Joy (2018)

Because my Global Cinema series will be covering the country of Austria tomorrow, I’ve done a week of German-language cinema by women filmmakers. The most recent release I’m covering is this film I saw at the 2018 London Film Festival, where it won the main prize. It’s very far from a joyful film, despite its title, and is a tough watch, but is available on Netflix (at least in the UK).


I’m not sure how to feel about this film, but it’s certainly not always an easy watch — there’s no happy ending on offer, despite the title (the name of the central character, played by Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, rather than a particularly defining emotion throughout the film). It’s also not, I would hope, intended to be a film about how it is to be a sex worker but rather presents one particular experience, which is of non-European women (in this case, Nigerian) trafficked into sex work and trapped for a significant chunk of time through mounting debts in a form of slavery. The filmmaker bookends the film with scenes set back in Nigeria, though this is largely an Austrian film from an outsider’s perspective — at least, though, it balances the early scene of juju witchcraft practised in Nigeria with a similarly syncretic religious/pagan folk tradition in the mountains of Austria. It also keeps its focus firmly on the character of Joy, so even when we see well-meaning (white) Austrians trying to help her, it’s clear how ineffectual they are and how impossible it is for Joy to act according to what they consider the self-evidently moral and righteous response. Joy’s story is part of an ingrained and ever-repeating cycle of exploitation and capitalism founded on the inequalities of the world’s economy, so the film recognises all it can do is shine a light on this one immigrant story.

Joy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sudabeh Mortezai; Cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl; Starring Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 16 October 2018.

Rajma Chawal (2018)

A recent release that I saw at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and which is now on Netflix, fits into the very familiar and comfortable patterns of the romcom. It overlays a traditional familial relationship, updating it to the social media age in some pretty heavy-handed ways at times, but I found it likeable all the same.


I was honestly sort of expecting to hate this once the film had set up the premise — which it does very swiftly — as out-of-touch newly-widowed father tries to connect with his moody musician son using social media (specifically Facebook messenger), by impersonating a hot woman whose picture his own mother has found on the internet. These are broad strokes, very very broad, and they are played for the expected laughs (it’s all too easy to laugh at people acting stupidly). However, as the film went on I found myself enjoying it quite in spite of myself, perhaps because of the likeability of all the leads, and the gusto with which they go about their somewhat hackneyed plot, but also because of the filmmaking on show. There’s a really lovely and evocative sequence of the son moving physically through his memories and encountering his mother on the street. I wasn’t entirely sold on the son’s music, and as I said already, it can get quite broad in its humour, but it remains a sweet romcom.

Rajma Chawal film posterCREDITS
Director Leena Yadav लीना यादव; Writers Vivek Anchalia, Manu Rishi Chadha and Yadav; Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Rishi Kapoor ऋषी कपूर, Anirudh Tanwar, Amyra Dastur अमायरा दस्तूर; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Sunday 21 October 2018.

ओम-दर-ब-दर Om Dar-B-Dar (1988)

A strange, experimental Indian film that never got a proper release when it was made, but was recently restored and re-released a few years back, where I saw it at the London Film Festival. As you’ll see from my review, I can’t say I understood it.


An Indian film from 1988 only recently restored and screened, as apparently it was too out-there for the original producers and never got much of a release at the time. And I can understand that. It is extremely difficult to follow, though it may help to be familiar with some of the reference points, and as a non-Indian I am very much not. It follows a sort of free-associative dream (or perhaps nightmare) logic, featuring a young man named Om (Aditya Lakhia) and a lot of to-do about frogs, coins, and other imagery that was densely-packed and edited in a very non-linear way, such that I generally didn’t have much of a clue of even who the main characters were, let alone what was happening. I can’t definitely say it’s bad, as a lot of the imagery was compelling, and I like a mystery.

Om Dar-B-Dar film posterCREDITS
Director Kamal Swaroop; Writer Kuku; Cinematographers Ashwin Kaul and Milind Ranade; Starring Aditya Lakhia आदित्य लाखिया, Anita Kanwar अनीता कंवर; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 7 October 2017.

Pop Aye (2017)

This film is made by a Singaporean director, and I can’t really include that state in my ‘mainland SE Asian cinema’ theme week because it’s an island, albeit one very close to the mainland, with a long history of connection (historically with Malaysia), as well as a number of physical bridges. However, this film was made and filmed in Thailand, so it deserves to be part of this week on that basis. It’s also rather delightful, and though I’m not sure how one might watch it now, it’s worth looking out for.


After only a few films into the 2017 London Film Festival, already this felt like a highlight. At a certain level it maybe isn’t anything new per se. After all, it’s essentially a road trip buddy movie, in which a disenchanted elderly man (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) takes a slow trip back to his family’s roots, as the filmmaker contrasts urban and rural living with a critique of capitalist building developments, and offers a poignant view of those lives lost somewhere in between. But then again, the buddy on the road trip is the titular elephant (actor name Bong), and the man (who is an architect) uses it to reconnect with his younger life, as he reassesses his life’s work and his marriage. The film feels profound in the way it considers the fullness of this man’s (and indeed the elephant’s) life, even as it wears its peripatetic narrative lightly. It also manages to fit in a few beautiful and haunting shots, and some strong supporting character work.

