Passe ton bac d’abord (aka Graduate First, 1978)

Not all my favourite films of the year are new films, and I’m always discovering films from the past to love. The BFI ran a small season dedicated to French post-New Wave director Maurice Pialat, and this 1978 piece — a follow-up of sorts to his L’enfance nue of 10 years earlier — was one that I managed to catch on the big screen, though all his films that I’ve seen have had much to commend them.


The title suggests the (sadly rather well-worn) genre of ‘old man director wags his finger at the teens for not applying themselves’ and I suppose there would be something to that. After all, it’s about a bunch of late-teenage kids studying for their university entrance exams, who seem largely less than interested in such high-minded educational application and — as teens are in movies everywhere — more interested in making out with one another, or smoking, or just hanging out. Some of them have jobs (not great jobs), some of them have dreams and plans, some just settle down because there’s little else to do and very few options in their small French town. I’d say what elevates it above run-of-the-mill coming-of-age exploitation is the sensitivity with which these situations are played out, and (title aside) the general lack of judgement that seems to be passed here. Everyone is played naturalistically and there’s no forced narrative that pushes everyone into particular places. Indeed it feels like it evolves in an almost documentary manner, in a way that’s both true to the characters and ultimately satisfying, though without tying everything up neatly.

Passe ton bac d'abord film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maurice Pialat; Cinematographers Pierre-William Glenn and Jean-Paul Janssen; Starring Sabine Haudepin, Philippe Marlaud; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 10 November 2019.

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed But Found Wanting, 1974)

An early feature film from Lino Brocka, who would go on to direct some of the Philippines’ best-known films Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976). He grapples here with society’s hypocrisy and maltreatment of those who are the most vulnerable. If his compassionate conclusion is specifically rooted in Christianity, nevertheless it’s a feeling that speaks to many societies, and one can only hope it someday receives proper restoration (like those other films, which are on the Criterion Collection).


There’s something in this film that reminds me a little of classic melodramas (for example, from the golden age of Mexican cinema), possibly because of its characters, who conform to certain types found in these films. The style is also quite simple (not simplistic) yet expressive in the way it presents the moral quandaries for the central characters, who are the young man Junior (Christopher de Leon) and the town outcast Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), who is treated abysmally by the people of the village for her perceived simplicity. Junior initially is part of mobs of braying fiends, pushing her and the town’s leper (Mario O’Hara), by virtue of necessity, into one another’s arms, but eventually Junior reassesses his life’s choices and finds sympathy for the outcasts. It’s no surprise that in such a Catholic country, and with the film set in a deeply Catholic village, that this choice should be framed so explicitly in terms of Christ, and the final scene makes this symbolism fairly clear. It’s a film with a great depth of religious feeling and the compassion rooted in that, while keen to expose the hypocrisies of those, and made at the time it was, it’s difficult too to avoid linking this to the Marcos regime. The DVD I saw had the best available print, but you get the real sense of the lack of funds in the Philippines for film restoration and preservation — the first few scenes are shockingly poorly preserved, though the bulk of the film looks fine — which is a real shame, given the quality of so many filmmakers in this country.

Weighed But Found Wanting film posterCREDITS
Director Lino Brocka; Writers Brocka and Mario O’Hara; Cinematographer Jose Batac; Starring Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 5 June 2019.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.

Continue reading “Two Experimental Documentaries by Black American Filmmakers: still/here (2001) and Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)”

Films by Kevin Jerome Everson

Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.

Continue reading “Films by Kevin Jerome Everson”

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 Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)

My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)”

LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)”

In the Family (2011)

The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.


I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.

Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).

There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.

In the Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Columbus (2017)

One of the more interesting releases at the end of this week in the UK is The Farewell, a new film directed by Lulu Wang about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China to deal with the death of her elderly grandmother. Therefore I’m inaugurating a week focusing on what I’m going to call Asian diaspora filmmaking (mostly, to be fair, from the United States).

I should clarify what I mean here, because it’s fairly common for films to feature characters in (often glamorous) overseas settings. For example, the Chinese film Finding Mr Right 2 (2016) is set in Macau and Los Angeles, while Bollywood film Shaandaar (2015) is set amongst the posh country homes of the UK. However, while these were made within their local film industry, there have always been filmmakers in the US and UK with Asian ancestry or who have relocated to the West to make their films, stretching back even to silent cinema (Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon from 1917 is a recently-unearthed, if sadly incomplete, example).

There’s been quite a proliferation of Asian-American films in recent decades, and while tentpole films like the recent Crazy Rich Asians or, earlier, The Joy Luck Club (1993) are often mentioned, it’s been in smaller scale indie filmmaking that the presence has been most felt. On this blog I’ve already reviewed the thoroughly delightful Saving Grace (2004), the sci-fi film Advantageous (2015) and the Indian-American documentary Meet the Patels (2014), but there have been many other interesting genre exercises that I hope to feature in the upcoming week. One such was by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada, who made a name for himself with little cinephile short films about his favourite auteurs, but his own work turns out to have its very own delights.


I can’t pretend this film doesn’t hit exactly the kind of tone and style that I love in cinema, and obviously it turns out it’s directed by a man who has studied (and made short films about) all the great auteurs, so I’m sure he’s out there just as pointedly referencing Bresson and Ozu and Antonioni when he’s making the film as anyone watching it (like me) is reading into it. Which all retrospectively makes me suspect some of the craft a little — as if it’s just too carefully controlled, just too preciously wrought. I’ve never seen a film that features architecture so heavily (Antonioni, or La Sapienza perhaps) that’s not a little bit about alienation, about people not connecting with one another, broken families and the like, so at a certain level it’s hardly breaking new ground. But John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson have proper screen charisma — without any confectedly creepy relationship drama — and, as I said, I love the openness and space of the framing, and the deployment of quietness (along with the occlusion of sound at times, or the use of untranslated foreign language). I’ve been watching quite a few Ozu films recently; I suspect Kogonado may have been, too.

Columbus film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다; Cinematographer Elisha Christian; Starring John Cho 조요한, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 October 2018.