海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

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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.

Dreamcatcher (2015)

The British documentarian Kim Longinotto is clearly used to making films with relatively few resources, which is somewhat apt, given her subjects are so often those (primarily women) who are systematically excluded by structures of control and discourse. (Even her archival compilation earlier this year Love Is All touches on these themes, while otherwise seeming rather unlike the rest of her output.) Still, for all this, her latest work Dreamcatcher is never anything less than immaculately crafted, and follows the story of a woman called Brenda, who runs an outreach programme named the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The programme focuses on helping women working the streets of her area of Chicago, a life that Brenda grew up in, and it’s her story and those of the women she meets that form the backbone of the documentary. In a sense, it’s not really about prostitution though, but about the ways in which a climate of abuse and poverty can narrow life choices to such a point that hope can seem elusive, and it’s alleviating that particular problem which the Foundation focuses on (Brenda’s paid day job is working in a women’s prison). Brenda is not only seen driving around the streets of Chicago by night, but also working with troubled kids at a local high school, at her prison job, and at home — which is where we really see the struggle it can sometimes be for her to maintain her fearless public persona (sometimes just through small humanising moments like her looking for the right wig to wear that day). Despite the treacly sentiment that the poster’s tagline suggests, both the filmmaker and Brenda steer clear of judgmentalism or preaching (there’s very little reference to religion, for example), and thanks to this focus on Brenda and some of the more articulate women she works with and helps, the film steers clear of the kind of doomy pessimism you might expect given some of the heartwrenching stories of childhood abuse and neglect that are recounted. There’s certainly plenty of such material to give one pause, but it’s the focus on doing small things to help improve her community that makes the documentary well worth catching.

Dreamcatcher film posterCREDITS
Director Kim Longinotto; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 8 March 2015.

Jenseits der Straße (Harbour Drift, 1929)

BFI London Film Festival 2013 This is the first film I saw at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, aside from the preview screening of The Epic of Everest (1924), and I shall be presenting relatively short reviews of the films I saw at the Festival over the next week or two.


Film history has a tendency to memorialise only a few films as exemplars of passing trends and styles. In part this is due to the demands of film history texts, which can hardly include everything, but also reflects the way that certain films are more easily categorisable. The so-called “German expressionism” of the 1920s has its Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and Metropolis (1927), while Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is often recalled for its star Louise Brooks’s style. In the absence of a stand-out star or a definable style, perhaps Jenseits der Straße (literally “Beyond the Street”; the origin of the more common English language title is obscure, presumably relating to its dockside setting, much of it filmed in Rotterdam) has fallen through the cracks in film history. Or maybe, as is the way with a lot of silent films, it just didn’t really exist in a physically viewable version for critics and viewers to discover until this recent restoration. A lot of films have dropped out of film history that way, too. In any case, it deserves to be reinstalled as a classic of the Weimar cinema of Germany and as one of the great silent-era films.

My best guess, though, is that it doesn’t fit into easy generic boxes. The director has drawn on German expressionism in all those long shadows and canted framings, while the dark bob sported by its female antagonist seems to recall the flapper stylishness of Brooks, yet the editing is more reminiscent of Soviet filmmaking, with its bold conjunctions of images in an often fast-flowing montage. The way these images are put together here is a wonder — there’s a particularly strong sequence near the end charting one character’s growing desperation and madness — but right from the start, as the young man (Fritz Genschow) arrives at the port and images of the industrial squalor are cut in with his expressive face, there’s a strong sense of style in play.

The story is one dealing with underclasses struggling within a decaying society, poor men and women doing what they need to make ends meet. The first minutes of the film are all shot at street level, the level of the old man (Paul Rehkopf) begging outside a shop, and show shoes and legs and the passing bellies of those doing better in life. The trade of prostitutes is suggested merely by the familiarity of their shoes and stockinged legs as they pass back and forth, stopping and turning occasonally, and by one sequence in a cafe of a particularly corpulent elderly gentleman catching a glimpse of a lady’s boots as he reads a tragic story in the newspaper. As it happens, this is the framing story for the film, and we cut back to find out more about this small item buried deep in the news, which involves the old man, the young man and the mysterious woman (Lissy Arna), all of whom are just desperate for a way to lighten their lives.

