미망인 Mimang-in (The Widow, 1955)

There aren’t many Korean films directed by women much before the 1990s, and indeed this claims to be the first and may be one of the very few at all in the 20th century. As we’ll see in my subsequent reviews, women directors become very much more prominent in Korea after the turn of the century.


The Widow tells a melodramatic story about a four-way love triangle, between Shin (the widow of the title, Lee Min-ja) and Taek (Lee Tak-kyun), a young man who’s having an affair with the wife of Shin’s late husband’s friend, who himself is chasing unsuccessfully after the widow. When Taek’s old flame returns (he presumed her dead in the recent war), everything is upended once more for Shin. This sounds like the basis for a knock-about comedy, or even a weepie, but it’s instead a slowly-unfolding, gentle drama of love and disappointment, which perhaps suggests the director’s distinctive point-of-view within her contemporary cinematic milieu. It presents a fascinating document of a changing era — not least because (as seen in the 1920s-set My Mother and Her Guest), widowhood had until recently been a heavily-proscribed and solitary state for Korean women. When Taek opines that a woman’s place is in the home, his old flame tuts at him and calls him “old-fashioned”. Sadly, the final reel is lost and the last 10 minutes without sound, so it’s difficult to know how it all resolves, though I suppose that as the audience we can imagine several different scenarios, and are free to decide whichever feels most appropriate.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Park Nam-ok 박남옥; Writer Lee Bo-ra 이보라; Cinematographer Kim Yeong-sun 김영순; Starring Lee Min-ja 이민자, Lee Tak-kyun 이택균; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 19 July 2019.

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청춘의 십자로 Cheongchun-eui Sipjaro (Crossroads of Youth aka Turning Point of the Youngsters, 1934)

In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.


For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.

With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

Víctimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951)

Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.


Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)

We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.

Continue reading “Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)”

La otra (aka The Other One, 1945)

This opens as a grand melodrama of two sisters — one a mousy manicurist trying to eke out a meagre living (expected by her boss to work extra on the side in a rather more personal manner than she wants), the other living the high life as the newly-widowed wife to a millionaire — but quickly starts to loop in grander themes of crime and punishment. Both sisters are played by Dolores del Río (mostly in shot-countershot or using stand-ins, but there’s a split-screen for at least one brief scene), and though they start out with distinct identities, things start to converge for what I shall obliquely refer to as ‘plot reasons’ (and shan’t divulge). The director and cinematographer have a keen eye for interesting framings — not least in a scene shot through a convex mirror, or another climactic scene which lays vast shadows of prison bars over chiaroscuro depths — and the costume designer is no slouch either, especially for a hairpiece which is an entire black bird, its wings outstretched across del Río’s hair, or the prominent jutting shoulder pads worn by Victor Junco’s smarmy Fernando (even in his dressing gown). It all builds towards a grand emotional climax in which the sins of one sister come back to haunt the other.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Roberto Gavaldón; Writers Rian James, Gavaldón, José Revueltas and Jack Wagner; Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Dolores del Río, Victor Junco; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).


Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 198: Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, aka Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974)

It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges; Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem الهادي بن سالم, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018).

Criterion Sunday 183: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I don’t consider this typical Bresson, as it uses professional actors and it has a sort of Hollywood melodrama feel to it, although it has a dark edge of course. It’s about a woman who manipulates those around her to engineer their (social) destruction, and Maria Casarès is exactly the right person to have casted in such a role, given her admirable talents at looking mischievous. It all moves forward with admirable aplomb, and it has its lovely moments and some great high-contrast monochrome photography, admirable shadows falling across conniving faces, all that kind of thing. Its only real failing is that it’s not as great as Bresson later proved he could be as a director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Bresson; Writers Bresson and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot); Cinematographer Philippe Agostini; Starring Maria Casarès, Élina Labourdette, Paul Bernard; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 December 2017).

باب الحديد Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station aka The Iron Gate, 1958)

There’s a potent, heady sense of melodrama at work here in this foundational Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, even if it does turn on a rather creepy obsessive guy (played by the director himself). In its location shooting and heightened drama, it reminds me of the Italians of the period (it could stand alongside any early Fellini such as the ones I’ve been watching on the Criterion Collection recently). There’s a vibrancy to the filmmaking and a knowingness to the acting, and the black-and-white cinematography is striking. That all said — and I do recognise this film is 60 years old — I am certainly weary of scripts which use a disability (here a lame foot leading to a small limp) as a metaphor for some deeper existential malaise.

2019 UPDATE: Watching this film again on the big screen this time, I still see its continuity with Italian neorealism (which always did shade over into melodrama), and remain conflicted about the way it conflates its anti-hero’s criminality (he’s a proto-incel in many ways) with mental health issues and physical disfigurement, but you can see too a lot of the barbed commentary Chahine had for religious intolerance and the role of women in this society. However what struck me most, aside from the luminous cinematography, was the attentiveness that Chahine shows to the economics of this station: all the layers of people trying to earn money in various legal and sub-legal ways, whose jobs conflict and intersect, how they try to organise unionisation for the workers, the dirty tactics employed by the bosses. All of this vibrant detail plays out against a backdrop of obsession, madness and murder, but its the detail that makes it so vibrant.

Cairo Station film posterCREDITS
Director Youssef Chahine يوسف شاهين‎; Writers Mohamed Abu Youssef محمد أبو يوسف and Abdel Hay Adib عبد الحي أديب; Cinematographer Alevise Orfanelli
ألفيزي أورفانيللي; Starring Farid Shawqi فريد شوقي, Hind Rostom هند رستم, Youssef Chahine; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 March 2017, and since then at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

LFF 2016 Day Two: Wild, 13th and A Day for Women (all 2016)

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way.


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff.

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

يوم للستات Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri كاملة أبو ذكري, wr. Hanaa Attia هناء عطية, DOP Nancy Abdel-Fattah نانسي عبدالفتاح)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces.