LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)

Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.

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Three Films by Mina Shum with Sandra Oh

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).

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Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.

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Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017)

A warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.

Parisienne film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.

Dheepan (2015)

I get the sense that as a Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, this was a controversial choice, but when you watch it, it makes total sense. Quite aside from its genre trappings (which only really assert themselves towards the end, when the vengeance becomes rather more gung-ho), it’s a warmly humanist film about refugees which strikes a strong note of tolerance and understanding. That’s not to say the title character is a hero — as played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, he’s a flawed, slightly bitter man, whose experiences as a Tamil Tiger soldier have shaped him, and are the reason he’s driven to seek a better life. In doing so, he adopts a new name, picking up a similarly desperate woman in the refugee camp to be his ‘wife’ (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn essentially barters for a motherless child to be their ‘daughter’ (Claudine Vinasithamby). Their new location in France is a forbidding housing estate called ‘the field’, which is indeed surrounded by greenery, albeit the scrubby suburban variety, but which is a crumbling place ruled by gangs (led by a James Franco-alike turn from Vincent Rottiers). From thereon in, the film works to get across a sense of the “family”‘s life in France, at work and at school, beset by a series of small bureaucratic aggressions which take their toll, but never overwhelm the three. It’s never quite feels like the masterpiece the award suggests it should be, but it’s still a fine film from a director with some form on this ground.

Dheepan film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré; Cinematographer Éponine Momenceau; Starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan அந்தோனிதாசன் யேசுதாசன், Kalieaswari Srinivasan காளீசுவரி சிறிநிவாசன், Claudine Vinasithamby குளோடின் வினாசித்தம்பி, Vincent Rottiers; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 13 April 2016.

Meet the Patels (2014)

This documentary, about LA-based aspiring actor Ravi’s search for love and how that conflicts with the traditions of his Indian parents, is amusing, delightful and coasts by easily on the charm of its star. But it’s also, more than anything else it seems to me, a film that’s really about what it means to be an American, something that negotiating various cultural traditions brings into focus — for Ravi (and his sister Geeta, who shot the film) is a first generation child of immigrants to the States. Aziz Ansari has been bringing this perspective to the mainstream in recent years, especially with his excellent Netflix series Master of None, but Meet the Patels has been on the go since the late-2000s, when Ravi was about to turn 30 and his parents had started to despair of his ever marrying (although he’d been in a relationship with a white American woman for a number of years, without letting his parents know). The film is really very good at getting across how important marriage is to his parents (who incidentally end up basically stealing the film when they’re on screen), to Ravi and Geeta’s entire upbringing, and to the vast swathes of India (specifically Gujarat in this case) where Patel is not just a surname but a caste signifier, and getting hitched is so important that there’s a family-based industry of matchmaking and arranged marriages. It gives a real and vivid sense of what it means to be part of a culture, and how difficult it is to break with that. However, as a documentary it’s very much about its subject rather than filmmaking style (it very self-consciously points out the technical limitations of its creation), and uses cutely animated inserts to frame the story and provide occasional commentary, though not to the extent of ever becoming annoying. It’s ultimately very likeable, and an easy introduction to quite an emotive subject.

Meet the Patels film posterCREDITS
Directors Geeta V. Patel and Ravi V. Patel; Writers Geeta V. Patel, Ravi V. Patel, Billy McMillin and Matthew Hamachek; Cinematographer Geeta V. Patel; Starring Ravi V. Patel; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 5 January 2016.

The Good Lie (2014)

You just have to look at the poster to get the sense that this will be (yet another) feel-good story of poor African people redeemed by magical white Western saviours, but — and I think most reviewers have pointed this out — that would be largely inaccurate. Even when Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency counsellor does appear, once our refugee heroes have made it to the United States, it’s made clear that she’s largely clueless about the refugees’ situation and constrained by many other factors from being of more help to them (though she does what she can). No, this ends up being a story primarily of three Sudanese men and one woman, in two acts: first, as they struggle as children to flee bloody warfare in the late-1980s, eventually reaching a Kenyan refugee camp; and then over a decade later when they are relocated to the United States (a programme which largely ceased in September 2001). It makes plain the struggles that they and their compatriots faced in this period — one which was never exactly top of the Western news agenda (where one African conflict somewhat shaded into all the others) — and imbues a great sense of empathy and humanity to these four embattled young people. Once the film moves Stateside (where we stay with the three guys in Kansas City, Missouri, while their sister is sent away to Boston), there’s a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and though one senses that the struggle narrative of the first half could easily be picked up and folded into tensions around immigrants and race, the film thankfully opts instead to embrace a hope for positive change. So The Good Lie may not be perfect, but it’s also warm-hearted and generous to its protagonists, and ultimately a fascinating story well told.

The Good Lie film poster CREDITS
Director Philippe Falardeau; Writer Margaret Nagle; Cinematographer Ronald Plante; Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.

