Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)
This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.
* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.
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.
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.
A Korean drama set at the outskirts in a large city, where a couple of intertwined families of North Korean expatriates live, the lives of the children and their parents quite different, with the generation gap marked by the disrespect shown from the younger ones, who need to go out to the city for work (not all of it quite as morally upstanding as their parents would want). We see a lot of the elderly gentlemen of the families sitting around, getting grumpy about the price of things (that indeed is how the film begins), being gouged in the rent by their landlord even for these shacks high above the city, which feels more like a favela or a slum than an integrated settlement. We see the way that money pulls everyone apart, fuelled by the American servicemen who frequent the bars and nightclubs, but their poverty is presumably also class-related and to do with their North Korean origins. The film can be a little clunky at times, but it’s compelling and moves towards a more hopeful resolution centred on the younger generation.
Director Kim Soo-yong 김수용; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the play by Kim Yeong-su 김영수); Cinematographer Jeon Jo-myeong 전조명; Starring Kim Seung-ho 김승호, Shin Seong-il 신성일, Kim Ji-mee 김지미; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
This film, set in historical Korea (Goryeo), tells of a time when old people were abandoned up a mountain by their kids, a response to a lack of food in a culture which greatly valued large families. It opens with a panel of experts in the modern day talking about the scourge of overpopulation, before flashing back in time to a rural village out in the mountains. Given the large number of people in the film, the 10 kids of the one family, whom we see at various times over a number of decades, I did get rather confused by who was whom — not least because the film is missing a couple of reels, replaced by dense chunks of text which go past pretty quickly. Still, it’s a brutal film of lives cut too short, nasty and brutish, with all kinds of squabbles and conflicts defining these people, who are born without much hope and then stripped even of that by the circumstances of their lives. The widescreen monochrome photography looks good, though, and it presents nicely its moral quandary of who in society we should value.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-young 김기영; Cinematographer Kim Deok-jin 김덕진; Starring Kim Jin-kyu 김진규, Ju Jeung-ryu 주증녀; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.
I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).
A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.
Setsuko Hara always has a way to just smile and smile and smile and break your heart, but maybe that’s also innate in Ozu’s filmmaking too, the way he picks apart these delicate domestic stories to find the hurt and conflict within. She’s being pestered by her family to marry as she’s reaching the grand old age of 28, and there’s a sense in which you wonder whether she’s just settling for someone, or reacting to them, or whether even all this talk isn’t out of step with the times. After all, there’s a lot of play around the generational gaps, about post-war Japan’s youth not adopting the same values as their parents and grandparents’ generations, and that all seems to play out here. For me, it’s one of Ozu’s very finest films, and Hara is just such a watchable actor.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 February 2019.
Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu; Writers Ozu and Kogo Noda 野田高梧; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Chieko Higashiyama 東山千栄子, Setsuko Hara 原節子; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018).
A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Michelle Krusiec 楊雅慧, Lynn Chen 陳凌, Joan Chen 陳沖; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017.
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.
Director/Writer Chika Anadu; Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska; Starring Uche Nwadili; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017.
Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez; Starring Naomi Nero; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017.