The Farewell (aka 别告诉她 Bie Gaosu Ta, 2019)

Last week’s new release also takes us back to last week’s themed week, which was what I termed ‘Asian diaspora cinema’, which deals with Asian identities in the West, and this one tells of a clash of cultures between the US and China, two of the modern world’s great competing superpowers, through the story of Awkwafina’s suitably awkward artist.


This is a sweet, reflective film that doesn’t shout too loudly, though occasionally the characters in it try to make statements about what it means to live and die, at least in Chinese society. In that respect, having the young family members — most notably Awkwafina’s budding writer Billi — having grown up in different countries meant that it got to explain things a little bit, which is probably just as well given the central conceit is the idea of not telling a dying person that they are dying (or “based on an actual lie” as the film puts it on its first title card). Billi is a muted presence, which already marks a change from Awkwafina’s usual on-screen persona, though it does mean she shuffles around in a slump, looking dejected and sad for rather too much of the film, even as those around her are trying to encourage her to fake a smile — to the extent that I found it hard to believe grandma (and I don’t think she’s ever named aside from the Mandarin Chinese word for grandmother 奶奶 nai nai) didn’t immediately figure out what was going on. Still, there’s a lot of unforced emotional heft just from the set-up, as well as an examination of what it means to be torn between two very different cultures (the film itself is fairly scrupulously balanced, and avoids denigrating either). The final credits reveal therefore comes as rather a surprise, but it’s a sweet end to what’s otherwise quite the weepie.

The Farewell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lulu Wang 王子逸 (based on Wang’s story “What You Don’t Know”); Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano; Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍, Tzi Ma 馬泰, Diana Lin 林晓杰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 26 September 2019.

Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2018)

Finishing up my week of South American cinema is this Paraguayan film, one of the strongest cinematic releases of the past year, quietly telling the story of an ageing woman finding a new lease of life, but without the kind of melodramatic trappings such a plot summary might suggest.


It takes its time to unfold, for us to get a sense of these characters, as they shuffle around their decrepit house in the half-light, but everything starts to come into focus when the feistier of the pair (Chiquita, played by Margarita Irún) is sent to jail for fraud. Their house is falling apart, but it has a grandeur despite the unfaded rectangles on the wall where the paintings have been sold. Men come in every so often to move out a piano or a nice table, because the two ladies need to make money. And then the story of Chela (Ana Brun), the quieter one of the two, starts to take shape, as she embraces a new sense of freedom on her own, chauffeuring the local ladies and making new friends. It’s all in the eyes, and the little turns of her head — it’s a marvellously subtle acting performance from Brun. And there’s a very precise use of sound, for example a cross-fade between a fight within the raucous prison to a salon of elderly women, both environments that contain our central characters, who look to move outwards. There’s a sadness, I suppose — they are both elderly women living in trying times — but also a small glimmer of hope that one can find, even towards the end of your life, something meaningful.

The Heiresses film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marcelo Martinessi; Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga; Starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 10 August 2018.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, 2019)

Stepping away from this week’s horror theme, I wanted to highlight another film that’s out in UK cinemas today, which is the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker who is getting older and has made a film about it. Maybe it’s me getting older — or maybe it’s Pedro — but I really warmed to his latest film far more than anything I’ve watched before by him (and I gave his films a few tries back in the 1990s in particular).


This is a fairly thinly-disguised self-portrait of the filmmaker as ageing man, dealing with the pains of growing up, and more particularly the pains of getting old, self-medicating (with heroin, but of course), and generally trying to come to terms with his own life and those around him drifting away and dying. It trades less on heightened melodrama but is given enormous gravitas by Banderas’s underplayed performance, finding all the right notes for this guy who’s rather at loose ends now that he can’t work due to chronic pain and depression. He still has a very precise eye for framing a shot, and the use of music is perfect, plus there’s no big event, just a sort of flow of moments in a man’s life. There’s levity and there’s self-reflexiveness (a scene with his mother telling him he better not be thinking about putting her in a film), there’s a bit of darkness, but mostly there’s light and colour (bold, saturated colours, of course), that I enjoyed spending time with.

Pain and Glory film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Almodóvar; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 17 August 2019.

Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)

Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.

Continue reading “Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)”

35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008)

Denis regular Alex Descas and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning director Mati Diop take the key roles in this film, which remains one of my favourites of the decade. Much of my love for it is not so much in what happens as in how it unfolds — just the one scene in a backstreets Parisian bar soundtracked to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”, which is for me the emotional core of the film, seems to lay bare all the dynamics going on amongst these characters: a father, Lionel (Alex Descas); his daughter Jo (Mati Diop); an older woman and neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who’s always been in love with the dad; and Grégoire Colin as Noé, who has a crush on Jo. They are all trapped a little bit, as neighbours in an apartment block, as people whose lives seem to be following a set path (in the case of Lionel, who drives trains, very literally so) and who don’t know what exactly they do want. There’s a sense of pain at getting older, but also a comfort in gestures like eating together, with the film opening and closing on images of rice cookers, the sort of symbolic centrepiece of shared family meals (and it’s no surprise, perhaps, to learn that an Ozu film was the inspiration for this one). I love the feeling of movement, the cautious emotional resonance, and the burnished look of the film. It’s a glorious ode to the richness of life and even a modern city symphony in its own way.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writer Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 26 May 2019 (and earlier at the Renoir, London, Sunday 26 July 2009).

Criterion Sunday 201: Umberto D. (1952)

My sense of this neorealist classic is that as I get older so the film will get better, but it’s one of those portraits of old age as a sad time of abandonment, especially in the context of a country coming out of a divisive wartime experience. However, the skill of De Sica is in making what seems like a pretty depressing watch into something a little more observational, capturing a sort of poetry of the everyday, as Umberto trudges around Rome in search of a little money to pay his rent, or looking out for his dog Flike. His own suicidal ideation is handled with sensitivity, and those occasions when he’s pulled back from something tragic by the slender bonds of love that remain make it the more powerful as a film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writer Cesare Zavattini; Cinematographer G. R. Aldo; Starring Carlo Battisti; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017.

Grandma (2015)

I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.

Grandma film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Weitz; Cinematographer Tobias Datum; Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015.

桃姐 Tou Ze (A Simple Life, 2011)

This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.

A Simple Life film posterCREDITS
Director Ann Hui 許鞍華; Writers Susan Chan 陈淑贤 and Roger Lee 李恩霖; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Deanie Ip 葉德嫻, Andy Lau 劉德華; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015.