你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ninjababy and El Planeta (both 2021)

My reviews of films I saw last month at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival has been getting a bit grim. That is somewhat the nature of festivals, to focus on the darker works that maybe aren’t so commercial, but here’s a Norwegian and a Spanish film that are both a bit more fun. Sure both deal with young women who are sort of sad and listless. The first one gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion and then spends the rest of the film getting anxious about this baby inside her, while the other she is just living beyond her means. But for the most part these are pretty enjoyable and funny even.


Ninjababy (2021) [Norway, certificate 15]

It’s interesting, and a positive corrective, that the more women who come into filmmaking, the more stories we see not about awkward indie dudes trying to pursue their art, but instead about depressed, creative young women beset by annoying indie dudes who believe they have something to say. The day before I saw the Spanish-set El Planeta (see below) and now here’s this Norwegian film, also about a young woman who fits a similar bill (Rakel here is a comics artist), but the twist is that she’s become pregnant despite her best efforts to the contrary. Having created this dilemma, it’s both acutely sensitive to the emotional terrain she experiences as a result, but also a bit anarchic (not unlike, say, Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which also gave voice to an unborn baby, albeit that film was a horror where this is sort of a… romcom?). In any case, it never quite slows down and it’s even a bit touching at times, as Rakel has to deal with her own body and feelings about children in a way that tends to resist the usual paradigms in movies like this one. And, being a comedy, there’s a broadly positive outcome to her story, but it’s not necessarily the one you expect.

Ninjababy (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Yngvild Sve Flikke; Writers Flikke and Johan Fasting (based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Inga H. Sætre); Cinematographer Marianne Bakke; Starring Kristine Thorp, Arthur Berning, Nader Khademi; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.


El planeta (2021)
El Planeta (2021) [Spain/USA, black-and-white]

Although this is a film that deals with some pretty heavy sadness, there’s also a lightness to it and a certain idiosyncrasy that both points back to the French New Wave (shooting on location in black-and-white with a loosely improvised feel to the whole thing and an Anna Karina-like look from the writer/director/star Amalia Ulman) but also to the talkier elements of say contemporary Korean cinema (I was thinking of Heart if only because it’s another film by a writer-actor-director which has a slightly brittle sense of absurdism that I saw recently). Here the Argentinean/Spanish Ulman casts herself as Leo(nor), and right from the start — where we get a brief cameo by fellow director Nacho Vigalondo — you know that things are going to get weird. Mostly it’s in rather delightful ways albeit ones that highlight the precarity of this Spanish family, the wide-eyed desperation of Leo who has skills but no ability to really find work given her economic situation and her scamming grifter of a mother, both of whom are equally trying to make ends meet. It’s a film about the connectedness yet distance in the modern world that doesn’t manufacture hope for any of its characters, but still leaves you having enjoyed their brief chaotic presence in your life. And then it ends.

El planeta (2021)CREDITS
Director Amalia Ulman; Cinematographer Carlos Rigo Beliver; Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)

Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival also presented a number of new films by established directors (auteurs if you will) and one of my favourites of this millennium so far has been Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who directed Daratt and The Screaming Man amongst others. He has worked in France with stars recently, but his latest film returns to N’Djamena, specifically about a young woman seeking an abortion (one of the recurrent themes of films at this year’s festival, as of recent years, as this issue becomes increasingly politicised by regimes around the world). Anyway, it may not be his best film, but it’s as good as any other filmmaking on show.


It is indeed possible to sum this film up pretty pithily as an abortion drama set in Chad, from Chad’s pre-eminent director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. But as others in that sub-genre attest, such dramas are as much about tracing the cultural (and often class or race-based) specifics of its setting, and Lingui builds up a fascinating picture of a community of people in a country where the practice is banned, though clearly fairly easy to obtain if you have a lot of money. There’s a lot that the film exposes in the way of bleakness and corruption, but to focus on that would be to ignore the strong and generative support that is created within the community from sometimes unlikely sources. And while the mother is clearly angry at her daughter for having got into this situation at first, as the film goes on her character starts to become more accepting and understanding, reopening ties with her estranged family and, not incidentally, her daughter. It would all be heartwarming stuff if not for the underlying drama, but it’s beautifully told as you would expect from Haroun.

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون;
Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Achouackh Abakar Souleymane أباكار سليمان, Rihane Khalil Alio ريهان خليل آليو; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.


