century until the Spanish abolished slavery in 1683. Independence from Spain was proclaimed on 18 September 1810 (the date commemorated annually in its National Day); war followed, but a final victory over royalists thanks to Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín came eight years later, though society remained largely unchanged. Territory expansion followed, entrenching landowner and rich financial interests, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a reformist president was elected. Coups and instability followed for much of the rest of the century, most notably to depose Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 with the help of the USA. The military leadership of Augusto Pinochet was not toppled until 1989 and democracy was restored, with an elected president having a term of four years.

The earliest film screening in Chile took place in 1902 and the first feature was made in 1910, though the industry struggled for much of the 20th century. A “New Chilean Cinema” developed in the late-60s under directors like Raúl Ruiz and Miguel Littín, but a slump took place during the Pinochet years. New directors like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio have emerged in recent years.


Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)

This is a somewhat different proposition from most documentary films made by someone about their own family. It’s not that the family story is lacking in incident or drama: the filmmaker’s grandfather Salvador was the socialist president of Chile, deposed by military coup in 1973 and who committed suicide rather than be taken, and his family was an illustrious one which continues to be filled with politicians and nationally influential people. Rather, what marks it out is the way that nobody the filmmaker talks to, not her mother Isabel, nor aunt Carmen, nor grandmother (Salvador’s wife, “Tencha”, who died while the film was being made), nor even her cousins will open up about Salvador, called by his nickname “Chicho” throughout the film. Perhaps it’s his suicide (which turns out to have been how her other aunt and another family member departed), or the enormous emotional trauma his downfall had on all of them, but to have this emptiness at the heart of a story can be a difficult one to overcome, for the audience. I think the filmmaker Marcia handles it well, though, and from the documentary and filmic evidence, you get a little hint of how Chicho was in life (the film is less concerned with his political legacy), but throughout all of it there’s this sense of a story only half-told.

Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)CREDITS
Director Marcia Tambutti Allende; Writers Allende, Paola Castillo, Bruni Burres and Valeria Vargas; Cinematographer David Bravo and Eduardo Cruz-Coke; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 19 May 2018.

Global Cinema 33: Central African Republic – All Are Human (2017)

I was hoping to watch a feature from the Central African Republic, but try as I might to track something down online there really has been very little filmmaking in the country. Even this short film I’m featuring today isn’t made by native Central Africans, but it does at least deal with the country and its issues — presumably the ones which have ensured its filmmaking base has never really grown.


Central African flagCentral African Republic (République Centrafricaine)
population 4,666,000 | capital Bangui (623k) | largest cities Bangui, Bimbo (124k), Berbérati (77k), Carnot (45k), Bambari (41k) | area 622,984 km2 | religion Christianity (90%, mostly Protestant), Islam (9%) | official language French (français), Sango | major ethnicity Gbaya (33%), Banda (27%), Mandja (13%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .cf

A landlocked country fitted in between Chad, the Sudans, the Congos and Cameroon, mostly made up of savannahs between the Sahel in the north and an equatorial forest in the south. The origin of its name is fairly self-evident, but in French colonial times, when the present borders were set, it was called Ubangi-Shari (after the two chief rivers of the country). Settlement in the territory currently encompassed by the country, however, stretches back thousands of years to the Neolithic period, and megaliths near Bouar (in the west of the country) indicate habitation dating to the mid-4th millennium BCE. However, despite the country’s poverty (lowest per capita GDP) and development (second lowest after Niger), it is rich in mineral deposits and land. Colonialist interest began with slave trading in the 16th century, and in the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, France seized the area in 1894. Concessions were granted to those stripping the land of its assets, and the brutality of this exploitation led to a reduction to the population by almost half in the 50 years following. The Kongo-Wara rebellion (or ‘war of the hoe handle’) attempted one of the continent’s largest interwar insurrections in 1928, but this was eventually suppressed. Independence leader Barthélemy Boganda was elected to the French National Assembly in 1946 but became disheartened and returned to found MESAN in 1950, which swept territorial elections and as first PM, Boganda declared independence in 1958. His cousin David Dacko took over after Boganda died in a plane crash, and became the first President when France granted full independence on 13 August 1960 (a date still celebrated). Col. Jean-Bédel Bokassa seized power in 1965 and named himself Emperor Bokassa I; France supported Dacko to overthrow him in 1979, but another coup took place in 1981 by Gen. André Kolingba. Struggles have pulled power back and forth in the succeeding years between his supporters and those of Ange-Félix Patassé and subsequent coups have led to a period of civil wars and unrest since 2004. The current President since 2016 is Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Although there have been films made in the CAR, the country’s poverty and ongoing civil unrest ensure that there hasn’t been much made, and what does exist is largely documentary or short productions. The first film made there appears to have been a French ethnographic short film from 1945, and the first feature-length drama wasn’t until 2003 with La Silence de la forêt (which sadly I haven’t been able to track down).


