Criterion Sunday 446: 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962)

I’ve just watched this film for the first time, Ozu’s final film as a director, and like a lot of final works, it’s probably one that I need to sit with for a long time in order to understand it fully. Ostensibly, it’s not particularly bleak, but it follows a familiar late Ozu pattern of having his lead actor Chishu Ryu play a lonely elderly character, and the movement of the plot is towards his eldest daughter (Shima Iwashita) being married off and leaving the family home, where she cares for him. However even this plot is hardly the centre of the film’s narrative momentum; Ryu’s Shuhei is a company man who still has friends. His old teacher (Eijiro Tono) is still alive too, though he’s a drunkard and a source of barely-disguised pity for his former students due to that and his fall in status to a (not even very good) noodle joint owner. But for all that, Shuhei is looking at a life on his own, as his family move away. There’s a generational gulf too evident in all the talk, both at home and in workplaces, of women getting married, questions about when they’re getting married, and constant reminders of this patriarchal expectation hanging over everyone in their 20s. Meanwhile the older characters reminisce about the war and get nostalgic for old military marches; this is a society that has definitively moved on (shots framed by new buildings, English language signage, old and new facing off), populated by people who haven’t. Ozu’s characters (and perhaps the director himself, too) feel out of step with this changing world, and that suffuses the film throughout, in elegantly framed set-ups that leave our protagonist isolated from others, blankly nodding and smiling into a quieter future.


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 Chishu Ryu, 笠智衆, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻, Nobuo Nakamura 中村伸郎, Eijiro Tono 東野英治郎, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 23 July 2021.

Black Widow (2021)

I keep saying that I’m not going to any more Marvel movies, because what really am I getting from them? I certainly gave up posting reviews of them up here because they mostly just cover the same sort of arc (fun but empty, and was that bit where they destroyed most of [insert city here] really necessary?). I’m pretty sure I said no more after Avengers: Endgame, and I feel certain I’ve said it at other times too, but here I am, back in again (because, obviously, it’s directed by a woman). I’d sort of forgotten the main thing about the Black Widow character from that final film of so-called ‘Stage Three’ of the MCU (avert yr eyes, but if you care you know already: she dies), but this is a prequel and it largely eschews the other big stars of the franchise, so we get a fairly standalone film, which is I think the best thing about it. So yes, let’s get back into it.


At a certain level this is more of the usual Marvel sound and fury. Beforehand, I went to the Wikipedia page intending to spoiler myself just for fun but realised that I genuinely didn’t care about any of the characters at that point, so if the film achieves anything it’s that by the end, I did at least feel like there was something there, something to hold onto at a character level. As someone who was introduced to Scarlett Johansson back in the 90s in films like Manny & Lo and Ghost World, there was a little flicker of what she brought to those films, though she’s had a full career, a roller-coaster ride of decisions, so in 2021 the stand-out performer is of course Florence Pugh. She may perhaps be expected to take on Scarlett’s ‘Widow’ mantle in future and if so, it’s a canny choice, because one of the few reasons I consented to return to the cinema to see yet another MCU film was the presence of Pugh (and the director, Cate Shortland, whose style in her earlier, much lower-budget psychological dramas like Somersault and Lore, at times here manages to penetrate through the studio playbook). Of course, there are also the big explosions, the silly fights (there’s a lot that’s silly, both intentional and not) and the crashing of enormous things into the ground, but you’ve got David Harbour for the comic relief (who is very good at that), and some genuinely quite sweet scenes between Pugh and Johansson as sort-of sisters rediscovering their bond. Also, secretly, maybe the whole film is actually an allegory for #FreeBritney; certainly there is a message there that touches on conservatorship, I think, and about alienating women from choices over their bodies.

Black Widow (2021)CREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Eric Pearson, Jac Shaffer and Ned Benson; Cinematographer Gabriel Beristáin; Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 10 July 2021.

James & Isey (2021)

Continuing with recent films, here’s another documentary, this time set in New Zealand and about a family relationship. Through charting the life of a centenarian, it also sheds some light onto historical traumas around the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and the way they have been treated, but this is a wide-ranging film, perhaps too much so at times.


