Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
One of the more interesting releases at the end of this week in the UK is The Farewell, a new film directed by Lulu Wang about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China to deal with the death of her elderly grandmother. Therefore I’m inaugurating a week focusing on what I’m going to call Asian diaspora filmmaking (mostly, to be fair, from the United States).
I should clarify what I mean here, because it’s fairly common for films to feature characters in (often glamorous) overseas settings. For example, the Chinese film Finding Mr Right 2 (2016) is set in Macau and Los Angeles, while Bollywood film Shaandaar (2015) is set amongst the posh country homes of the UK. However, while these were made within their local film industry, there have always been filmmakers in the US and UK with Asian ancestry or who have relocated to the West to make their films, stretching back even to silent cinema (Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon from 1917 is a recently-unearthed, if sadly incomplete, example).
There’s been quite a proliferation of Asian-American films in recent decades, and while tentpole films like the recent Crazy Rich Asians or, earlier, The Joy Luck Club (1993) are often mentioned, it’s been in smaller scale indie filmmaking that the presence has been most felt. On this blog I’ve already reviewed the thoroughly delightful Saving Grace (2004), the sci-fi film Advantageous (2015) and the Indian-American documentary Meet the Patels (2014), but there have been many other interesting genre exercises that I hope to feature in the upcoming week. One such was by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, who made a name for himself with little cinephile short films about his favourite auteurs, but his own work turns out to have its very own delights.
I can’t pretend this film doesn’t hit exactly the kind of tone and style that I love in cinema, and obviously it turns out it’s directed by a man who has studied (and made short films about) all the great auteurs, so I’m sure he’s out there just as pointedly referencing Bresson and Ozu and Antonioni when he’s making the film as anyone watching it (like me) is reading into it. Which all retrospectively makes me suspect some of the craft a little — as if it’s just too carefully controlled, just too preciously wrought. I’ve never seen a film that features architecture so heavily (Antonioni, or La Sapienza perhaps) that’s not a little bit about alienation, about people not connecting with one another, broken families and the like, so at a certain level it’s hardly breaking new ground. But John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson have proper screen charisma — without any confectedly creepy relationship drama — and, as I said, I love the openness and space of the framing, and the deployment of quietness (along with the occlusion of sound at times, or the use of untranslated foreign language). I’ve been watching quite a few Ozu films recently; I suspect Kogonado may have been, too.
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다; Cinematographer Elisha Christian; Starring John Cho 조요한, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 October 2018.
Finishing up my week of South American cinema is this Paraguayan film, one of the strongest cinematic releases of the past year, quietly telling the story of an ageing woman finding a new lease of life, but without the kind of melodramatic trappings such a plot summary might suggest.
It takes its time to unfold, for us to get a sense of these characters, as they shuffle around their decrepit house in the half-light, but everything starts to come into focus when the feistier of the pair (Chiquita, played by Margarita Irún) is sent to jail for fraud. Their house is falling apart, but it has a grandeur despite the unfaded rectangles on the wall where the paintings have been sold. Men come in every so often to move out a piano or a nice table, because the two ladies need to make money. And then the story of Chela (Ana Brun), the quieter one of the two, starts to take shape, as she embraces a new sense of freedom on her own, chauffeuring the local ladies and making new friends. It’s all in the eyes, and the little turns of her head — it’s a marvellously subtle acting performance from Brun. And there’s a very precise use of sound, for example a cross-fade between a fight within the raucous prison to a salon of elderly women, both environments that contain our central characters, who look to move outwards. There’s a sadness, I suppose — they are both elderly women living in trying times — but also a small glimmer of hope that one can find, even towards the end of your life, something meaningful.
Director/Writer Marcelo Martinessi; Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga; Starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 10 August 2018.
I have been doing a week of South American cinema building up to the release in UK cinemas today of the Argentinian epic La flor (2018), so I am finishing the week off with a review of a recent Chilean film (albeit with financing from around the continent, including Argentina). I saw this film at last year’s London Film Festival, and it featured high in my favourite films of 2018. It was given a UK cinematic release in 2019 and I got to see it again, and still very much liked it.
There’s a sense in which this film reminded me of the previous year’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017), being a Spanish language film about young women set in the 1990s in a verdant forest setting at the edge of civilisation, but beyond that I should probably accept they are doing quite different things. For a start, the protagonists of this film are largely older (there’s one young girl, Clara, who I interpreted as the director’s surrogate) but this mostly focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her relationship with various boys (and her dad) in the small commune they live in just outside Santiago. It never feels so much driven by a plot as by a need to represent all the different people within the community, and with great economy show how they feel about one another, and it’s Sofia and Lucas (Antar Machado) who become the film’s focus — though never to the exclusion of others.
