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).

大俠梅花鹿 Da Xia Mei Hua Lu (The Fantasy of Deer Warrior, 1961)

Can anyone truly call themselves a lover of the seventh art, that play of light and movement over time resulting in motion pictures, if they haven’t seen a bunch of adults dressed in animal onesies enacting a story of primal passion in the wooded hills of Taiwan? You’d imagine this might be a kids’ film except for its life and death themes, as Miss Deer must ward off the untoward attentions of an Elk and a Wolf, goaded on by the spectacularly bespectacled Foxy, the latter two characters at one point grooving on down to a kitschy version of ‘Tequila’ in the forest. It is hardly a perfect film by any means, but you may find there’s enough to justify watching it — albeit at the danger of provoking a strange attraction towards a woman dressed as a fox, or a man dressed as a deer.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ying Chang 張英; Writer Chi-Cheng Chao 趙之誠; Cinematographer Hsing-Yi Li 李興義; Starring Yun Ling 凌雲, Hung Pai 白虹, Lin Lin 林琳; Length 87 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

楊貴妃 Yokihi (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, 1955)

A brief theme week not tied into any particular release coming up, though the London Film Festival starts on Wednesday 2 October and it always features a trove of world cinema. No, after my recent theme week on Asian diaspora cinema, I wanted to refocus on cinematic visions of China, some of which have been made by expatriate Chinese directors, most of which are made by other countries, and some which are perhaps specifically resistant to Chinese influence in the region — from or about contested territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong.


A late colour film by Mizoguchi, based in Chinese history, which deals with court intrigues involving the lowly lady of the title raised to chief consort of the Emperor, whose family are then inducted into government, provoking the ire of the people and a tragic ending for all concerned. The camera glides beautifully throughout these palatial rooms, strikingly picked out in shades of red, as Machiko Kyo does subtle work as a beautiful woman sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of the men around her. It may not be esteemed among Mizoguchi’s best, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Ching Doe 陶秦, Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎, Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 and Masashige Narusawa 成沢昌茂; Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama 杉山公平; Starring Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, So Yamamura 山村聰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

빈집 Bin-jip (3-Iron, 2004)

Following up on my Korean week, I return to one of the most lauded of recent works from that country, by prolific filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. It finds an almost spiritual register to deal with themes of dislocation and abuse, while also running at under 90 minutes.


I’m not quite sure how to feel about this film, but one thing I think is clear is that it lays out a space somewhere to the side of reality — maybe one that’s surreal, maybe one that’s imaginary or rather I should say mythical (there’s certainly a sort of folkloric undertow to the whole concept). At the heart of the story is a wife (Lee Seung-yeon) abused by her husband who tries to run away from him, and the attachment she forms to an itinerant young man (Jae Hee), neither of whom speaks (the wife or the man). He moves from home to home on a motorcycle, posting flyers over their locks so as to identify which aren’t being occupied when he returns later, and who then breaks into the homes to spend the night and eat their food, while mending broken items and doing the washing. At this point, it seems fairly clear — for such people don’t really exist except in stories like this — that he’s somehow other-worldly, though I suppose I could just as easily label him a plot device. The point is, there’s something magical about his presence, which allows the wife to hope for a better future even as she finds herself stuck with this horrible man she’s married to, and the dynamic between the three of them makes the ending rather a melancholy one, even as it is lift up by the promise of love, however spectral it might be. The lack of dialogue between the leads means the film never quite has to explain itself in so many words, leaving it an enigma, like these characters.

3-Iron film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kim Ki-duk 김기덕; Cinematographer Jang Seong-back 장성백; Starring Jae Hee 재희, Lee Seung-yeon 이승연; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 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.

Two 2017 Brazilian Films Between Documentary and Fiction: Pendular and Baronesa

One of the most noticeable trends in cinema, of the last decade in particular, has been films which intentionally blur the lines between documentary and fiction, interrogating the ways in which we approach filmed media and the values we place on what we see onscreen. Women filmmakers like Alma Har’el in LoveTrue (2016), and women from South and Central America such as in some recent Mexican films, seem to have taken up this hybrid filmmaking with particular success, not least in these Brazilian examples.


Pendular (2017) [Brazil/Argentina/France]

I rather liked this film about a relationship between two artists, as largely expressed through space and movement. Certainly they never quite seem very comfortable with one another, but he has an enormous warehouse loft and at the outset they demarcate each others’ space. This soon becomes a line of contention and tension, as she does her dance work while he engineers enormous sculptural pieces which rely on suspension and balance — another metaphor for their relationship, of course. Oh and there are some rather intimate sex scenes between them, which have a natural feel, and extend the sense of two people who are alternately pulled together and keep each other apart.

Pendular film posterCREDITS
Director Júlia Murat; Writers Murat and Matias Martini; Cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez; Starring Raquel Karro, Rodrigo Bolzan; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 11 March 2019.


Baronesa (2017)

This is a curious film, which deals with people from an impoverished background living in a favela in Belo Horizonte (familiar territory perhaps for a number of filmmakers), but while it comes across very much in the style of a documentary, it does appear to be a fiction film. If so, the actors and director manage to strike an incredibly accurate, naturalistic tone — women hanging out, discussing their partners, touching on sex, alternately laughing and, at one point, running from gunshots. It all feels very unforced, and scarcely exceeds one’s attention at a concise 70 minutes. I notice some reviews namechecking Pedro Costa, which seems odd (perhaps they are reviewing the poster image), given that this seems to bear little relationship to his work. It feels very much like its own thing, another of many recent entries that blur the lines between drama and documentation.

Baronesa film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Juliana Antunes; Cinematographer Fernanda de Sena; Starring Andreia Pereira de Sousa; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 2 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

Continue reading “Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)”

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)


This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.

* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.

My Brilliant Career film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.

The Souvenir (2019)

The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.


If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.

In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.

It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed  from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.

* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.

The Souvenir film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.