LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

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LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

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Bran Nue Dae (2009)

A friend suggested my recent Australian cinema week was lacking in bright and cheerful musicals, and short of re-watching something by Baz Luhrmann, this musical from ten years ago fits the bill rather nicely, and also focuses on Aboriginal communities.


This isn’t a perfect film: it has an underlying cheesiness to it, a sort of sentimental cheerfulness that sometimes seems at odds with its story, and yet it’s at heart delightful and criticising it would feel wilfully cynical. The film is based on a stage musical, though it certainly doesn’t hide that — and the way characters will break into song and choreographed dance is one of the pleasures of the form, after all. It presents Aboriginal Australian lives in the late-60s in what feels like an ahistorical way, but it also doesn’t hide some of the unfairness of the way they’re treated as a group: it just couches this in a gaudily-coloured musical ensemble treatment. This is a film about characters who have all the same generic desires as American teenagers in films made 10 years or more before this one is set (the concession to the late-60s moment is a VW van driven by two hippies, although the young man’s German accent is surely one of the worst in recent memory), but set in the Australian outback. There are times when the forced cheerfulness feels so positively sugary that I felt a bit queasy, but I can’t fault its heart and the colourful staging by director Rachel Perkins and DoP Andrew Lesnie.

Bran Nue Dae film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Reg Cribb and Perkins (based on the musical by Jimmy Chi); Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Starring Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 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.

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.

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Only You (2018)

Josh O’Connor already starred in probably the most celebrated British romantic drama of 2017, God’s Own Country, but whether playing gay or straight it turns out he seems to be suited to difficult, bruising romances far better than the light and fluffy kinds which are released on Netflix every other week. This film, directed by a woman (don’t be confused by her name), is built around pregnancy just like in, say, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), but takes a somewhat different approach.


This is a very romantic film, distilled down to something very elemental; you could call it a two-hankie weepie even. Jake (Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa, who was in Victoria) are two young people (though she’s a little older than he is) who meet cute in Glasgow. Neither of them are Scottish (he’s English, she’s Spanish), and it becomes clear that this is set before Brexit as the film progresses, otherwise her resistance to marriage might seem somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, they hit it off and pretty soon there’s a sex scene where he suggests having a baby, which feels like a stretch to assume after such a short time that she’d want to conceive, but pretty soon that becomes an obsession for her, and thereafter everything starts to unravel. There’s coordinating their sex with her fertility cycles, then the IVF and the injections (which all entails money), and the constant pregnancy tests followed by crying jags in the bathroom, and their strained relationship as a result of all this. We talk a lot in our current culture about “toxic masculinity” — that set of codes that defines and limits how men are supposed to act in the world — but this film seems to be about whatever women’s equivalent to that is: a slightly insidious idea that to be doing womanhood correctly you need to have a baby (which even if you’re only thinking about cis womanhood, is deeply problematic). And so Elena gets the little nags from those around her, finding that all her friends are starting to have kids, and she starts to feel excluded from gatherings and become desperate to be part of the in-group. It should really be a lot more painful a film than it is (and I don’t doubt it will be to some people), but the director manages to get her actors to find the humanity and the warmth underneath all this, so that it’s never quite as bleak as it could be.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Harry Wootliff; Writers Wootliff and Matthieu de Braconier; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Laia Costa, Josh O’Connor; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 July 2019.

Tell It to the Bees (2018)

British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.


If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.

CREDITS
Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.

Been So Long (2018)

There are an increasing number of women directing films in all genres within British cinema, which are getting ever wider releases across the country, and indeed at the end of this week (30 August) there appear to be three British films directed by women getting a cinematic release. Been So Long was made for Netflix (albeit premiered at the London Film Festival last year), who have a quite different model of film distribution, gaining in popularity — though the nature of Netflix’s business means they don’t release the viewer numbers on its films. The musical is a somewhat less travelled genre in British filmmaking, and it’s unlikely that this film will change that, but it’s an interesting exercise all the same.


In many ways this does seem like a good fit for Netflix: it is filled with big, brashly enjoyable performances by actors who manage to command the screen and make everything seem sweet, even as their characters are doing utterly idiotic things that beggar belief. Even George MacKay manages to make likeable a tangential character (a street drinker with some borderline mental health issues that manifest in misplaced aggression) who could easily be excised from the film altogether. I mean, if you like musicals then you know that a bit of heightened emotion expressed via song, choreographed dance and carefully-chosen colour palettes can paper over a myriad of contrivances at a plot level — whether it’s overly knowing and precocious child actors, love stories that take strange turns in kebab shops, interracial hook-ups on buses and park benches, and inexplicably popular estate pubs. But whatever else happens, there are those actors, all of whom are so very likeable — and seem so grounded in identifiably London types — that I’m inclined to forgive everything.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Tinge Krishnan; Writer Ché Walker (based on his musical and play); Cinematographer Catherine Derry; Starring Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene, George MacKay; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Monday 15 October 2018.

Rafiki (2018)

My week of African cinema has covered many different countries, touching on issues of post-colonialist political transition, civil war, religious divides and the like. However, increasingly filmmakers are grappling with social issues that have been undervalued across a largely conservative continent. The issue of LGBTQ rights comes up in this recent film from Kenya, which amongst other things was notable for being (at least briefly) banned in the country.


A charming, brightly coloured, energetic film set in Kenya about two young women falling in love, and their lives growing up in a suburb of Nairobi, with parents each running for political office and a general sense of neighbourhood gossip. It hits a lot of points that are maybe somewhat familiar, but in a setting and featuring characters who very much aren’t (at least, not in the cinema most of us get to see in the UK). It’s not that it finds a new message, but it’s an enduring one all the same, and the story it tells is told very well, with a glossy sheen and easy performances from all the leads that belies its presumably low budget origins.

Rafiki film posterCREDITS
Director Wanuri Kahiu; Writers Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass (inspired by the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko); Cinematographer Christopher Wessels; Starring Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

사랑방 손님과 어머니 Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni (My Mother and Her Guest aka The Houseguest and My Mother, 1961)

I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).


A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.