The Receptionist (aka 接線員 Jiexianyuan, 2016)

Economics and demography mean that Asian-American cinema rather dominates the Asian diaspora experience on the cinema screen, but there are stories from around the world that deal with similar themes. One such is this smallscale British-Taiwanese co-production set in London, about a young woman with few means trying to get a foothold on employment in a strange city.


This is yet another recent film which deals with the precariat, young people who can barely subsist, have difficulty finding work and are often expected to take on unpaid labour — the situation in which our Taiwanese-born protagonist Tina (Teresa Daley) finds herself at the outset. We see her encouraged to intern to bolster her CV by an unhelpful agency, whose agent also dolefully jokes about possibly losing his job. She has a degree, speaks English very well, and is presentable and professional in interviews, yet all she can get is work as a receptionist at an unlicensed brothel in the London suburbs (as an aside, it looks like Barking or Romford to me).

The film has a taut running time and effectively conveys a sense of claustrophobia, as much of the film unfolds in either this suburban terraced house with its ageing decor, or Tina and her (frankly horrible, although also likely depressed) English boyfriend’s tiny, drab flat. At one level, Tina’s work in the brothel is just a job, really, even if it’s one that puts her in rather closer touch with violence and exploitation than most jobs (much of that is due to her workplace’s illegal status, I daresay). Indeed there are repeated references to death (worms dying when out of the ground is a repeated metaphor, and one of the plotlines literalises it), hinting at the lives of these immigrant women, who are all just trying to keep their heads above water in an expensive foreign country.

It’s an interesting film, and a different viewpoint on life in London (in that respect, I am reminded of Gholam, another such London-set story), that largely stays away from the tourist views and, even given the sex work setting, is likely to be redolent of many young workers’ experiences (especially those of women, and particularly women of colour, in the service industry).

The Receptionist film posterCREDITS
Director Jenny Lu 盧謹明; Writers Lu and Yi-Wen Yeh 葉宜文; Cinematographer Gareth Munden; Starring Teresa Daley 紀培慧; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 24 July 2018.

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Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002)

Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).


This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.

Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)

These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.

Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”

Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye

Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye”

Baara (aka Work, 1978)

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato had a strand of films honouring the Ivoirian-based Pan-African film festival FESPACO, and Baara was the grand prize winner at the 6th festival in 1979. Sadly — perhaps to nobody more than the director himself, who expressed as much in a post-film Q&A — there are no good prints left of this film in circulation, though I’ve certainly seen worse than this one, which shows its age with a reddish tint to the colours. One can only hope that this film gets the proper restoration it so very much deserves.


This powerful film sets a mortal struggle against the background of trade unionisation of a corrupt workplace. It features three levels of worker: the humble porter Balla (Baba Niare); the namesake man who comes to be his manager at a factory (Bubukar Keita, who points out that his family, the Traoré, traditionally kept slaves of porter Balla’s one); and the boss of the factory (Balla Moussa Keita), who lives in a villa with an unfaithful wife (Omou Koné). There’s an attentiveness to the politics of work, and to the distinctions of class within this society, as well as little flashes of a more idyllic village life that our hero hopes for, contrasted with the uncaring treatment of undocumented workers by the police in the city.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Souleymane Cissé; Cinematographers Étienne Carton de Grammont and Abdoulaye Sidibé; Starring Baba Niare, Bubukar Keita, Balla Moussa Keita, Omou Koné; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

La camarista (The Chambermaid, 2018)

I wrote about this Mexican film, which I saw at last year’s London Film Festival, in my round-up of my favourite LFF films, and it also made #13 in my favourite films of 2018. Now it’s getting a proper cinematic release in the UK, so if you haven’t seen it, please do.


At the level of plot, almost nothing really happens in this film — a young woman called Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works as a hotel cleaner, and moves around its spaces almost anonymously. Guests ignore her, and those who do seek her help and show appreciation — like a rich Argentinean woman who asks Eve to look after her baby for a few minutes while she’s in the shower, then proceeds to offer her lucrative work in Buenos Aires — disappear from her life with ease. She joins a work educational scheme that is summarily cancelled by the union. At length, she shares a few laughs with co-workers, but even they let her down in the end. Yet while in content it could be grim and unrelenting, it’s really not — and a lot of that is down to the central performance. Eve just wants to be noticed and appreciated, it seems, but she’s enigmatic and reserved, and if it weren’t for the lead actor, maybe even we wouldn’t notice her. It’s a compelling character study, and a fine debut feature.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Lila Avilés; Writers Avilés and Juan Carlos Marquéz; Cinematographer Carlos Rossini; Starring Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 194: Il posto (1961)

I certainly didn’t expect a great deal from this film when I watched it, the first Olmi film I’d seen, expecting some kind of 60s extension of the neorealism ‘brand’. However, that would be to woefully undersell this beautifully shot and exquisitely judged film about young people. And unlike many in that ‘coming of age’ genre, this isn’t (just) about falling in love, it’s about having to move from school into the workplace, about moving away from home, it’s about navigating a world of responsibility that wears you down and faces you as a possibly bleak, possibly boring, possibly unceasingly repetitive and yet ever uncertain future. Plus, the beautiful young woman who plays our hero Domenico’s inamorata turns out to have married director Ermanno Olmi, and apparently they’re still together, so maybe that’s enough to allay any concerns about what happens to the protagonist as he looks forward in life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ermanno Olmi; Writers Ettore Lombardo and Olmi; Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi; Starring Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018.

