江湖儿女 Jianghu Emu (Ash Is Purest White, 2018)

So Long, My Son, a new Chinese epic drama by director Wang Xiaoshuai, opens in UK cinemas today — a film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. At last year’s LFF I saw another Chinese film, which opened in UK cinemas earlier this year, the latest by Jia Zhangke. I did a big post of four of Jia’s films yesterday, but his A Touch of Sin is up there amongst my favourite of the decade, even if his previous film Mountains May Depart didn’t thrill me quite so much. Still, he has plenty to say about modern Chinese society, and continues to work closely with actor Zhao Tao.


Jia Zhangke has always been making films that concern themselves with the enormous shifting forces in society, economic change and capitalist exploitation tied into enormous infrastructural projects of change and development of particularly our urban landscapes. It just feels like more and more he’s tying them to individual stories that don’t always feel like they have the expansiveness to sustain this kind of thematic weight (though his films remain epic in length and sweep at least).

This story is about a woman (played as ever by Jia’s long-time collaborator Zhao Tao) in love with a small-time local gangster (Liao Fan). She goes to jail for five years for pulling a gun on some thugs who are trying to beat him up, but he doesn’t stick around for her. It’s a film that stretches over about 17 years of time (from 2001 to the present), marking its passage of time not by title cards but by small changes like the use of mobile phone technology (or by large ones, like the sudden presence of huge modern development projects in the heart of a northern city like Datong), and, surprisingly to me, has quite a few laughs in it too.

If I’m not always convinced that the running time and tripartite structure is exactly earned by these characters’ lives, there’s still plenty of detail in its depictions of the changing Chinese landscape and economy to reward a viewing, and the performances are excellent as ever with Jia’s films.

Ash Is Purest White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Liao Fan 廖凡; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 13 October 2018.

Pola X (1999)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat (#9) to watch, and present my review below.


I’ve been familiar with this film for many years, having bought the soundtrack CD quite some time ago. It’s by probably my favourite modern musical artist, Scott Walker, whose career seems every bit as shrouded in enigma as this film he was involved with as composer. Even in his 1960s pop heyday as a member of The Walker Brothers, Scott’s compositions have had an elegiac and melancholy air, and his ‘comeback’ album a few years prior to this movie was Tilt, a darkly opaque piece of work that makes even Pola X seem light by comparison. But it’s a family psychodrama with strong overtones of incest, so it’s not really light by many standards except those set by Walker’s music. The director, Leos Carax, was making his own comeback of sorts after the troubled production on his budget-stretching Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), though one gets the sense that commercial success isn’t really a metric that much bothers Carax, and the amount of time between this film and his next (and most recent) one, Holy Motors (2012), was even longer.

The film starts out like any overstuffed heritage film, with a master shot of a large rural chateau, manicured lawns being watered by sprinklers, as a young man kickstarts his motorcycle and takes it up the long driveway. This is the home of the title character Pierre, played by Guillaume Depardieu (the film’s title being a contraction of the French name for the Herman Melville novel on which it is based), a blond-haired diplomat’s son and newly-published novelist who lives at the chateau with his controlling mother, Marie (Catherine Deneuve), and is engaged to the similarly blonde-haired Lucie, whom he is off to meet at the start. So far, so unremarkable: a contented life of golden people dressed in airy light-coloured clothes in lush surroundings, a life lived in privilege (even the bar where he meets up with his shady cousin Thibault is called Le Privilège) — except perhaps for that darkly portentous score, which hides something sinister in its outwardly lush string arrangements. Soon, details accrue that add to the portent: the oddly-tactile Marie caressing her son’s bare chest; a mysterious dream Pierre recounts to Lucie about a dark-haired woman; then the woman herself (Katerina Golubeva) who shows up in person at the cafe with his cousin, and again when Pierre takes a night-time drive. She tells him, in broken French (the actress herself is Russian) as they wander in the suffocating dark of the forest, that she is his sister Isabelle. It’s from this point that his life begins to unravel, as he moves with her to the city and encounters a bohemian world of artists, experimental musicians and squatters on the fringes of civilised existence.