Paddington (2014)

Ever since a friend described this film to me as like Notting Hill or Love Actually but for kids, I’ve not been able to shake that link from my mind. Because, yes, this film is very West London in that slightly twee picturesque way so beloved of Richard Curtis and his ilk, in that people live in brightly coloured, neatly-turned-down terraced houses on rather grand streets with gorgeous big, bright rooms that no one in London can possibly afford anymore. (I suppose, for American viewers, it’s the equivalent of your struggling working folk sharing a massive loft apartment in Greenwich Village, or wherever.) The story also, for rather more obvious reasons — in that it’s aimed at families, and that it’s a comedy, after all — embraces the sentimental and wholesome in the end, as teddy-bear-out-of-water Paddington looks for a stable home life with the Brown family (with Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as the parents). That said it does manage to shoehorn in a fair amount of furry-bear-related peril along the way, both in its opening sequences set in “darkest Peru” (as it is unswervingly referred to throughout the film) and in its later London-based caper sequences, as Paddington must fend off the advances of evil scientist/taxidermist (played with excellently gleeful maleficence by Nicole Kidman). It also makes some trenchant comments in favour of immigration, which in our modern political environment is certainly bold and should be welcomed. For all that, the initial comparison remains — and it would be damning except for the fact that, actually, I like Richard Curtis comedies (yes, even Love Actually), and once you’ve set aside the scrubbed-up locations, it’s rather sweet. It also has plenty of really rather funny comic asides (as well as stuff that will surely go over the kids’ heads); I’m still laughing about Mr Brown’s comment to the cabbie after the tourist-landmark-checking but geographically-ridiculous taxi journey that kicks off Paddington’s time in London. How it will play to children, I have no idea (there’s peril, and evil scientists, but never for too long), so don’t come to me for that. I am a fully-grown person, and I enjoyed this film.

Paddington film posterCREDITS
Director Paul King; Writers King and Hamish McColl (based on the character by Michael Bond); Cinematographer Erik Wilson; Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 7 December 2014.

Cherchez Hortense (Looking for Hortense, 2012)

I’ve seen this film, directed by former Cahiers du cinéma film critic Pascal Bonitzer, described in a few places as a “comedy”, but I find it difficult to rationalise it as such. There are comedic moments, and lead actor Jean-Pierre Bacri has a sort of rumpled comic charm to him, but the story seems to take place in a quite different register. Themes of relationship trouble and divorce, single-parenting, artistic creation, depression, repressed bisexuality, the legal system, the abuse of power and immigration play in and out across its many scenes, few of which betray an essentially comic worldview.

There is, as is suggested by the themes listed above, an interesting film in here — there’s probably a few interesting films — but it’s difficult to get a sense of what exactly the finished work is trying to do. It takes most of the film before you start to understand what the central drama is, let alone what the title is alluding to. Of course, the more I think about it, the more I think this narrative diffusion was very much intended — the title does begin “Looking for…” after all and the character of Hortense is so minor as to be a MacGuffin — but the experience of watching it unfold is perplexing.

In part this is because it’s a shame not to see more of Kristin Scott Thomas. This is the third film I’ve seen her in this year at the cinema (after Dans la maison and Only God Forgives), and her acting is as watchable as ever. She plays Iva, a theatre director married to the protagonist Damien (Bacri), who lives in a gorgeous centrally-located Parisian apartment with him and their bespectacled and all-too-earnest son Noé (he disapproves of his mother’s smoking). Iva has a sort of brittle and febrile quality, which the chain smoking perhaps assuages, though her unhappiness is plain from the relatively little time she spends at home, and in the end finds herself in a relationship with an actor in the play she’s rehearsing. In any case, she gives the film an energy that it elsewhere lacks.

Bacri is fine as Damien, though he doesn’t entirely convince as an expert in Chinese civilisation (which he teaches to business people in a rather brutalist classroom), or as the primary caregiver to their son. As mentioned above, he has an unshaven haunt about his rumpled face that perhaps befits a man working through some serious relationship ennui — both with his unfaithful wife, but also his dismissive father, a very senior civil servant — but it propels him towards a younger attractive woman called Aurore (Isabelle Carré). He bumps into her several times in the first half of the film — too many times for it to be simply chance. Indeed, she takes a larger role as the film progresses, and her story touches on the treatment of immigrants (she is from Serbia and works as a dishwasher in a restaurant) and offers Damien the attractive possibility of redemption from his ennui, though for a man who looks as he does, I’d be surprised if that were really possible.

In any case, for a film with so many threads, it wraps them all up rather neatly. The narrative may be trying at times, but what happens is all acted with the professional sheen of an older-fashioned film with some provocations but little that is truly challenging. It remains a likeable endeavour, but as viewers, in a sense we are left still looking for something, and I’m not sure finding out who Hortense is really satisfies.

CREDITS
Director Pascal Bonitzer; Writers Agnès de Sacy and Bonitzer; Cinematographer Romain Winding; Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri, Kristin Scott Thomas, Isabelle Carré; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 17 August 2013.