Global Cinema 13: Bahrain – Dead Sands (2013)

Bahrain is a small country, though it is a densely-populated one. Sadly, it hasn’t had much of a film industry so there aren’t many films to focus on for my regular feature. That is why I’ve gone to YouTube to find a student production, which has the weaknesses of that kind of output, but also, I think, has an energy to it that I rather like. It doesn’t look great, but it gives a little sense of what perhaps Bahrain is like to live in.

Kingdom of Bahrain (البحرين al-Bahrayn)
population 1,569,400 | capital Manama (411k) المنامة | largest cities Manama, Muharraq (177k), Riffa (111k), Hamad Town (57k), A’ali (51k) | area 780 km2 | religion Islam | official language Arabic (العربية) | major ethnicity Arab (51%), Asian (46%) | currency Bahraini Dinar (د.ب/BD) [BHD] | internet .bh

An flat, arid island nation in the Persian Gulf comprising an archipelago of around 40 islands (and some artificial ones), centred on the largest one, Bahrain Island. The name derives from the Arabic for “two seas”, though the island was originally called Awal and until the Middle Ages “Bahrain” referred to larger area of Eastern Arabia (including Kuwait and southern Iraq); the name was also often anglicised as Bahrein until the mid-20th century. It was first settled as the trade centre Dilmun from the 3rd millennium BCE, and later ruled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids and Parthians. It was called Tylos by the ancient Greeks, and came under Alexander’s rule for a while. Christianity took hold by the 5th century CE, but converted to Islam in the 7th century, and went through a series of regional dynasties. The Portuguese ruled for much of the 16th century, before the area was taken by the Safavids under Persian rule for a few centuries. The British came in during the 19th century, but revolts started to take place towards the end of that century, continuing sporadically over the ensuing decades. Post-World War II, competing claims by Iran and Britain led to independence on 15 August 1971, and a popular uprising towards the end of the century led to the Emir instituting elections, and the country formally became a Kingdom in 2002. There are some elections but the Prime Minister is appointed by the King, and much of the government is drawn from the Al Khalifa ruling family.

The cinema industry in the country is very small, with a handful of shorts and only about five feature films in its history. The first cinema was established in 1937, and there are around 40-50 screens now.

رمال ميتة Rimal Mayta (Dead Sands, 2013)

I mean, sure, on a certain level this isn’t a great film, but if it looks and feels a little amateurish that’s because it appears to be a student production. It’s also a film made in a country that has, as far as I can tell, no real cinema industry. So if it doesn’t quite hit the polished marks we’re used to, even in a zombie flick — with some fairly unconvincing performances, scene set-ups that almost taunt us with the obviousness of what’s about to happen, and muddy cinematography — that’s because it never had the ability to do so in the first place. Instead, I like to see it as a noble attempt to learn by doing, an undaunted group of student friends banding together to make a movie (the credits roll over the blooper reel) and seeming to have a fair amount of fun with the gore and the effects. It also gives me a sense of what it’s like in Bahrain, which I think is a particular selling point, because how many other films are going to give you that, albeit in some rather indistinguishable malls and movie theatres and dusty outdoor spaces. I admired its willingness to try and make a Bahraini zombie flick.

Dead Sands film posterCREDITS
Director Ameera Al-Qaed أميرة القائد; Writer Ahmed Zayani أحمد الزياني; Cinematographers Al-Qaed and Zayani; Starring Şenay Dincsoy, Miraya Varma, Ahmed Zayani أحمد الزياني; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 1 August 2020.

곡성 Gokseong (The Wailing, 2016)

I recently did a themed week on Korean cinema, starting at its origins and covering a number of films across the decades. The one thing I didn’t really touch on, and probably the element of Korean cinema that’s been most marketable in the West, was what video label Tartan used to call “Asia Extreme”: the brutal, often gory and very stylish thrillers and horror films that got the best distribution over here. Obviously someone like Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance film trilogy and Oldboy (2003) was the most famous proponent from South Korea, but Na Hong-jin had his share of notable films. Therefore for my horror week it seemed only fitting that I catch up with a recently lauded piece of taut genre cinema from the country.

Opening in one of those small town settings where not much happens and the cops we see are lazy and slightly incompetent means you already have a sense of just how much things are about to change, but this is a long film and it makes its move into full-on gory horror fairly slowly. That said, the filmmaking is stylish and pulls you along as first we get these little flashes of incipient disturbance (a mysterious stranger, a naked woman in the dark, and the spectre of death in a place which sees very little of that kind of thing) before it all becomes just a hectic rollercoaster of fury and emotion. Our hero of sorts is the slightly overweight Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police office who has the permanent look of someone who’d much rather have a lie down, and over the course of the film he gets increasingly put upon, cut up and rained on, until he just seems to be pinging around like a pinball shouting at people to explain what’s going on — which isn’t very far from the viewer in a lot of the scenes. It’s called The Wailing but there’s much more screaming, shouting and crying in it, and if you can follow all the twists and turns then the filmmaker probably hasn’t done his job very well. That said, for all the extended running time, this is well worth watching.