In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

CREDITS
Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.

Mouthpiece (2018)

Of course I suppose if you look at the date (a 2018 film based on a 2015 stage play), this wouldn’t count as ‘new’ exactly, but these days sometimes you have to wait years to see things, ironic perhaps in an age of streaming media. I’m still waiting for 2019 films by some of my favourite filmmakers, so two years is hardly unusual. In the end, I watched this for free as part of a digital release by the Seventh Row website, who have all kinds of supplementary materials, and it’s a film that’s worth thinking about.


There’s something underlying this drama that definitely feels theatrical, and given its roots in a play that makes sense. Still, for all that, it feels cinematic in the way it’s told, with expressive use of light and colours and of staged sequences (somewhere between hallucinations and dreams, or perhaps fantasies, being the inner life of the central character). The theme is familiar, dealing with the relationship between a grown woman and her mother, who at the start of the film has just died unexpectedly, leaving a certain amount of mourning and then a reentanglement with her legacy by the central character Cassandra. The twist is that Cassandra is played by two different actors, standing side by side in each scene, wearing the same (or similar) clothes and making the same gestures. After that initial period of discombobulation (where one wonders if they’re in a relationship, which of course they are, after a fashion), it settles down to being a very effective way to hint at the internal conflicts she’s going through without resorting to a voiceover or some other stilted technique. And the performances by both actors (also the writers of the original play, and collaborators on this screenplay) are excellent, which is crucial in making it work of course.

Mouthpiece film posterCREDITS
Director Patricia Rozema; Writers Rozema, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava (based on the play by Nostbakken and Sadava); Cinematographer Catherine Lutes; Starring Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Sunday 4 October 2020.

LFF 2020: خط فرضی Khate Farzi (180° Rule, 2020)

Another of the MENA film selections, from Iran, a country with a strong film culture and a number of contemporary women filmmakers. I didn’t perhaps love this the most, mainly because it’s a tough watch and quite a wrenching and tragic story, but it has real filmmaking chops.


There is a lot of crying in this film, not least because it takes a trajectory of family tragedy, compounded by illiberal patriarchal restrictions which filter through a number of characters within the film. It’s difficult to always follow the contortions that mother Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) goes to in order to maintain her status in her husband’s (Pejman Jamshidi) eyes after the tragedy strikes, but you get that they are grounded in a sense of shock or hopelessness. There are no rewards at the end, and even a brief detente seems to lead into further spiralling guilt on the mother’s behalf. However, it’s all shot in elegant widescreen and is put together nicely, enough I think to allow you to follow Sara even in her darker moments.

180° Rule film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Farnoosh Samadi فرنوش صمدی; Cinematographer Masoud Salami مسعود سلامی; Starring Sahar Dolatshahi سحر دولتشاهی, Pejman Jamshidi پژمان جمشیدی; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

LFF 2020: Farewell Amor (2020)

The 2020 London Film Festival (LFF) just closed yesterday with a smaller more focused programme, conducted largely online via the BFI Player, though they offered some socially-distanced screenings of the more popular titles — along with one or two only in the cinema. I wasn’t ready for the in-person screenings, though as I’ve chronicled on this blog I have recently ventured back to a few (carefully selected to be sparsely attended) cinema screenings. Anyway, I’m now in a managed isolation hotel in Auckland (day five, certified Covid-free for now), so I missed the last few days of the LFF, but I did get to see some of the first week of titles and I’ll be doing a week focusing on those.


Some of the best American films are stories of immigrants making their way in the big city. Last year in the LFF we had the fabulous Lingua Franca and this year is this story of an African family (from Tanzania via Angola during the latter’s civil war) reunited finally after 17 years apart. The husband has been working as a New York taxi driver, and we meet them as they come together at the airport, before following each of the three of them in separate strands which loop back and then intersect again in a few places. These are lives in flux, and the film has empathy for each of the three — the father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is trying to hide that he’s had a previous long-term relationship, before the return of his wife Esther (Zainab JAh), who after the stress and troubles of the war and the loss of her husband has found solace in Jesus, and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), trying to hide her interest in dance from her mother. It’s a gentle film in many ways, though there are emotional traumas not far below the surface that it alludes to throughout, and it’s a beautiful one as well.

Farewell Amor film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ekwa Msangi; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Saturday 10 October 2020.