Zo Kwe Zo (All Are Human, 2017)

The Central African Republic has a French colonial past but it hardly has a tradition of filmmaking like other former French colonies. Partly I imagine this may be down to the legacy of civil wars and violence that is inscribed in the country, and that’s what this short film by some American filmmakers is dealing with and trying to open up a dialogue about. A wave of unrest against the government in 2013 saw a variety of (Muslim) rebel groups coalescing as the Seleka seizing the capital, opposed by Christian militias, the “anti-balaka”. This short film attempts to give the impressions of a few of those players on either side and the trauma they’re dealing with. It’s hardly perfect: there’s not enough time to really eke out the themes, so it ends up seeming fairly simplistic at a narrative level, with a rather rushed denouement between the anti-balaka militiaman and a doctor who has suffered a loss. However, the technical qualities are excellent, with some beautiful cinematography and sound editing. It’s just a pity the script doesn’t quite match it.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Andrew Ellis and Lindsay Branham; Cinematographer Ellis; Starring Bachir So, Josette Melodie Agouh; Length 21 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube streaming), Wellington, Friday 14 January 2022.

Global Cinema 32: Cape Verde – Djon África (2018)

Getting back into my Global Cinema strand, which involves me paraphrasing the Wikipedia entries for the country and cinema, along with a review of a film so apologies if that seems lazy. I am hoping it helps me learn about the world. Anyway, the country I’m covering today has always been known in English as Cape Verde, but they prefer Cabo Verde (even in English) so that’s the name I’ll use for the rest of this article. Pedro Costa has dealt with Cabo Verdeans in a number of his films, but there are also some good local films like this one (a co-production with Portugal and Brazil). I’m very worried now about my next visit, which is to the Central African Republic, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.


Flag - Cape VerdeRepublic of Cabo Verde (República de Cabo Verde aka Cape Verde)
population 484,000 | capital Praia (128k, on Santiago island) | largest cities Praia, Mindelo (70k), Santa Maria (24k), Assomada (12k), Porto Novo (9k) | area 4,033 km2 | religion Christianity (85%, mostly Catholic), none (11%) | official language Portuguese (português) with Cape Verdean Creole (kriol) also recognised | major ethnicity not officially recorded but mostly mixed ethnicity | currency Cape Verdean escudo ($) [CVE] | internet .cv

An archipelago and island country in the Atlantic Ocean, comprising 10 islands starting from 600km west of the Cap-Vert peninsula in Senegal, part of the Macaronesia ecoregion. The name comes from the peninsula which itself takes its name from the Portuguese for “green cape”, a name given to it by explorers in the mid-15th century. There was no indigenous population but first became populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, who used it as a convenient location as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th century onwards. The earliest settlement Ribeira Grande (now called Cidade Velha) was sacked by Francis Drake amongst others, and Praia became capital in 1770. The decline in the slave trade led to an economic crisis, though ship resupplying continued to be important. Growing nationalism in the mid-20th century led to Amílcar Cabral organising the secret PAIGC for the liberation of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, which was followed by armed rebellion and then war in Guinea, which culminated in independence there and then in 1975 for Cabo Verde. A one-party state ceded to multi-party elections in 1991, and the country is now a stable democracy.