It wouldn’t be fair to say there’s no hope in the film, but there’s also a realistic sense that things may not always work out for everyone, and that’s sustained throughout the running time. And yet it’s not depressing exactly: the story is too controlled and the acting too precise. There’s a bit of melodramatic affect in the acting, and in some of the more! expressive! intertitles, but it’s held in check by the slowly unfolding minutely-focused camerawork. There are significant sequences in which little happens plotwise but characters are revealed through their glances, their small habits, just little observational stuff. It’s the kind of accumulation of detail that makes you understand and feel for these people, and which makes the way things resolve that little bit more deeply resonant.

The screening I attended was particularly enhanced by the musical accompaniment of Stephen Horne, whose multi-instrumental prowess never overwhelmed what was on screen (if only because what was on screen was so captivating). His score added some beautiful extra textures, particularly assured in the dance-club sequences in which Horne effectively suggested the metallic sound of the music box with its notched metal disc. The jaunty music of this sequence in particular seemed to emphasise the desperation with which these marginal characters (beggars, dock workers and criminals) are trying to cling to the Jazz Age in a time of increasing economic hardship.

However bleak the film can be at times, it’s never less than a wonderful evocation of a time period. The central acting performances are all excellent, and I can only hope this film gains greater visibility and acclaim over its next 85 years.

Harbour Drift film posterCREDITS
Director Leo Mittler; Writers Willy Döll and Jan Fethke; Cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund; Starring Lissy Arna, Paul Rehkopf, Fritz Genschow; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 October 2013.

Foxy Brown (1974)

I’m by no means an expert on the so-called ‘blaxploitation’ genre, but this particular title seems to get a lot of play in popular culture. Quentin Tarantino, after all, sampled the title character’s name — not to mention its actress, Pam Grier — for his own Jackie Brown, and generally Foxy is considered an icon of embattled black femininity striking back at an unjust system. Yet for all the rhetoric around it, the film itself is a rather sleazy little piece of low-budget exploitation cinema, as is perhaps hardly surprising.

Undeniably, its saving grace is its star, the luminescent Pam Grier. Even as the minor characters shuffle around in polyester, delivering cardboard dialogue on under-furnished sets, Grier is wonderful to watch and has an ease and charisma that rather shows up the lack of polish elsewhere. She is avenging her boyfriend, a federal agent slain by members of a drug syndicate/brothel headed up by the creepy “Miss Katherine”. It turns out the boyfriend was turned in by Foxy’s no-good drug addicted brother (Antonio Fargas, a jittery livewire, better known for his turn as a pimp in the TV show Starsky & Hutch), just one more weak man in a film filled with them.

Yet it’s hardly any kind of feminist statement, and I would be wary of making such claims. In order to infiltrate the drug ring and take her revenge, Foxy goes undercover as a prostitute and is seen in various stages of undress. Still, if the camera at times seems to leer at her, Grier sends back a pretty grim visage when she needs to, and it’s clear that her revenge will always come even when she finds herself in peril — of which there’s plenty, and some of it rather nasty.

That all said, for what is avowedly exploitation filmmaking, it leaves less of a nasty aftertaste than something like the recent Kick-Ass 2. There’s also a lot more interest to the moral quandaries that the characters deal with, especially in the dynamic between Foxy and her brother, even if ultimately there are some strong elements of stereotyping. Yet the trump card of Foxy Brown, moreso even than many other films in this genre, is the propulsive brass-led soundtrack from Willy Hutch. When it drops in — as it does periodically, breaking up some longueurs — so many other caveats and complaints can more easily be forgotten. Foxy Brown may not be a classic, but it certainly has its pleasures.

Foxy Brown film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jack Hill; Cinematographer Brick Marquard; Starring Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Thursday 5 September 2013.

Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live, 1962)

“God knows where He leads us but we know not the path of our journey.”
“Deliverance?”
“Death.”

— Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

After he’d got his start in feature filmmaking with À bout de souffle at the age of around 30, Godard maintained a prodigious output, through all his many phases. This film, known variously in the English-language world as My Life to Live or It’s My Life, came just a couple of years after his debut but already he’d made two features and a short film, and his 1960s output would be sustained at two or even three features a year thereafter.