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.

Suffragette film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Gavron; Writer Abi Morgan; Cinematographer Edu Grau; Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015.

The Intern (2015)

Having just written about Miss You Already, another recent directed-by-a-woman comedy/drama, and criticising its somewhat patchy use of musical cues, along comes this fluffily inoffensive new Nancy Meyers comedy and oh boy, what was I even talking about yesterday? To be fair, like Anne Hathaway’s little indie romance Song One, if I’d seen this film on a plane or on TV when I was feeling ill, then I’d undoubtedly be giving it an easier ride. It’s perfect for those occasions. But in a cinema with a crowd of other chattering (perhaps somewhat cynical) attendees, it has its difficult stretches, and most of those for me revolve around the treacly orchestral score that kicks in whenever something meaningful or emotional is happening, generally in the last third. However, if you can get past that, the precociously annoying kid and the rather overextended later stretch that deals with romantic infidelity, there’s still enough to make it passably entertaining. There are some good jokes as the film is setting up its premise, that 70-year-old Ben (Robert De Niro) has applied for a ‘senior intern’ position within Jules (Hathaway)’s internet fashion company, and has to fit in with clued-up tech-savvy youngsters. A lot of that revolves around familiar age-vs-experience clashes, but Ben is also called on to show his sensitive side quite a lot, so your tolerance for De Niro’s mugging for the camera will be tested — though luckily he’s largely pretty good at it, and inoffensive, which is this movie’s watchword. But I love Anne Hathaway, and am always happy to watch her; she has an easy on-screen charisma. So despite all that manipulative music, despite her “adorable” daughter and the fact that everyone seems to live in homes that look like boutique hotel fashion plates, despite the fact that the company (for all its financial success) never in the end actually seems to pay any of their interns a salary — perhaps a sly commentary on the modern workplace — I still didn’t leave hating this movie. Your mileage may vary.

The Intern film poster CREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 28 September 2015.

Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014)

It’s over 25 years now that the Dardenne brothers have been making feature films, longer still documentaries, and I think it’s become obvious now that these two filmmaking modes have blended together somewhat in their output. There’s a fastidious, almost real-time focus on the ways events unfold in people’s lives, of the cascading impact of sometimes small events on a wide circle of people within a community (a family, a company, a town). So in many respects this latest film of theirs won’t seem a surprise or a departure for those who’ve already immersed themselves in their fictions, but it’s every bit as well-crafted as the others and packs a resonant emotional charge in this time of downsized jobs and recession-era austerity.

At the film’s heart is Marion Cotillard as Sandra, hair pulled back and moving as intently and constantly as Rosetta did in their 1999 breakthrough film of that name. Sandra has been away from work for an unspecified period, battling depression, but now returns to find she no longer has a job: it’s been bartered away by her managers in exchange for a one-off bonus payment to the rest of the staff. It quickly becomes evident in conversation with one of her few friends left at the company, that in order to save her job she must contact each of these employees and ask them to vote against their bonuses. This, then, is the form the film takes: a series of encounters with her co-workers over a weekend, broken up by occasional time at home with her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and children.

It’s an unenviable position, not particularly helped by the apparent lack of any unionisation at her workplace. The manipulative games of her (mostly unseen) line manager Jean-Marc seem to thwart her at every turn, as every positive gain seems to be countered by some hidden aggression. But it’s a film which paints a small-town world of people struggling to make ends meet that manages to avoid demonising any of them, her manager (and a co-worker’s abusive husband) aside: they each have their reasons, and it’s difficult even for Sandra to always reason against them.

Still, it gives her squeezed-middle-class character an insight into the lives of her co-workers and us an idea of the character of her community. The struggle on which she is embarked also seems, in an odd way, to pull her through the vestiges of her depression, which understandably flares up from time to time. Cotillard is in fine form, as are the Dardennes, and there’s a compassion at the film’s heart that makes some of its repetitiveness (necessitated somewhat by its structure) easier to take, with her final decision both heartbreaking and yet poignantly filled with hope.

Two Days, One Night film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; Cinematographer Alain Marcoen; Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 14 September 2014.