Cinema on the archipelago dates back to the early-20th century and naturally still has a lot of ties with Portugal. The first cinema was established in 1922 and there are now two film festivals. A number of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa have been set on the island (such as Casa de lava) or amongst expatriate communities of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, but a handful of native filmmaking efforts have been made over the years, fiction features as well as documentaries.


Djon África (2018)

This is a very thoughtful film about displacement and belonging, about the lingering effects of a colonial past on a present population, left disconnected from culture and family in profound ways. At the same time it’s a rather likeable film about a young man (Miguel Moreira) who has grown up in Portugal, who’s grifting and getting by, doing some petty thievery and with a girlfriend, but who finds himself drawn to find out something about his father. And so he travels to Cabo Verde, where his dad is from, in the hope of finding him and somehow forging some meaningful connection. His journey takes him around the islands, from the capital Praia to some small towns, and like a lot of road movies, it’s actually a voyage of self-discovery and so there are very few words I could choose to describe this that don’t make it sound like nauseating sentimental nonsense (“he finds out the real meaning of family” or “by facing up to what it means to not be from any place, he discovers where he’s actually from” or something), but actually it’s perfectly judged. It limns the divide between documentary — presenting this man in a world he’s only just discovering, which to a certain extent was the actual lived reality of the actor playing this role, and really conveying the textures of this country — alongside a fictional narrative. The scenes are scripted, and there’s also a febrile sense of the magical or the nightmarish that crops up every so often, blurring distinctions between lived reality and hallucination, and yet it still feels natural and at times improvised. For all that it’s very conscious and thoughtful about its process, though, it never sacrifices naturalism to formal rigours, and retains throughout a loping forward momentum.

Djon Africa (2018) posterCREDITS
Directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis; Writers Miller Guerra and Pedro Pinho; Cinematographer Vasco Viana; Starring Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.

찬실이는 복도 많지 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

I’m fairly sure that if I watched this little Korean indie film again I’d like it even more. It has a relaxed vibe that may owe a little to Hong Sang-soo, but is mostly down to the film’s director/writer, one of Hong’s former producers, whose directionless character of the title starts to find a little bit of it as the film goes on.


This is hardly even the first South Korean film directed by a woman that I’ve seen about someone who’s already lived a bit of their life (I hesitate to say middle-aged, but sort of on that cusp of it) who feels directionless and unmotivated and unfulfilled. I’m thinking of Microhabitat, though it has a quite different vibe, but also the fact that the central character is a film worker makes me think of Korea’s great indie auteur Hong Sang-soo (again, his works have a quite different feeling, though it turns out that this film’s director did indeed produce many of his films for a period). In any case, Chan-sil finds herself out of a job as a film producer and unwilling to keep on trying to do it, wracked with depression, renting a room off a cranky older woman (“Oscar­™ winner” Youn Yuh-jung), working as a cleaner for a young actress, and generally feeling down. She even gets visited by the ghost of Leslie Cheung (obviously not really him, and with plenty of self-deprecating dialogue at his own lack of resemblance thereto). It’s amiable, if understandably a little meandering (given Chan-sil’s malaise), but I liked it.

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (2019) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kim Cho-hee 김초희; Cinematographer Ji Sang-bin 지상빈; Starring Kang Mal-geum 강말금, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Yoon Seung-ah 윤승아; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Wednesday 20 October 2021.

Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Global Cinema 31: Canada – Kuessipan (2019)

Having restarted this ‘Global Cinema’ thread, we’re straight into one of the largest countries in the world (by area at least), and also one of the most notable internationally in terms of film production. Some of that comes from shared resources with the USA to its south, but I think Canadian films have a very specific feeling to them, something a little bit dark and oddball. In recent years there have been more films dealing directly with issues related to First Nations and indigenous peoples, which makes for a positive change to their filmic landscape.