That may all make it less immediately accessible than Summer 1993, but it’s somehow even more beautiful and poetic in the way that it conjures an era, never heavy-handed in the way it layers on these meanings — there aren’t even any on-screen titles suggesting when it’s set, given away just by the absence of electronics, the older models of car, some of the clothes (though the fashion wasn’t emphasised), the toys, and the music choices (a piece of music by Mazzy Star — in a particularly beautifully-shot scene in a bathtub — suddenly took me back 25 years, and I suppose that was precisely the point). It’s about a time in history when Chile was emerging from a period of dictatorship, but it’s also about the director’s childhood, and it’s about growing through that turbulence and into yourself as a person. Also, there’s also rarely a scene without a dog in it, who become almost as important to the community as some of the adults (at least to the kids, who have pretty conflicted feelings about their parents).
Director/Writer Dominga Sotomayor; Cinematographer Inti Briones; Starring Demian Hernández, Antar Machado; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 14 October 2018 (and most recently at ICA, London, Saturday 1 June 2019).
I’ve already touched on cinematic hybridity — that blend between documentary and fictional modes of storytelling — a number of times, most recently with reference to some Brazilian films such as Baronesa (2017). This is extended by two Dutch filmmakers working in Suriname with a community of former slaves, crafting a work of visual beauty and also imbued with a sense of poetic storytelling, as part of a creative process involving the entire community.
There’s a certain type of film that London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts presents — and if you live in a large city, maybe you too have some kind of modern arts space with galleries, musical/performance venues, a bookshop heavy on theoretical texts and which has a cinema too. Anyway, there are films they show there that in my mind are simply filed away as “ICA films”, because where else would I see them? Last year’s The Nothing Factory was definitely one such film (and indeed the other output of production company Terratreme), the Frames of Representation festival, the Straub-Huillet season… I could go on. And now there’s this one: a Dutch film made in Suriname with (and about) a community descended originally from slaves, the Maroon people, which merges storytelling, documentary and staged theatre to tell a history, to depict a way of life, and to critique colonialism. It’s a very ICA film.
That’s not to say it’s bad, but I couldn’t quite tell you what happens. It has chapters, and a sort of free associative narrative quality, where it moves from various groups of people to others. Sometimes we see documentary-like scenes of nature — there are some sweepingly beautiful and impressive shots of the scenery — or of people making things or working. There are scenes where the inhabitants/actors stand and enunciate texts with all the studied grace of a Straub-Huillet film, and there’s even a bit of humorous self-critique whereby they discuss the Dutch filmmakers’ production terms and a distribution deal they’re not so happy about.
The film screened with a filmed introduction by the three directors (the two Dutch ones, and Tolin Alexander, a local Surinamese director) about the film and their process, and throughout this short featurette it is emphasised how Stones Have Laws was very much a collaborative artwork, whereby the text and the presentation was developed in consultation with the people who were not merely actors but also the very source for the material. It’s about being respectful to cultures who may not welcome the presence of outsiders, and it’s a fascinating work on several levels, and I think it’s a great example of the way that ethnographic concerns can work with its subjects to produce a sort of hybrid form.
Directors Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan and Tolin Erwin Alexander; Writers collaborative with the cast; Cinematographers van Brummelen and de Haan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.
One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.
This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).
As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.
At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.
Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.
Here on Filmcentric, I am doing a week of South American cinema (focused on Argentina) as La flor (2018) is being released cinematically in the UK on Friday 13 September, a film which is longer even than the one I’m discussing here. Filmmaking in South America really came to international attention in the revolutionary 1960s, under the label “Third Cinema”, and Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino were key amongst the figures within this movement, publishing a manifesto called Hacia un tercer cine (“Toward a Third Cinema”) the year after this three-part film. One of the key tenets was to resist neocolonialist and capitalist forces, and challenge viewers to include an awareness of class differences and power structures within the entertainment they consumed.
