海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

团鱼岩 Tuan Yu Yan (Turtle Rock, 2017)

There are no shortage of challenging documentaries about Chinese history (such as last year’s Dead Souls), many of which get a little bit too political for the Chinese state. However, films like Turtle Rock take a less overtly political viewpoint in tracking the rhythms of life in a small Chinese village. (NB Although the main credited director, Xiao Xiao, is a man, the co-director/producer is a woman, Lin Lin, hence my use of the ‘directed by a woman’ tag and inclusion on related lists.)


There’s such an enormous range of documentaries in the world, it’s ridiculous to put this in even the same category as something you might find hyped on Netflix. In its textures and its setting, this is far closer to a filmmaker like Lav Diaz — it is, after all, very much in the vein of ‘slow cinema’, with long tracking shots in lush black-and-white, with very little in the way of narrative to drive it. That said, it’s not boring: it presents this small mountainous village (where the director grew up), the rhythms of daily life and ritual, the gossip amongst the inhabitants, and little vignettes of their existence. Bamboo cropping early on provides the indelible sight of these enormously long stalks being carried precariously by a man and woman to a truck in the background, but the film manages to find wonderful images throughout, whether misty vistas or close-ups on pets, looming haggard faces crunching through nuts, or a woman chopping up garlic and chillis while haranguing an unseen neighbour about his poor tiling skills. It tends to avoid any overt political commentary aside from the postscript that this community had been formed many generations ago by those escaping mid-20th century war, and one imagines there have been many hardships over the intervening years, but people in the film seem to be getting along just fine without much of the modern world.

Turtle Rock film posterCREDITS
Directors Xiao Xiao 蕭瀟 and Lin Lin 林林; Cinematographer Xiao; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 21 January 2019.

Sátántangó (1994)

Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.


I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.

Sátántangó film posterCREDITS
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.

LFF 2019 Day Ten: The Juniper Tree (1990) and Clemency (2019)

My two films for the third-to-last day of the London Film Festival were two dramas touching on murder, both made by American directors, although quite different in many other ways. After all, one is a Mediæval-set Icelandic folk tale based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale (i.e. the proper weird old-world stuff), and the other is set at a Death Row facility in the States, but in both settings the characters follow their own twisted logic to its murderous conclusions.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Ten: The Juniper Tree (1990) and Clemency (2019)”

سه رخ Se rokh (Three Faces, 2018)

This work by Jafar Panahi seems to be, quite clearly, an homage to Abbas Kiarostami. Just the way that much of the film is a picaresque drive around this rural countryside (where most of the population speak Azeri, rather than Farsi) brings to mind so many of Kiarostami’s films: the woman lying in her grave and the dusty hillside harks back to Taste of Cherry (1997), the detail of a man searching for mobile phone reception to The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the homes and customs of rural people seen in the Koker trilogy, and the way (so typical of Kiarostami) that sometimes a crucial moment can only be seen in extreme long-shot, so we as audience have to fill in the gaps. All of these touches are there, and all are handled very nicely by Panahi’s camera, which follows him and actor Behnaz Jafari as they look for a young woman (Marziyeh Rezaei) who feels trapped by her small-town life and wants to be an actor. There’s an understated humour, and a lot of sly commentary on women’s rights in a more traditional society, as well as what has come to define Panahi’s recent work, which is a sort of meta-level at which it operates (it is filmed like a documentary, yet when Jafari is suspicious of the incident that sets up their journey, she alludes to a script that Panahi had shown her with the same story, implying that perhaps she is unwittingly acting in one of his films, just before he takes a call from his mother and assures her he isn’t off making a film). This is a very likeable work that, even as an homage, has plenty of its own distinct charms.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Jafar Panahi جعفر پناهی; Writers Panahi and Nader Saeivar نادر ساعی‌ور; Cinematographer Amin Jafari امین جعفری; Starring Behnaz Jafari بهناز جعفری, Jafar Panahi جعفر پناهی, Marziyeh Rezaei مرضیه رضایی; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 4 April 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)

Day three of the #LFF brings two films from the ‘Laugh’ strand of the programme, one each from South Korea and Morocco, which go about their comedy beats in different ways, but both raise wry smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)”

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.

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.

Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, 2018)

I have been doing a week of South American cinema building up to the release in UK cinemas today of the Argentinian epic La flor (2018), so I am finishing the week off with a review of a recent Chilean film (albeit with financing from around the continent, including Argentina). I saw this film at last year’s London Film Festival, and it featured high in my favourite films of 2018. It was given a UK cinematic release in 2019 and I got to see it again, and still very much liked it.


There’s a sense in which this film reminded me of the previous year’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017), being a Spanish language film about young women set in the 1990s in a verdant forest setting at the edge of civilisation, but beyond that I should probably accept they are doing quite different things. For a start, the protagonists of this film are largely older (there’s one young girl, Clara, who I interpreted as the director’s surrogate) but this mostly focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her relationship with various boys (and her dad) in the small commune they live in just outside Santiago. It never feels so much driven by a plot as by a need to represent all the different people within the community, and with great economy show how they feel about one another, and it’s Sofia and Lucas (Antar Machado) who become the film’s focus — though never to the exclusion of others.

That may all make it less immediately accessible than Summer 1993, but it’s somehow even more beautiful and poetic in the way that it conjures an era, never heavy-handed in the way it layers on these meanings — there aren’t even any on-screen titles suggesting when it’s set, given away just by the absence of electronics, the older models of car, some of the clothes (though the fashion wasn’t emphasised), the toys, and the music choices (a piece of music by Mazzy Star — in a particularly beautifully-shot scene in a bathtub — suddenly took me back 25 years, and I suppose that was precisely the point). It’s about a time in history when Chile was emerging from a period of dictatorship, but it’s also about the director’s childhood, and it’s about growing through that turbulence and into yourself as a person. Also, there’s also rarely a scene without a dog in it, who become almost as important to the community as some of the adults (at least to the kids, who have pretty conflicted feelings about their parents).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dominga Sotomayor; Cinematographer Inti Briones; Starring Demian Hernández, Antar Machado; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 14 October 2018 (and most recently at ICA, London, Saturday 1 June 2019).

Dee sitonu a weti (Stones Have Laws, 2018)

I’ve already touched on cinematic hybridity — that blend between documentary and fictional modes of storytelling — a number of times, most recently with reference to some Brazilian films such as Baronesa (2017). This is extended by two Dutch filmmakers working in Suriname with a community of former slaves, crafting a work of visual beauty and also imbued with a sense of poetic storytelling, as part of a creative process involving the entire community.


There’s a certain type of film that London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts presents — and if you live in a large city, maybe you too have some kind of modern arts space with galleries, musical/performance venues, a bookshop heavy on theoretical texts and which has a cinema too. Anyway, there are films they show there that in my mind are simply filed away as “ICA films”, because where else would I see them? Last year’s The Nothing Factory was definitely one such film (and indeed the other output of production company Terratreme), the Frames of Representation festival, the Straub-Huillet season… I could go on. And now there’s this one: a Dutch film made in Suriname with (and about) a community descended originally from slaves, the Maroon people, which merges storytelling, documentary and staged theatre to tell a history, to depict a way of life, and to critique colonialism. It’s a very ICA film.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but I couldn’t quite tell you what happens. It has chapters, and a sort of free associative narrative quality, where it moves from various groups of people to others. Sometimes we see documentary-like scenes of nature — there are some sweepingly beautiful and impressive shots of the scenery — or of people making things or working. There are scenes where the inhabitants/actors stand and enunciate texts with all the studied grace of a Straub-Huillet film, and there’s even a bit of humorous self-critique whereby they discuss the Dutch filmmakers’ production terms and a distribution deal they’re not so happy about.

The film screened with a filmed introduction by the three directors (the two Dutch ones, and Tolin Alexander, a local Surinamese director) about the film and their process, and throughout this short featurette it is emphasised how Stones Have Laws was very much a collaborative artwork, whereby the text and the presentation was developed in consultation with the people who were not merely actors but also the very source for the material. It’s about being respectful to cultures who may not welcome the presence of outsiders, and it’s a fascinating work on several levels, and I think it’s a great example of the way that ethnographic concerns can work with its subjects to produce a sort of hybrid form.

Stones Have Laws film posterCREDITS
Directors Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan and Tolin Erwin Alexander; Writers collaborative with the cast; Cinematographers van Brummelen and de Haan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.