One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
After the last month or so focusing on various streaming services, I’ve decided to do another country-themed week. As it happens, I’ve not yet covered Japan, although Japanese films have popped up frequently, not least because I’ve been watching quite a few recently. My Japanese written exam is next week, so it feels like a good time to be focusing on Japanese culture (even if watching lots of Japanese films isn’t necessarily helping me learn the language). I’ve got plenty to choose from, but I’ll start the week with this documentary I saw in-flight last month, almost an eternity ago now.
This director seems to have made a career making documentaries about the Japanese fermented rice wine sake, but I guess there’s a lot to say about this subject. Sake feels like one of those drinks (like, say, vermouth or sherry) which is staging a small comeback as something of a refined and interesting beverage that more people are starting to learn about and appreciate, and we certainly see a network of sake bars and drinkers in this film. It uses the structure of focusing on three women who have become integral to the developing sake scene, two of them Japanese — one working as a brewer and another running a sake bar — and the third a New Zealander, an expert who also runs festivals and promotion for the drink around the world as a sort of brand ambassador I suppose. Given that most of us — well certainly me — will have little knowledge about the drink, it is interesting to see sake being made, even if there’s very little context or explanation for what we see happening in the breweries (they are doing something with rice which eventually makes a drink). It’s also slightly frustrating to watch people drink and gush over a beverage that you can only see and not taste, but it has undoubtedly deepened my resolve to visit Japan at some point, if that someday becomes an option again.
Director/Writer Mirai Konishi 小西未来; Cinematographers Masami Inamoto 猪本雅三 and Konishi; Length 84 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Adelaide to Singapore, Friday 13 March 2020.
I don’t like to feature films on my site that I think are disappointing, as it seems to me a poor way to use a platform, however few followers one might have (and I don’t have many). However, I’ve committed myself to another Australian-themed week (which so far is by women directors) and I haven’t got many films to draw on, or time to watch new ones, so here’s one I saw on the plane over. It’s directed by Rachel Griffiths, a long-established actor whose work I’ve really appreciated, turning her hand to directing.
I know nothing about horse racing, or the competitive life of the professional jockey — though I am reminded that I’ve read a novel about a young woman riding horses for a living (it’s called House Rules by Heather Lewis) and let me tell you that had a very different tone to this film. Sadly, for all its positive messaging about young women growing up to achieve their dreams, Ride Like a Girl sticks to a programmatic structure and a deeply predictable template that majors on big swelling music to convey emotional journeys. The actors are uniformly excellent, but many of their best qualities are lost in the mix here, and the undoubtedly talented work of the jockey whose life is being told here seems reduced to a series of cliches. Still, it all looks very handsome.
Director Rachel Griffiths; Writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Martin McGrath; Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne; Length 120 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Auckland, Friday 21 February 2020.
If I were being flippant, I’d call this the best Saudi romcom I’ve seen, but of course the Saudi film industry is hardly developed (the only other film I can recall seeing from that country is 2012’s Wadjda, itself a German co-production). However, its existence in a very small industry aside, it’s actually — on any terms — a sweet story of romance, with two fetching leads (Hisham Fageeh as the male Barakah, and Fatima AlBanawi as the woman, though she goes by Bibi for short). It deploys many familiar structures to the romcom genre — the meet cute, the flirting, meeting the family — but these take on new meaning against the background of harsh social strictures designed to prevent any of these things from happening in real life. Barakah’s work as a civic functionary affords him little additional power (the unseen religious police have far more authority), and while it seems that Bibi’s far wealthier life makes her more able to shrug off religious obligations, even she has little power outside the private sphere of the home. Still, the film hardly dwells on such matters (given the wide-reaching grip of religious fervour within this society, it hardly needs to), and the tone remains light throughout: there are some great, properly funny scenes, and some touching ones too, as the two get closer.
Director/Writer Mahmoud Sabbagh محمود صباغ; Cinematographer Victor Credi; Starring Hisham Fageeh هشام فقيه, Fatima AlBanawi فاطمة البنوي; Length 88 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Beirut to London, Monday 29 May 2017.
Watching this on a plane means I was probably more predisposed to tears than usual, but I did find the central character’s story to be rather affecting. It follows Rosie, a part-Chinese part-Iranian young woman, learning about her father and his life in Iran, and one can only assume that the director’s own mixed ancestry contributes to her feeling for the way Rosie is torn between two disparate cultures (or three indeed, given she lives in Canada). The animation is eye-catching and takes in multiple styles on various poetic digressions (formally integrated into the narrative, as Rosie is literally a poet). I also love diaspora/immigrant stories, though I did find the rendering of Rosie’s eyes distracting (in the sense of not feeling like I was getting the same range of emotions from them as from the animated non-Chinese characters). Still, it’s a lovely little work, which you might not get much of a chance to see if you don’t happen to fly via Canada.
Director/Writer Ann Marie Fleming; Starring Sandra Oh; Length 89 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Vancouver, Wednesday 5 April 2017.