There are the first hints around the world that cinemas are starting to reopen in some places, but it will surely be a long time before people are comfortable going back in any great numbers, so I suspect online releases will be the norm for a while yet, and will have renewed importance in the release calendar. At the moment, though, it’s mostly the disposable comedies (on Netflix, say) and the weird arthouse fare (mostly Mubi and BFI Player) that are getting releases, one of which is the Thai-UK co-production Krabi, 2562 this coming Friday, which I saw premiered at London Film Festival last year. Therefore my theme this week will be mainland Southeast Asian films, mostly from Thailand but with a few others from Vietnam and Cambodia too. Looking at this part of the world (also known as the Indochinese Peninsula), I’m missing Laos — the only Lao film I’ve seen was Dearest Sister, which again I’ve reviewed at the LFF already — and regrettably I’ve not yet seen a Burmese film (but I’ll have to rectify that soon).
Nobody actually dies in this film, but the framing device means its presence is constant: the suggestion being that the people we’re seeing will die the next day. It seems to have been inspired by stories in local Thai newspapers, which are recounted in intertitles, leaving us to imagine which of the headlines applies to which of the people we see, each in their own short film. Some are fairly clear (an old man sleeping uneasily, a woman hooked up to a machine) but others are more oblique. The tone throughout the six pieces varies somewhat, but underpinning it is a meditative register, and the film embraces stillness and contemplation, as in one young woman apparently thinking on the death of a colleague while heavily made up for the filming of a commercial. It’s a nice conceit, which could be a lot more morbid than it is, but instead feels like a reckoning with life.
Director/Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit นวพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์; Cinematographer Niramon Ross นิรมล รอสส์; Starring Jarinporn Joonkiat จรินทร์พร จุนเกียรติ, Patcha Poonpiriya พัชชา พูนพิริยะ, Sunny Suwanmethanon ซันนี่ สุวรรณเมธานนท์; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 12 July 2019.
Joe Swanberg is one of the linchpins of modern American no-budget indie cinema, with a string of improvised titles made quickly for no money, but often made in collaboration with stars and directors who would go on to even greater work on their own, whether his chief collaborator here (Josephine Decker, whose new film Shirley is out soon) or elsewhere with Greta Gerwig (on Hannah Takes the Stairs and her first co-directing credit on Nights and Weekends) and, of course, the recently passed Lynn Shelton (who acted in Nights and Weekends). Swanberg went on to dabble with higher budgets and bigger stars, as in Drinking Buddies, but this earlier work, made in surely his most prolific year (he put out six films in 2011), is both very independent and also boldly experimental, not always shining the most positive light on its director.
I used to live with a filmmaker who liked to make deeply self-reflective projects (you might call them self-indulgent, though I have a fondness for self-indulgence) with a minimal crew, a handful of actors, and usually focused tightly around relationships, but sometimes they were more straightforwardly about sex — and specifically the operation of power within sexual relationships (whether successfully or not is another question) — and this Joe Swanberg film feels like one of those. I appreciate the attempt to navigate an understanding of the messed-up power dynamic between the person wielding the camera and the people having sex in front of that camera, especially when the director is in love with his leading lady (Josephine Decker, whose own films are brilliant, while I’m mentioning her). For all of that, though, there’s a complete lack of any kind of erotic or exploitative feeling in the film (this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, itself p0rnographic). Instead, it’s narrowly focused on three people and the feelings between them (the third is Kent Osborne), and if it doesn’t always succeed that’s often because it feels like the camera is too far away from the actors’ faces, so it’s hard to know what exactly is going on between them. It also seems to end just as things are coming to a head, so like the film I’m just going to end this review abruptly.
Director Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne; Cinematographer Adam Wingard; Starring Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kent Osborne; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 31 May 2019.
It’s a fairly low-key documentary, with a very simple premise, but it goes quite a long way, the idea of having women reading letters to a feminist magazine written in the 1970s. For the most part these aren’t the same women, but they live in the places where the letter-writers were from, and so we get a small sense of the variety and expanse of America and the ideas of those within it, and how they’ve changed over time.
A strikingly told documentary, presenting unpublished letters written by readers to Ms. magazine in the 1970s, read by women in the towns from which they were sent, often people with similar experiences to the letter writer. Initially, we just see a few of these letters being read, but increasingly the women reading the letters also offer commentary on how they relate to the 40-year-old words. Some of them are even the very letter writers themselves, grown older, who are able to contextualise what they wrote within their lives. It’s fascinating, and largely heartening, though the film is keen to present a range of views, hence there are some which are perhaps a little unsettling (not everyone comes from the same background, after all, and not all the letters are supportive exactly; also, we never hear from the cop who reads one of the early letters). However, all the letters contribute I think usefully to the arguments around feminism, and how it should be defined, and the film prefers an inclusive understanding. It’s also lovely to hear and see all the voices.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Irene Lusztig; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 25 October 2018.