Flag - CanadaCanada
population 38,436,000 | capital Ottawa (1.3m) | largest cities Toronto (5.9m), Montréal (4.1m), Vancouver (2.5m), Calgary (1.4m), Ottawa | area 9,984,670 km2 | religion Christianity (67%), none (24%), Islam (3%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity European (73%), Asian (18%), indigenous (5%) | currency Canadian dollar ($) [CAD] | internet .ca

Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific in North America. It has the longest bi-national land border (with the USA), stretching almost 9000 miles. Its name is now generally accepted to come from the St. Lawrence Iruquoian word kanata, meaning “settlement”, used by the native population when directing French explorer Jacques Cartier to a nearby village, and then used by him to refer to the whole area. Human habitation from Siberia began around 14,000 years ago, and the indigenous peoples remaining in Canada are First Nations, Inuit and Métis (mixed descent people considered separately from the First Nations). European colonisation wiped out indigenous populations, which declined by up to 80% (largely due to disease, but also conflict). Nevertheless the earliest contact was likely peaceful and began with the Norse, and then in 1497 the Italian seafarer John Cabot. However a number of wars were fought between indigenous and French populations in the 17th century into the 18th, eventually leaving Britain as rulers after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Quebec was granted a degree of autonomy and the use of the French language and the Catholic faith, in order to stave off the independence movement. The initial four provinces (of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were extended west by a series of acquisitions, and the building of railroads opened up the expanse of the country, but also the clearing of First Nations peoples into reserves. Independence came in 1931, though the country remained closely linked to the UK. National identity grew after World War II, with the Maple Leaf flag adopted in 1965 and official bilingualism in 1969. There are two houses of Parliament, the lower one (the House of Commons) and the upper (the Senate, modelled on the UK’s House of Lords).

Filmmaking in Canada stretches back to the start of cinema itself, indeed to films shot by the Lumière brothers themselves in 1896 at Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, despite this a lot of film production before WW2 was largely documentaries and propaganda, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that federal efforts to foster a feature film industry began in earnest. There were a few notable filmmakers dating back to this period (including experimental auteur Michael Snow), but it wasn’t until the 70s that Canadian cinema came to more prominence, some of which was due to notable horror films such as from Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. There’s a darker sensibility, too, to works by Claude Jutra and Denys Arcand, amongst others, that only extended in future decades. A new wave of sorts emerged in the 1980s with filmmakers like Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan, the latter of whom had the first Grand Prix at Cannes in 1997 with The Sweet Hereafter. A large number of US productions have also continued to use Canadian locations for their filming, blurring some of the distinctions between the two markets (and Toronto’s film festival is a major platform for a lot of Hollywood content), but it’s fair to say that in recent years there has been no shortage of Canadian film talent making waves internationally.


Kuessipan (2019)

One of the best things about watching films from around the world is being immersed in stories about people and cultures you’re not familiar with. This is a Canadian film, but this tells a Québec story, and specifically one set amongst First Nations people, the Innu, in the north-east of the province. The story is rather a timeless one, so in that sense there’s nothing new: two young women, one of whom finds herself pregnant too young and somewhat stuck in this little reservation outside Sept-Iles, and the other who has dreams of making it out, going to study in the big city (Québec City), maybe even getting a boyfriend who’s not Innu. These kinds of dreams all play out, with some familiar stakes, but it’s a story told from within the community, by actors and a writer who come from there and know the area well (although the director is not Innu). The emotional moments therefore land particularly strongly, and what initially is confusing and new (to me, as a viewer) starts to feel like a heartfelt portrait of a community.

Kuessipan (2019) posterCREDITS
Director Myriam Verreault; Writers Verreault and Naomi Fontaine (based on Fontaine’s novel); Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni; Starring Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine, Yamie Grégoire, Étienne Galloy; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Monday 15 March 2021.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.