Pop Aye film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kirsten Tan; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Thaneth Warakulnukroh ธเนศ วรากุลนุเคราะห์, Penpak Sirikul เพ็ญพักตร์ ศิริกุล; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 5 October 2017.

愛と法 Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, 2017)

In my week of films available on subscription to the BFI Player, I mentioned yesterday the special LGBTQI+ BFI Flare subscription collection and one of those films is the one I’m covering today, which I saw at the London Film Festival in 2018, and was produced by one of the programmers (Elhum Shakerifar) who has also been involved with several other documentaries I’ve really liked.


A lovely, gentle documentary about what seems to be (but shouldn’t be) a tough subject in Japan — being out and proud of it — and focuses on two gay lawyers in a relationship, who are thus approachable for those not just within the LGBT community, but for anyone who feels ostracised or excluded from mainstream society, who need representation under law. This is a film in many ways about fighting against oppression for those who are different, but it’s also grounded in the relationship between these two men — after all, I didn’t expect quite so much off-key singing over a cheesy keyboard for a film about the law. Partially, that’s because the film focuses on the relationship, but also because there’s not so much they’re (legally) allowed to show of the cases the pair are involved with. We get a few details, and a few brief sequences in actual courtrooms, but for the most part this is a film about principles, and it has strong ones.

Of Love and Law film posterCREDITS
Director Hikaru Toda 戸田ひかる; Cinematographer Jason Brooks; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 20 October 2018.

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

江湖儿女 Jianghu Emu (Ash Is Purest White, 2018)

So Long, My Son, a new Chinese epic drama by director Wang Xiaoshuai, opens in UK cinemas today — a film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. At last year’s LFF I saw another Chinese film, which opened in UK cinemas earlier this year, the latest by Jia Zhangke. I did a big post of four of Jia’s films yesterday, but his A Touch of Sin is up there amongst my favourite of the decade, even if his previous film Mountains May Depart didn’t thrill me quite so much. Still, he has plenty to say about modern Chinese society, and continues to work closely with actor Zhao Tao.


Jia Zhangke has always been making films that concern themselves with the enormous shifting forces in society, economic change and capitalist exploitation tied into enormous infrastructural projects of change and development of particularly our urban landscapes. It just feels like more and more he’s tying them to individual stories that don’t always feel like they have the expansiveness to sustain this kind of thematic weight (though his films remain epic in length and sweep at least).

This story is about a woman (played as ever by Jia’s long-time collaborator Zhao Tao) in love with a small-time local gangster (Liao Fan). She goes to jail for five years for pulling a gun on some thugs who are trying to beat him up, but he doesn’t stick around for her. It’s a film that stretches over about 17 years of time (from 2001 to the present), marking its passage of time not by title cards but by small changes like the use of mobile phone technology (or by large ones, like the sudden presence of huge modern development projects in the heart of a northern city like Datong), and, surprisingly to me, has quite a few laughs in it too.

If I’m not always convinced that the running time and tripartite structure is exactly earned by these characters’ lives, there’s still plenty of detail in its depictions of the changing Chinese landscape and economy to reward a viewing, and the performances are excellent as ever with Jia’s films.

Ash Is Purest White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Liao Fan 廖凡; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 13 October 2018.

嘉年华 Jia Nian Hua (Angels Wear White, 2017)

Following my review of Dead Pigs earlier today, another recent Chinese film to make waves, and not just because it was the only film directed by a woman in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2017, is this one, Angels Wear White. In it second-time director Vivian Qu challenges sexually predatory men within Chinese society, part of what is implied to be wider corruption at the heart of the society, and a welcome challenge no doubt.


There’s a lot of discussion these days (and rightly so) about the destructive effect of sexual violence within patriarchal and authoritarian power structures can have on young women, and this film is a fine example of a situation in which institutional deficiences fail the people society is supposed to protect. It sets up a scenario involving a number of characters, each of which has their reasons for overlooking or excusing a horrific crime (the rape, not seen on camera, of two young girls by a corrupt police official). In many ways this is the same setup as another film I saw in the London Film Festival the same year (Beauty and the Dogs) but it’s done far more sensitively to my mind. The girls’ point of view is necessarily laconic, but we see their parents find reasons not to press charges, preferring to think about payouts and education in an area deprived of resources for this, while another strand follows a witness to the crime: a slightly older girl who has similarly been mistreated, having run away at a young age and is now living without the necessary government ID required to receive any support, doing menial cash jobs for little reward. In many ways she represents the younger girl a few years later, having toughened up and run away to a bigger city, but still prey to predatory men hanging around, offering the basic necessities of life in exchange for money or favours. It’s a corrupt society, no mistake, only exacerbated by the literally enormous metaphor of female sexuality on high heels that stands overlooking the seaside resort where it’s set.

Angels Wear White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Vivian Qu 文晏; Cinematographer Benoît Dervaux; Starring Vicky Chen [or Wen Qi] 陳文淇, Zhou Meijun 周美君; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

Two Comedy-Drama Films by Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Support the Girls (2018)

Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.


Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.

Funny Ha Ha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.


Support the Girls (2018)

I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).

Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.

Support the Girls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).