An experimental film, expanded from a short film by an artist who mostly works in that form, is this fascinating piece of cut-up collage combined with stop-motion animation by American auteur Jodie Mack. To my everlasting shame, sometimes when watching movies at home, I have a tendency to drift into checking my phone (perhaps Twitter, perhaps emails, perhaps looking up the film’s Wikipedia entry), because it’s 2020 and that’s the kind of thing many of us do these days. (No, no, I’m sure you don’t, I believe you. I can only speak for myself here.) Anyway, I didn’t do that during this hour-long experimental film, and that’s not of course the best thing I can say for it, but my point is: it certainly never bored me, as non-narrative as it is.
This is unquestionably a colourful work, whose title plays on the idea of a bazaar, cutting up (not literally but also sometimes literally) images of fabrics and juxtaposing them in various settings — on shelves in shops, at home, in luggage, on travels, on conveyor belts at airports, all kinds of settings. Alongside these fabrics — not to mention in them — we see the world in a way, glimpses of landscapes, places, roads, people, cuttings from a book of languages, the various texts and shapes of the words at play alongside the warp and weft of the weaving, colourful in so many ways. And then there’s the soundtrack, which pulses with its own energy. It’s a rather delightful film that conjures ideas and feelings in the kind of way that cinema can do best, and must have been quite some effort to make.
Director/Cinematographer Jodie Mack; Length 61 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 4 May 2020.
I couldn’t stay away from Japan for long, and this is actually a film I meant to include a couple of weeks ago when I was covering Japanese films, but I forgot. It’s a new release that came out on Mubi last month (though has since moved off there), and is a rather experimental work that reminds me a little of Rivette’s Out 1 in dealing with actors and rehearsals, if not quite possessing that film’s grand scope.
This is undoubtedly a rather challenging, experimental work. It has a structure which constantly loops back on itself — and which starts with a final confession of a murder that creates a simmering tension that runs through all the rather quotidian interactions which follow. Aside from the fiendish structure though, the experimentation is mostly in the acting, as footage of the actors performing their lines on location are interwoven with far more extensive scenes of them doing a table read beforehand and subsequent rehearsals, such that we hear bits of dialogue multiple times. This has the effect of sort of imbricating the past in the present, of creating a further level of awareness of what’s going on with the characters, though for me it wasn’t always successful and had an almost arid feeling at times. Clearly others have connected far more fully with this work, which is trying to stretch the means of cinematic storytelling in bold ways, and possibly would work better on a big screen with fewer distractions.
Director Natsuka Kusano 草野なつか; Writer Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yasutaka Watanabe 渡邉寿岳; Starring Asami Shibuya 澁谷麻美, Tomomitsu Adachi 足立智充, Tomo Kasajima 笠島智; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 9 April 2020.
Okay it’s time to take a break from an almost constant two weeks of Japanese films on my blog, and to switch it up I’m going to do a week focusing on new films directed by women which have premiered online since the lockdown started. I’m going to begin with this one because it’s probably the most experimental in form, and also it’s just left Mubi after being up a month. I’ll get to ones which are currently available soon though. It reminds me a little of Lina Rodgriguez‘s work, but with a somewhat more tricky narrative structure that can make things rather opaque.
This is, to say the least, an oblique film. It’s about the elderly woman of the title (Josefina Ramírez), who bookends the film seen throwing a molotov cocktail of her own creation. The rest of the film seamlessly blends staged fiction with documentary aesthetics to the extent that I’m not exactly clear where each starts and the other ends. We see her in cars riding her around her assumed neighbourhood, with vague references to a previous domicile and a history that has brought her out to the seaside. I’m not exactly clear what the story is, but this is experimental filmmaking which trades in elemental motifs (fire, water, revolution). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I feel like maybe the filmmaker is trying out narrative techniques to hone her craft.
Director/Writer Camila José Donoso; Cinematographer Matías Illanes; Starring Josefina Ramírez, Gigi Reyes; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.
It’s interesting to watch this film (technically I’ve seen it before, but it was so very long ago I didn’t recall it at all) and reflect on its continuity with Godard’s later films. Already he’s starting to move away from the zingy genre-inflected works of his earlier period into something altogether more intangible. His leads still have the beauty of 60s French pop culture (whether Léaud now starting to get back into films after his boyhood turn in The 400 Blows, or pop starlets like Chantal Goya), but the characters seem to hover at the surface. The film is constructed as a series of interminable dialogues, back and forth questioning that doesn’t seem to reveal very much of anything (certainly not an inner life), and scenes enacted amongst the group of women Léaud is hanging out with (Goya’s Madeleine and her two flatmates), tracing the feelings bouncing back and forth amongst them all. The idea, presumably, is about the shallowness of youth — the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” as one of the intertitles has it — but beneath the luminous monochrome cinematography and the pretty faces, there doesn’t seem to lurk much in these lives and the characters all ultimately seem a little irritating.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Willy Kurant; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi via Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 11 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).
