There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.
This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.
This film, set in historical Korea (Goryeo), tells of a time when old people were abandoned up a mountain by their kids, a response to a lack of food in a culture which greatly valued large families. It opens with a panel of experts in the modern day talking about the scourge of overpopulation, before flashing back in time to a rural village out in the mountains. Given the large number of people in the film, the 10 kids of the one family, whom we see at various times over a number of decades, I did get rather confused by who was whom — not least because the film is missing a couple of reels, replaced by dense chunks of text which go past pretty quickly. Still, it’s a brutal film of lives cut too short, nasty and brutish, with all kinds of squabbles and conflicts defining these people, who are born without much hope and then stripped even of that by the circumstances of their lives. The widescreen monochrome photography looks good, though, and it presents nicely its moral quandary of who in society we should value.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-young 김기영; Cinematographer Kim Deok-jin 김덕진; Starring Kim Jin-kyu 김진규, Ju Jeung-ryu 주증녀; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.
It seems to me that if you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai Григо́рий Чухра́й; Writers Valentin Yezhov Валентин Ежов and Chukhrai; Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev Владимир Николаев and Era Savelyeva Эра Савельева; Starring Vladimir Ivashov Влади́мир Ивашо́в, Zhanna Prokhorenko Жанна Прохоренко; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 April 2017.
A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.
Director Ramona S. Diaz; Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 7 August 2017.
As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.
So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel); Cinematographer Danny Cohen; Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016.
I think there’s something to be said for Little White Lies‘ marking system, with separate marks for ‘anticipation’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘in retrospect’, as it really gets towards a sense of the different stages of appreciating a film (though perhaps the third mark can only be filled in a few weeks or months later). In trawling through online streaming content for something to watch of an evening, there’s often little enough to arouse any anticipation, but however unassuming it looks from a mere description, Suzanne turns out to be a really very well-judged and interesting film. Ostensibly it presents a character study of the wayward daughter to single father Nicolas (François Damiens) and older sister to Maria (Adèle Haenel), as she grows up over the course of 20+ years, rebounding from one major life decision to another. However, the film largely eschews psychologising or explanatory dialogue, as we see only disconnected fragments from her life — a few minutes of her childhood, some poor teenage decisions involving her getting pregnant, moving out of town, being in jail — although frequently landing on some telling moment. The film is like a photo album of Suzanne’s life, linked by the power of Sara Forestier’s cagy performance in the central role. It’s a fascinating narrative strategy, and by making Suzanne something of an absence at the film’s heart, it puts more emphasis on the dynamics within her family, as well as giving the audience a little more work to do, but Suzanne’s dramatic arc definitely satisfies as a story of a person learning to live with themself and others.
Director Katell Quillévéré; Writers Mariette Désert and Quillévéré; Cinematographer Tom Harari; Starring Sara Forestier, François Damiens, Adèle Haenel; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Monday 4 January 2016.
This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.
Director Lynne Ramsay; Writers Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015.
At the heart of this new documentary is a fascinating subject, the Angulo family, whose parents have raised their seven children largely in insolation from the city around them (New York). It brings to mind films like Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), and this idea of children raised away from any socialising influence — whether kept in isolation like Hauser, or raised in the wild by animals, or just cut off from mainstream society like the Amish — is a commonly recurring trope in fiction. So to have found a real-life example in the middle of such an enormous city is a coup for director Crystal Moselle, who has clearly filmed them over the course of some time.
The oldest of the children, Mukunda (their names are taken from Hindu scripture) is now 20, and he tells of how he first left their Lower East Side apartment on his own at the age of 15, and promptly got arrested for his choice of papier mâché mask. As it turns out he and his brothers (the youngest Angulo child, the daughter Visnu, is largely absent) have had much of their socialisation via films, so their dressing up and recreating the films (most notably those of Quentin Tarantino) is the hook that The Wolfpack uses for its poster and trailer. However, there are other questions that are soon raised, like the role of the family’s mother and father, the latter of whom is not particularly well-loved by his children it turns out. This is for good reasons, of course — from their point of view he’s kept them isolated for their whole lives and had controlled their access to the outside world — though the film’s underlying sadness is that his fear of the dangers the outside world poses are quite understandable at a certain level. Both parents after all had come from rural backgrounds and if they’d not been trapped by poverty into their current situation, one senses events might have turned out differently.
The attitudes of both the parents and their children are fleshed out over the film’s running time, as the parents must start to accept their children are coming of age and have a natural curiosity about the world outside. It’s never quite made clear how active a role Moselle herself has taken in this process, or at what exact point in their lives she entered, but there’s a sense a lot of the emotional maturation the film covers had already taken place. Moselle deftly structures her film, though, only slowly adding in the stories of the family’s mother and father. Whatever questions one might reasonably pose (I wonder about how the daughter feels she fits into the family’s dynamic, as just one example), it remains a compelling study of an unusual family dynamic.
Director/Cinematographer Crystal Moselle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 23 August 2015.
A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.
Director Christian Schwochow; Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck); Cinematographer Frank Lamm; Starring Jördis Triebel; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015.
There’s a scene towards the end of this excoriating French-Canadian family melodrama in which Diane (Anne Dorval), the mother of the title — after a fashion, which I’ll explain later — imagines the possibilities for her tearaway teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) as he grows up. As a scene, it’s beautiful and uplifting, shot in a hazy nostalgic glow, and yet utterly heartbreaking, because it lands after about two hours of coming to grips with Steve and all his emotional problems, and by this point we realise that it’s an impossible dream.
Xavier Dolan, the director of Mommy is only in his mid-20s, but this is an utterly assured and properly cinematic film, filled with the kinds of juxtapositions and coups de théâtre that only the most accomplished of directors could pull off. It starts off with one such, as Diane’s car is sideswiped at a busy intersection, and the film doesn’t let go from then on. The square framing is another flourish, which almost seems to trap its characters, but at a key later moment it dramatically opens up, all too briefly, to suggest a hope that the film’s events don’t always bear out.
The film’s primary focus is on the home that Diane (“Die” for short) makes with her angry son, just returned from a stint in juvenile detention, and with their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) they form a mutually-supportive and slightly askew family unit. Diane is Steve’s mother, but the title refers to a piece of bling that Steve acquires for her — in a bravura scene that seems to vacillate moment to moment from tenderness to violence — naming a role that is as much in Steve’s imagination as within Diane’s ability. Certainly, Steve has what one might call ‘issues’ that are at times uncomfortably Oedipal, but for the most part the film is resolutely focused on the mother figure Diane, who starts out as a hectoring bully but ends up being a multi-faceted character that we genuinely feel warmth and understanding towards.
Mommy is one of the stand-out films I’ve seen so far this year. It heralds the further maturation of a prodigious cinematic talent, and is well worth checking out.
Director/Writer Xavier Dolan; Cinematographer André Turpin; Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015.