After yesterday’s solitary first film, I saw two films at the London Film Festival this evening, both of which highlight people’s lives in different places (the Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand respectively) but bring a sort of outsider’s perspective, albeit using quite different genre cues.
Having seen this film for the first time a few weeks ago in its “TV Version”, I now watch the “Theatrical Version” — although the latter is really just the former cut in half (they’re both films) — and I have the sense of seeing some things for the first time. I suppose it’s just the necessarily more clipped way that things progress, but some of these moments just never really struck me so much when it played out in full. In either case, Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker is fully evident, with long scenes filled with detail and artifice playing out almost effortlessly, though they must have taken a fair bit of staging and practice. However, the brevity brings its own rewards, and in some ways the little moments of the supernatural or hallucinatory — the way dead figures come to life in front of our young protagonists’ eyes, for example — seem to have more of a punch to them in the shortened version. In any case, this remains a film about Alexander primarily, a portrait of the artist as a young man if you will (for he is the Bergman stand-in). Every element is crafted with deep care, particularly the set design of the various family apartments and the austere parson’s lodgings. I had perhaps not expected to like this coming of age period costume drama as much as I did, but it’s a towering achievement.
- There’s a commentary on the film by Peter Cowie, but I’ve not listened to it yet.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 188 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 15 September 2019.
I started watching this under the impression that, as a “television version” which is ostensibly split into four episodes, it would therefore be watchable in small chunks. However, do not be fooled, for despite its five act structure (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the separate credit roll at the end of each “episode”, this is essentially a single 312-minute film, so I ended up watching most of it in a single sitting.
There are different ways to use this kind of duration and Bergman focuses on the characters. There are essentially three households at the heart of this film: the Ekdahls (with Ewa Fröling as the key figure, Emilie), a rich theatre-owning family in whose company we start the film, as they throw a grand Christmas gathering; that of the austere Bishop Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö); and the Jewish moneylender Isak (Erland Josephson), who is more a passing background character for much of the film. The title may put the emphasis on Emilie’s two children, and their experiences guide the structure of the film (Bertil Guve’s Alexander is the character that director Ingmar Bergman identified with, and whose point of view we mostly adopt), but Emilie is the film’s linchpin.
Intended perhaps to be his swansong, this is a gloriously mounted production, which carefully contrasts the burnished colours, deep rich saturated reds, brocaded fabrics and warm lights of the Ekdahl household, with the gloomy bare prison-like atmosphere of the Bishop’s home, with his wan, dispirited serving women and authoritarian mother. In fact, generally Bergman is pretty savage with this man of the cloth, although religious belief runs throughout the film and is hardly all the kind of dour torture that the Bishop cleaves to, even if that’s the most “Bergmanesque” passage of the film. But it’s mostly a film about family and growing up, a warm remembrance of childhood and of a certain kind of cultured middle-class upbringing. The acting is all superb, too, with a vast roster of talent familiar from many other Bergman works.
But this remains very much a film, not a TV series.
[NB This version was released the year after the feature version, in 1983, although I would consider it an alternate cut of the same film, so I’m sticking with the original release year on the heading of this post.]
- There are no extras on this disc, as they are all on a separate supplements disc.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 312 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 August 2019.
For my final post of this Asian diaspora theme week, I’m going to back to an early Asian-American film (though hardly the earliest, as there are examples even in the silent era), but one that perhaps has had some influence on subsequent filmmaking, given that sits pretty squarely and comfortably within an American indie context. Wayne Wang would go on to direct The Joy Luck Club (1993), but also indies like Smoke (1995), though his 2000s work was more straight-to-video genre fare, like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (though I have a fondness for both of those titles).
This is a loving portrait of one Chinese-American family, as seen through the eyes of a 30-something professional woman (Laureen Chew) and her elderly mother (Kim Chew). Apparently the idea was originally a much denser work dealing with a larger number of intersecting inter-generational stories (which becomes more evident in the short film Dim Sum Take-Out the director compiled a few years later from the outtakes), but paring it down also works very nicely. There’s plenty of understated observation here, of customs and mores, of lives that perhaps are a little tinged with regret and others lived in the shadow of parents and expectations. It’s set in San Francisco, so there’s a bit of detail given of that community, largely via the character played by veteran actor Victor Wong (whose peculiar squint is familiar from Hollywood roles of this era, such as in Big Trouble in Little China), who runs a bar and thus connects a number of the different family members. It’s all very keenly put across, with a quiet open style that seems to be mimicking filmmakers like Ozu while also being very much within an American indie vernacular.
Director Wayne Wang 王穎; Writer Terrel Seltzer; Cinematographer Michael Chin; Starring Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong 自強; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 19 September 2019.
My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).
The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.
I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.
Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).
There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.
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.