As you’ll see from my recent posts about films available on Mubi, a recurring theme is new films by new filmmakers. This one comes from the Berlin film festival, and is the debut by a Costa Rican woman filmmaker, dealing with one woman’s domestic life. It was only recently up on Mubi, and may have gone by now, but every month there are others not unlike this one.
Like a lot of recent Latin American cinema I’ve seen (and I’m thinking of Los tiburones, or Hogar, or the works of Lucrecia Martel, Dominga Sotomayor or Lina Rodriguez), there’s a very quiet and watchful tone being struck in this film. It’s about Isabel (Daniela Valenciano), a mother of two daughters, whose life seems to be largely about keeping control of the kids, alongside cooking for her husband (Leynar Gomez). It’s the kind of dull, depressing life that makes one’s mind drift towards Jeanne Dielman, but there’s nothing quite so dramatic developing here, although the ants of the title (along with other household insects) have a habit of appearing in Isa’s waking nightmares, little hallucinatory breaks from her mundane daily reality. She’s in a state of anxiety because her husband wants another child (a boy, of course), but she really doesn’t want that, and so sets her mind to little ways of sabotaging this plan. It’s a film that expresses this disquiet in subtle ways as it goes on; for example, the husband could easily be a monster, but apart from being oblivious to the work Isa is doing, he’s largely a pretty decent guy. And so it’s a slow film in the way it develops, but focused always on Isa and the ways in which she feels trapped by domesticity.
Director/Writer Antonella Sudasassi; Cinematographer Andrés Campos; Starring Daniela Valenciano, Leynar Gomez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 24 March 2020.
Everything being well, this is a film I should have seen in a cinema two weeks ago, but I returned from holiday on Friday 13th, just on the cusp of the COVID-19 crisis, and sticking around in a central London cinema didn’t seem particularly sensible, and would increasingly seem less so up until the point cinemas closed a few days later. Well, it’s on Mubi now, where everyone can watch it — and I might add, without wishing to become some kind of sponsored content, that for UK viewers they currently have a deal to get three months for £1 so you have no excuse if you want to see this and some of the other films I’ve written about (there are also seasons dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, Park Chan-wook, Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention new films by filmmakers I don’t know yet but soon will). Mendonça Filho’s debut film Neighbouring Sounds, the one he made before Aquarius, is also there, and I feel like that’ll be another one I’ll check out soon.
There is no shortage of art dealing with the sometimes brutal intersection between the fast pace of modernity and traditional communities usually left unsupported by government and big business. In a sense, that’s what this film is dealing with, using a sort of generic template that traces its lineage back to The Most Dangerous Game or alternatively to 60s acid westerns (there is some ingestion of psychotropic drugs towards the end, but it’s not filmed in a trippy way). The first half of the film is about the little titular village in the outback of Brazil, tracing the family dynamics and the local life, which has been upturned by the death of one of its elder citizens. Right from the start there are these little clues towards the upheavals to come, such as the way the town has disappeared from Google maps, and the arrival of a mayoral candidate from a (disliked) local town sparks the ire of the locals, who are very efficient at hiding themselves away in a hurry (this becomes a plot point later on). Thus when Udo Kier and his gang of ne’er-do-wells arrives on the scene, we’re primed for something odd to happen and things slide downhill pretty quick, as the body count racks up. It’s brutal and gory in its way, but it’s also a film that’s angry about governments and about technology and about Western capitalism and probably also pretty angry about Bolsonaro and his ilk. And it’s an anger that will probably percolate for a while through the cinema of many nations now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of this kind of rapacious economic system.
Directors/Writers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles; Cinematographer Pedro Sotero; Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Udo Kier, Sônia Braga; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 26 March 2020.
Of the various strands of films that Mubi regularly presents, many of them are new restorations of world cinema classics, and one such was this early and key film in the development of the Iranian New Wave, The Cow. You can trace the influence from this through to many subsequent filmmakers, and there are often
Clearly, a key film in the development of Iranian cinema, such that you can easily see the throughline from this to the work of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and many others over the succeeding decades. As it is, though, The Cow is a pretty bleak parable, shot in luminous black-and-white but dealing with the death of the beloved titular companion to Masht Hasan (Ezzatollah Entezami). This event is initially covered up by the other villagers, but increasingly Mashti starts to lose his mind, as the film becomes even a little bit trippy in the way that the cow’s death starts to affect everyone. Clearly it must have struck a nerve in pre-revolutionary Iran, and was even banned for a time, suggesting that perhaps this story was smuggling in something political and satirical in its depiction of its simple-minded village folk — which wouldn’t after all be unusual for the filmmakers who followed Mehrjui.
Director/Writer Dariush Mehrjui داریوش مهرجویی; Cinematographer Fereydon Ghovanlou فریدون قوانلو; Starring Ezzatollah Entezami عزتالله انتظامی, Mahin Shahabi مهین شهابی, Ali Nassirian علی نصیریان; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.