The Wailing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Na Hong-jin 나홍진; Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo 홍경표; Starring Kwak Do-won 곽도원, Jun Kunimura 國村隼, Kim Hwan-hee 김환희, Hwang Jun-min 황정민; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 24 August 2019.

World War Z (2013)

It’s fair to say I went into this without high hopes. I was aware of some of the fraught production history, though primarily from having read a few reviews beforehand. Yet I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and in the end really enjoyed this tense and gripping thriller about a zombie apocalypse.

It has limitations obviously. For a start, it’s probably best to think of it as a film about a catastrophic viral outbreak, with the zombies being a sort of convenient writers’ short-hand for something Very Bad that is nevertheless Obviously Fictional. I don’t think these zombies share much in common with other cinematic and fictional zombies: they’re in essence just monsters (quick, lethal, dangerous). As an outbreak that needs to be contained, the hopes of (yes) all humanity are basically on the shoulders of Brad Pitt’s former UN investigator Gerry, whose singular ability to spot the zombies’ weaknesses is surely only explicable because the numbers of intelligent people have been so depleted — mostly it’s just military types remaining, with the odd civilian like Gerry who’s been whisked to the safety of a convoy of ships in the Atlantic.

What the film is good at — what I enjoyed about it — is that it manages to sustain for most of its running time a claustrophobic tension, from the initial scenes set in Philadelphia as Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) take their kids to school, to Gerry’s attempts to track down the cause of the virus first in South Korea, then in Israel and finally at a WHO laboratory in Wales. The film has a very sure control over the mood it creates, and there’s a feeling of constant peril around all the (human) characters.

That said, it does indulge in some rather reductive and spurious analogies, foremost amongst them the claim that North Korea and Israel have resisted the zombie invasion thus far thanks to their paranoid border security. David Morse is even wheeled on as a toothless defector to the North Koreans, his scenes set in the barely-filtered half light of a dingy cell, a Cassandra figure by way of Hannibal Lecter. The Israeli scenes are no more subtle — and when that country’s borders do succumb it’s ironically due to the amplified singing of peace song “Od yavo shalom aleinu” — though Gerry does at least pick up a companion in his fight against the zombies in the form of a laconic soldier played by Daniella Kertesz, which somewhat balances Enos’s rather thankless ‘worried wife back home’ role (though she does that very well).

Of course, the focus of the film is at all times on Pitt’s investigator, and he does well in this thinly-veiled saviour role. At the very least, the film doesn’t greatly outstay its welcome, restrainedly clocking in at under two hours. If the ending is a bit vague — suggesting the (surely remote) possibility of a sequel — it is at least suitably bittersweet, given the ravages of the previous two hours. World War Z doesn’t deserve all of the ire it’s received, and winds up as a more than competent thriller.

Director Marc Forster; Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski (based on the novel by Max Brooks); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.

Warm Bodies (2013)

I must confess that I’ve never been a huge fan of the fairly prolific subgenre of zombie movies, though partly that’s because I’ve never been a huge fan of the horror genre. Blah blah metaphor for problems afflicting humanity, blah blah hollow dead-eyed malaise infecting Western culture (or some variant thereof). And here again, we have a future world that’s an extrapolation of our own, and most people are zombies roaming the hinterlands except for the brave rebels holding out in their fortified city. There’s no explanation for it, but there’s the strong implication right away that we’re in a Starship Troopers-like world where the ‘real’ humans are actually the callous amoral ones, and as for the zombies, their only crime is essentially being apathetic. Well, except for the really bad zombies, the ones that are too far gone. But for the rest of them, the premise here is that they can be rescued. By love.

Which, when typed out, isn’t the kind of précis that would win me over, except that this is really a very sweet film with engaging central performances. Here we have ‘being a zombie’ as a metaphor for the awkwardness of being a teenager, much as I imagine it might have been used in, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (assuming it had a zombie plot). Nicholas Hoult gets to be gangly, awkward and monosyllabic with a pasty complexion befitting someone who’s spent a lot of time indoors playing videogames, because, well, he’s a zombie. Teresa Palmer (an actress I was not hitherto aware of, but who looks a lot like Kristen Stewart) gets to be more self-assured, and in some ways has a more difficult role because she has to believably be the daughter of John Malkovich (who makes a few brief appearances).

However, it all sort of hangs together in a shaggy, comedic kind of way. This is comedy in the broad sense, in the sense where the world isn’t essentially harsh and hateful like it might be in a horror film, though there are some laughs too. Which means, for me, the surprise was that I rather enjoyed it.

Director/Writer Jonathan Levine (based on the novel by Isaac Marion); Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe; Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry; Length 97 minutes
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 February 2013.