There’s something very sweet, very earnest and also rather unfocused about this film, but I think the sense of randomness (tied loosely together with the countdown format to Isey’s 100th birthday) ties in well with the charm of the couple at the film’s centre, Isey and her son James, who lives with her but hesitates to call himself her carer. It’s a portrait of familial relations which has a serious underpinning, which is the way that Māori culture and language had been eroded so much by the time of Isey’s birth in 1919 that she was never taught the language and forced to conform to pākehā beliefs, a situation that has only seen some correction in the past few decades. In that respect it’s worth mentioning that the title isn’t misleading: this is a film as much about James as it is about the 100-year-old Isey (she’s 102 now), and James has a collaborative co-creator role within the project. The film endeavours to show how he has taken on, later in life, a spiritual role within his community as a tohunga (which he translates, presumably loosely, as “shaman” at one point). However, there’s relatively little context for understanding this and so although I think the film is respectful to his practices, it’s still participating in a filmic lineage, elsewhere using still-life images that are set against the soundtrack or the on-screen text, that evoke a sort of deadpan humour. This then makes James’s genuine spiritual earnestness — the rituals, the use of language (a form of ‘speaking in tongues’ as I take it from the film, but I suspect there’s more to it than that), the dress and demeanour of James and other participants in it — come across as potentially absurdist, which I don’t think they are intended to be at all. But that’s a small point in a film that has a whole lot of feeling for its subjects, including Isey, very much pushing against the trend for films about older people to be films about dementia or other such conditions, when she is clearly still living her best life.

James & Isey (2021)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Florian Habicht; Writers James Cross and Habicht; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2021.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

Okay, last week I did Netflix, which I could do several more weeks of content about (but I won’t), so this week I’m turning to recently released films that I have seen in an actual cinema. Maybe you can too where you are living, or maybe you can’t, or maybe you can and just don’t want to. These are all valid options. But I still love the cinema experience. Anyway, I haven’t reviewed the original A Quiet Place (2018) on this site (because I just watched it a few hours before I went into the cinema for the sequel), but it is better, so keep that in mind, if you haven’t seen either.


This sequel had its early-2020 release delayed for reasons that only make more prescient its central theme about the survival of a family after a deadly year of living under constant threat of death. However, compared to the first film, by opening out the narrative into a larger world featuring other people and communities also surviving the threat, it loses some of the qualities that made the first so taut a thriller. For a start, and for a film with the premise it has and the title it has, it’s a lot more talky, to the extent where you wonder if the screenwriters renegotiated a contract where they were paid by the word, because while the first was largely signed and had maybe a few terse sentences tops, this one has long stretches of chatting. And while Emily Blunt is still the matriarch of this family unit, Millicent Simmonds as her deaf daughter Regan becomes a more central character overall to the film, which is probably the right decision. However, opening the world out leads to even more moments of wondering why characters are acting the way they do, in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Overall, it feels like a lesser film compared to the original, though not without some fine set-pieces.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer John Krasinski; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 438: Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Cousins (2021)

Finishing the week of New Zealand-themed films with one that’s just been released in cinemas here, a multi-generational story written and directed by two women filmmakers, which grapples with some of NZ’s colonialist history and how it has affected several indigenous Maori women.


These kinds of generational stories of trauma, especially ones anchored in memory, feel like the kind of thing that New Zealand filmmakers have been adept at making for some time now. This example is a fine one, with each of the three title characters played by three different actors at various ages (childhood, young adulthood and then, around half a century later I would guess, as old people). The film obliquely blends stories from these three different eras, tying them together with flashbacks but also with visual cues and colours in the set and costume design, which have a poetic feeling to them, and makes up for some of the more sentimental stretches in the narrative. That said, I felt wrapped up in the emotion of the journey, which neatly ties together these strands, evoking a sense of ancestry, of the presence of death and the continuation of life that is presumably drawn from mythology as well as a shared understanding of the meaning of the land and of nature. There’s also, rather more directly, a reckoning with the racist policies of previous generations, especially with regards to orphaned children, keeping them from families deemed insufficiently civilised and placed in foster care (and the foster mother here is a bit of a monster). There’s a lot in the characters here, and in the grand sweep of the melodrama, and for the most part it held my attention well.

Cousins film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith; Writer Smith (based on the novel by Patricia Grace); Cinematographer Raymond Edwards; Starring Tanea Heke, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 March 2021.

My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)

I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.


I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).

My Wedding and Other Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.