Formally — and, as flagged in its very title, it is very much concerned with form — Vivre sa vie is a provocation. The structure is 12 chapters (“douze tableaux”) which are each set out with an intertitle featuring, as in a screenplay, a description of the setting, but also a laconic précis of what will happen. If this strategy means to flag the film up as a constructed work of fiction, then the viewer is left in no doubt by the distancing tactics in the first scene proper, which presents a conversation between the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) and her husband Paul from the backs of their heads (first hers then, at length, his). It’s a bold aesthetic choice, which is carried through to the rest of the film (and shows up increasingly in Godard’s later films), though it happens we’ve already seen Karina’s face, first in profile, then head on, and then profile from the other direction, beneath the opening credits. It’s a hint that whatever else the film might deal with, it’s above all interested in Karina — yes, at some level with her character Nana, but also Karina as both an actress and as a wife.

Karina was Godard’s first wife and their marriage was quite recent when the film was being made. Indeed, with such a tireless work ethic, it’s no surprise perhaps that the feelings and issues Godard was dealing with in real life should have suffused the films he made. If certain aspects of his use of Karina do not reflect well on his opinion of her — she is one of the first of his central characters to play a prostitute, and far from the last — there’s still plenty of self-criticism too. The men in her life are ineffectual and treat her with barely-suppressed contempt: the final sequence is shocking as much for the off-handedness with which it unfolds as for its outcome. Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard hold Karina at the heart of the film and if the narrative keeps the film at a studied distance from the audience, the camera certainly doesn’t do likewise for Nana. She rarely gets the chance to escape the camera’s gaze, in fact — the camera loves her, or at the very least is fascinated by her. In this, she is like Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Dreyer’s great silent film about Joan of Arc shot in disorienting close-up, which Nana goes to watch in a cinema. At the same time, she is in a sense trapped (as a character into prostitution, as an actor by the camera) — during the sixth ‘chapter’, shortly after falling into prostitution, Karina/Nana looks directly at the camera with a haunted look. Like Joan, Nana is a doomed icon, filmed in evanescent black-and-white.

Nana’s move into prostitution is never precisely explained — she asks several people early in the film if she can borrow 2000 francs, she is seen running from her landlords, and speaks of getting work as an actress — but ultimately the prostitution theme seems more a part of Godard’s interest in commodification. The quotations he uses and the narrative influences he takes (Brecht is only the most prominent in this film) just foreshadow his later decisive move into overtly political filmmaking (his late-60s and 70s work engages with a Marxist-Leninist dialectic). It’s all part of the society Godard is analysing, where Nana becomes a chattel traded amongst men just like the records she’s seen selling early on in the film. Her status as object is in some ways not just a thematic concern but is integrated into the very formal and visual strategies the film adopts, not just the Brechtian distancing of the chapter headings, but also Godard’s prominent frontal staging and lateral tracking shots as well as, most notably, his insistence on lighting scenes so as to minimise depth of field — all strategies that would be extended over the decade and can still be perceived, ever more distilled, in Tout va bien ten years later.

Quite aside from these formal and thematic concerns, I think the film stands as a wonderful piece of cinema, with Karina’s gaze having since become an iconic image of the French nouvelle vague. There’s still a freshness and enthusiasm to the performances that belies the very rigid ways in which the camera moves, though even here Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinematography has never been more beautiful. For me, in many ways, Vivre sa vie stands as the film in which the formal concerns that would come to dominate Godard’s later period are merged most easily with his pulp influences to produce a film that remains a wonderfully invigorating piece of cinema that stands up 50 years later.

Next Up: For me, Godard’s most formally ambitious film of his early phase is Le Mépris (1963), a reflection on the nature of filmmaking itself, featuring international stars and a spectacular use of widescreen colour compositions, but retaining an appropriately Olympian detachment that makes it difficult to love wholeheartedly.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013).

Like Someone in Love (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami | Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima | Starring Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryō Kase | Length 110 minutes | Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 25 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Sundance Selects

Lately, I seem to walk as though I had wings
Bump into things like someone in love

The title of this film comes from an old jazz standard. If it’s a hint as to why the characters in the film act the way they do, it’s no more than just a hint. I’d call this latest film by Iranian director/auteur Abbas Kiarostami inscrutable if it weren’t for the overtones of orientalist cliché in such a term, yet surely few modern directors have crafted an oeuvre of such opacity as Kiarostami. Perhaps then this move to Japan for the setting of his latest film isn’t so far-fetched, though I can’t honestly pretend to any great fluency with either Iranian or Japanese culture; I sometimes feel lost dealing with etiquette and mores even in my own corner of the world.

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