Even in this summary I’ve omitted hints of the film’s gathering strangeness, for there’s a pre-credits prologue spoken by a wheezing old man over archival wartime footage, recounting a famous line from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint! O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” This setup hints at the self-consciously staged manipulativeness of the film’s story itself, and its oneiric quality is further suggested by having both lead female characters shown asleep at the start — at the end of that opening shot of the chateau, once Pierre has driven away, the camera ostentatiously cranes in and up to peer through a window near the roof, catching sight of a sleeping woman, matched by a similar shot of the sleeping Lucie being caressed by Pierre. That further developments happen in dreams and at night can hardly be by chance, such that Pierre’s later journey into a form of madness seems in keeping with the film’s pervasive sense of the uncanny, not too dissimilar to what one might expect in the films of David Lynch, for example. There are also some apparently unsimulated sex scenes, again taking place in the half-light and ending with a shot recalling Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (hint: don’t google it if you’re at work) — itself recalling the work of contemporaneous French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s Humanité, released the same year.

All of this would seem to put Pola X in the same lineage as the rather more extreme cinema coming out of France at around this time from directors like Dumont, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé and Philippe Grandrieux, a cinema focusing on the fleshy corporeality of bodies and the shock of breaking sexual taboos (known as the ‘New French Extremity’ it would seem, though I had not previously been aware of this term). Yet I’m not quite convinced that what’s seen in Carax’s film fits clearly in with these other directors’ works, mainly because it feels to me like Carax is more interested in playing with bourgeois narrative expectations, than in his characters as corporeal beings being acted upon. In keeping with the source text, there remains a sort of 19th century moralising to the way Pierre’s story unfolds and concludes, and the ‘extremes’, such as they are, seem to fit more into a fevered framework of mounting melodrama.

I like films which start mysteriously. The darkness that sets in here even seems to have carried on beyond the film, as both the actors playing these central characters (Depardieu and Golubeva) have since died in mysterious circumstances. There’s something grandiose and almost ethereal about this film, but that stays grounded in emotions which are resolutely human and carnal. It’s a difficult balancing act that could have easily been lost given all the sources of funding (a co-production involving four different countries) and the multiple drafts of the script (the “X” in the title evidently refers to the 10th version being used), but I think it comes off rather well and has a mystery that on further reflection only deepens into greater enigma and inscrutability.

Pola X film posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Carax and Jean-Pol Fargeau (based on the novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville); Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Guillaume Depardieu, Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Catherine Deneuve; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 November 2013.

Après mai (Something in the Air, 2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Olivier Assayas | Cinematographer Eric Gautier | Starring Clément Métayer, Lola Créton | Length 122 minutes | Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, Sunday 26 May 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© MK2

For a story about the sometimes angrily confrontational, sometimes wilfully naïve student activism of the 1970s, this is a remarkably warm embrace of a film. Possibly that’s because it feels like an autobiographical take on the era from director Olivier Assayas. I don’t know whether its story — of a young tousle-haired art student Gilles (played by newcomer Clément Métayer) trying to find his métier while watching his friends move off in various directions (geographical, emotional and spiritual) — is based in Assayas’ life, but it feels like something that is at least close to his heart after his previous multi-part epic Carlos (2010).

The title (at least in French, where it means “After May”) alludes to les événements of May 1968 which started with riots amongst university students on the edge of Paris and spread across the country to provoke further riots and strikes, convulsing all aspects of the French workforce, not least the arts and cinema. A new more politically-engaged consciousness was reflected in the 1970s films of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, and in the film criticism of such influential standard-bearers as Cahiers du cinéma (where Assayas started his career in the 1980s).

Après mai is set in 1971, amongst a group of students who are just finishing their final year of high school. There are plenty of teasing hints at the volatile new factions which opened up after May ’68, as we see the students at the start of the film engaged in street riots broken up by police violence, and at fractious meetings in which subsequent action is debated and competing leftist points of view are aired (though nobody seems to like the Communists). When the students, seeking an outlet after the brutality of the police, vandalise their school with graffiti and post breathlessly accusatory fliers, the school authorities are shown scratching their heads as to the meaning or relevance of it all. A subsequent ill-judged attack on a school security guard sees the group, now out of high school, disperse to various parts of Europe and further afield.

There’s humour too in all this revolutionary fervour. Continue reading “Après mai (Something in the Air, 2012)”