Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Larry Manda | Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio | Length 485 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017

Barakah yoqabil Barakah (Barakah Meets Barakah, 2016)

If I were being flippant, I’d call this the best Saudi romcom I’ve seen, but of course the Saudi film industry is hardly developed (the only other film I can recall seeing from that country is 2012’s Wadjda, itself a German co-production). However, its existence in a very small industry aside, it’s actually — on any terms — a sweet story of romance, with two fetching leads (Hisham Fageeh as the male Barakah, and Fatima AlBanawi as the woman, though she goes by Bibi for short). It deploys many familiar structures to the romcom genre — the meet cute, the flirting, meeting the family — but these take on new meaning against the background of harsh social strictures designed to prevent any of these things from happening in real life. Barakah’s work as a civic functionary affords him little additional power (the unseen religious police have far more authority), and while it seems that Bibi’s far wealthier life makes her more able to shrug off religious obligations, even she has little power outside the private sphere of the home. Still, the film hardly dwells on such matters (given the wide-reaching grip of religious fervour within this society, it hardly needs to), and the tone remains light throughout: there are some great, properly funny scenes, and some touching ones too, as the two get closer.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Mahmoud Sabbagh | Cinematographer Victor Credi | Starring Hisham Fageeh, Fatima AlBanawi | Length 88 minutes || Seen on a flight from Beirut to London, Monday 29 May 2017

Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, 1978)

For all that it sounds on paper like some kind of heist film, in fact this is a story centred in female friendships, primarily the one between our title character (one of those involved in the heist, which is only seen obliquely in flashback) and her friend in Portugal (Silvia Reize), to whom she turns when things start going wrong. Yet there’s also the relationship between her and the young female bank teller (Katharina Thalbach) who witnesses her crime, and whose identification of Christa is key to the prosecution’s case. It turns out Christa’s motives were solid — she just wanted to help out a kindergarten she’d started for impoverished mothers, but it had run into financial difficulties — and, as played by Tina Engel, she presents a compelling central figure. It’s only a pity that the print this DVD is transferred from is so patchy; Margarethe von Trotta’s films may not be trendy or flashy, but they are definitely in need of some preservation.


FILM REVIEW
Director Margarethe von Trotta | Writers Margarethe von Trotta and Luisa Francia | Cinematographer Franz Rath | Starring Tina Engel, Silvia Reize, Katharina Thalbach | Length 89 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 18 May 2017

Jao nok krajok (Mundane History, 2009)

There’s something to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s filmmaking, a sort of dreamy, elliptical oddness that has long stretches of quiet watchfulness (long takes with a fairly static camera, though often handheld so a bit shaky)… but then there are these little flares of strangeness (and I still can’t help but thinking about fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in this regard). This is a story of two men: Ake, from a rich family, who has mobility issues (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk); and the other, Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), his carer, from somewhat lower down the rungs of society. There’s almost an upstairs-downstairs dynamic (we also see the family’s cook), but that’s not really dwelt upon. What unfolds is largely this slow evolution of feeling between the two, with sort of mystical asides to astronomy and an unexpected scene of childbirth at the end (even the appearance of the opening credits 15 minutes in took me by surprise). I can’t explain what it’s doing, but it’s interesting enough for me to want to watch more by the same filmmaker (her more recent film By the Time It Gets Dark had much the same effect on me).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Anocha Suwichakornpong | Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung | Starring Arkaney Cherkam, Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk | Length 82 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 March 2017

B for Boy (2013)

Shot in that sort of vérité style that relies (perhaps too much) on handheld camera, this is a fascinating insight into familial dynamics in Nigeria. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) is nearing her 40th birthday, pregnant with her second child, and meanwhile her mother-in-law is desperate to know if it’s a boy so her late husband’s family name can be continued. She even has a contingency second wife lined up for her son, which, needless to say, creates a bit of tension within the household. What’s particularly on point here is that we don’t see any of the male characters exerting this pressure: such is the noxious ingrained nature of patriarchal expectation, it has all been internalised by the women to the extent that they at times literally gang up on Amaka. She has some difficult decisions to make, and even a plot development that leads her to wearing a fake pregnant belly doesn’t seem absurd by the time we’ve got to that point.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chika Anadu | Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska | Starring Uche Nwadili | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017

A Way of Life (2004)

It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Amma Asante | Cinematographer Ian Wilson | Starring Stephanie James | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, 2016)

At a certain level, this is a classic story of revenge, as Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years of false captivity and seeks out the rich man who set her up. However, this is a Lav Diaz film, so events unfold slowly, in high-contrast black-and-white. As Horacia formulates her plan she comes into contact with a number of poor street people, and getting to know them becomes in many ways more important than the plot. It is, then, I suppose a film again about Filipino society (at a specific point in time, the late-90s) but also about time taken away — which is a little bit of meta-commentary for the patient audience, given the usual length of Diaz’s films (though this one is under four hours).


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Charo Santos-Concio | Length 228 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Sunday 5 March 2017

Bar Bahar (In Between, 2016)

A story of three Arab-Israeli women who live together in Tel Aviv, this at its best feels effortless and modern. The linchpin is Leila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer and party animal who has a blithe abandon to living her life which is delightful to watch. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is her lesbian housemate, an aspiring DJ who takes work in a bar and hides her sexuality from her traditional (Christian) parents. They take in Nour (Shaden Kanboura) as a houseguest, a cousin’s friend who wears a headscarf and has a more traditional Muslim family. Thus is the set-up for the rest of the film, and it’s a venerable one at that, mined for plenty of films and especially television sitcoms. I really wanted it to be more upbeat, but plenty of stuff happens to the three that’s not exactly cheerful (thanks, traditional religious cultures and the patriarchy), and it moves towards a very much downbeat denouement, as the three regroup — not without hope, but at least a little knocked back. Still, picking up on one of the most commonly cited comparisons (Girls), I’d happily watch an entire TV series about these women because their lives seem set to continue apace.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: International Women’s Day
Director/Writer Maysaloun Hamoud | Cinematographer Itay Gross | Starring Mouna Hawa, Shaden Kanboura, Sana Jammelieh | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Wednesday 8 March 2017

Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.


FILM REVIEW
Director Samira Makhmalbaf | Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf | Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori and Samira Makhmalbaf | Starring Agheleh Rezaie | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017