It’s clear at least that watching a film like this 50 years on in the institutionalised setting of the British Film Institute is a quite different experience from what the filmmakers intended, and probably effectively changes some of its meaning. After all, it’s a film that constantly mentions the necessity for the audience to continue the discussion outside the film, to reflect on it and complete its meaning themselves, and even includes intertitles exhorting them to stop the film and have discussions at various points. Instead, my impression is of an inexhaustible supply of facts and testimonies (and sometimes more-or-less propagandistic agitprop content) about post-war Argentinean politics, the rise of Juan Perón and the subsequent coup against him. If you’re not familiar with the events (as I am not) it can sometimes be a little difficult to follow, but the documentary footage, archival clips and supporting material from other “Third World” conflicts is joined by large amounts of textual quotes — alternately printed, flashed, zoomed into, or printed character-by-character on screen, to keep one’s attention presumably. It’s exhaustive, and it never quite seems to find a place to finish, but it’s a model of filmmaking that would have great impact on revolutionary modes of presentation, and still exerts its own fascination now.
Directors/Writers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas; Cinematographers Juan Carlos Desanzo and Solanas; Length 260 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 May 2018.
Look, everyone else has registered their opinion on this film by now, and the discourse is frankly probably pretty boring to you all. But I wrote this when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I might as well put it on my blog, because I have mixed feelings.
I don’t think the world needs another review of this film, and those I’ve seen (at least amongst the people I follow on here, and in the press) have run the gamut, to say the least, and among them have been some very solid critiques and responses. My own feelings are fairly mixed, and the experience reminds me somewhat of Blue Is the Warmest Colour in the sense that it mixes technical prowess I really love to watch with some amazing performances, but has other stuff I feel is deeply questionable (and also is almost three hours long).
So let me focus on the positives. Some of the earliest criticism I’d seen focused on Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate — and sure, she doesn’t say much — but in the end she had the scenes I enjoyed the most, and was the heart of the film. Those scenes of her in the cinema (with, yes, her feet up in the foreground), totally digging the film she’s watching, the film she herself stars in, and getting a kick out of the audience reactions around her: that was pure cinema. I loved that. (What Tarantino is to Godard, so Robbie here is to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie.) I also loved the scenes of her next door neighbour Rick, the washed-up TV star, when he’s making a pilot for a new Western show — it’s where DiCaprio does his best acting (and it’s lovely to see a bit of Luke Perry, too). Usually I hate when filmmakers depict their own craft, because they rarely show how films are actually made and instead make them into these continuous scenes with barely any intervention. Well, I went with it here partly because the framework of this whole film is fantasy, and so when Tarantino shows the filming of a show, he completely omits all the cameras except the one we’re watching through (and the off-screen voice of the director, in this case “Sam Wanamaker”).
But then there’s the more troubling stuff, and I suppose it comes down to how you’re responding to this, and what you think Tarantino’s position is. He’s doing a lot of pastiche work here, and I imagine that recreating 1969 Hollywood, the films and TV shows themselves, the look and feel, the road signs and the fonts and the adverts and the packaging and all that, was probably a really big part of the appeal. When Tarantino talks about films he loves (as he does on podcasts and interviews with film publications), I am convinced by his all-out nerdery, and I think he’s extremely knowledgeable about that stuff. But pastiching a nasty exploitation film within the film (such as when Rick plays a character with a flamethrower burning up some Nazis in an on-screen role for some kind of Corman B-movie quickie) and making that part of your own filmed fantasy world (such as the next time we see that flamethrower) feel like qualitatively different things, and I’m pretty sure he’s getting off on the fun of staging it all rather than considering its moral implications.
Then again, for me, part of it is also just hearing people react with pleasure and enjoyment around me in the cinema when this kind of nastiness is happening, so maybe it’s not all on QT, but it’s also not unrelated to his strategies in the film and as part of his involvement in wider film discourse. I think he takes great pains to problematise this stuff in, for example, Cliff’s character — almost a leaf from the Haneke playbook (and, to be clear, I dislike most of Haneke’s films). Pitt’s laidback golden boy likeability as Cliff is clearly intentionally offset by his use of weird little off-hand racialised slurs and, more to the point, the insistent hints about his character’s dark past. This comes to a head in the scene with Bruce Lee via the forthright and unironic response of Janet (who plays the wife of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator character Rudy, but is also OUATIH‘s actual stunt coordinator, and given that Brad Pitt is playing a stuntman himself, is I think a pointed intervention). It’s an intervention from 2019, and it’s hardly the only one, but there’s plenty enough that doesn’t feel particularly informed by present circumstances, and so when I dislike this film, it feels particularly egregious because there’s so much stuff he’s doing — technically and visually, but also with some of the characters — that I love and could have made for a more rewarding film.
But I don’t want to be that person critiquing a film for not being the film I wanted it to be. And so I shall continue to think about Margot Robbie looking up at the movie screen with such sheer unalloyed pleasure in the moving image, and wish that I could be her.
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho [35mm], London, Tuesday 20 August 2019.
I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.
And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.
But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.