This week, World On Film visits the African state of Congo. Ah, but which Congo? This was the difficulty I faced when searching for visual material recently. Even the Internet Movie DataBase incorrectly lists many films as being made in ‘Congo’ when they in fact mean the Democratic Republic of Congo. The much larger DRC after all is Africa’s second-largest country and like North Korea, tends to be the greater source of conflict and instability than its near neighbour. But what of the Republic of Congo, the much smaller ex-French colony lying just to the West? It shares a similar history: stripped of its mineral wealth by foreign powers for over a century, racked by waves of civil war and home-grown dictatorships since achieving its independence, and leaving a near-destitute population shell-shocked by the worst depravities of man and facing a bleak future due to lack of infrastructure. For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.
In the end, however, I did come across one very positive short film showing the efforts made by at least one small organization to give today’s youth in the Republic of the Congo reasons to live for tomorrow.
The Flux Mothers
(2008) Produced by Jacob Foko
“I would like to have a life like every other girl. I want to be intelligent, read, write. I want to have a better life like them. That’s all.”
The DRC is typically referred to as the ‘rape capital of the world’, yet many young women in the Republic of the Congo have also had to face firsthand this most long-term destructive example of social breakdown. Impregnated as young as 12, they now find themselves saddled with children they do not necessarily want nor can afford to provide for. However, rape is not always the catalyst: in an environment without social welfare, affordable education or job prospects, many women will look to men as a means of survival, only to find themselves dumped when impregnated. Destitution and complete lack of self-worth are compounded in rape victims by mental trauma, especially in a strongly patriarchal culture.
“For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.”
The Flux Mothers introduces us to a Dr. Ann Collet Tafaro, the driving force behind humanitarian aid organization, Urgences d’Afrique, a program designed to train young Congolese woman such as described above in the art of welding, thus giving them a practical skill in high demand across the region. However, practical skills are only part of the equation, since women who register for the program are also given free language and literacy classes, health-care training, and psychological counselling. Tafaro ultimately understands that in Congo’s war-ravaged environment, any attempt at humanitarian aid must go far further than simple job-training. It must also heal the mind and rebuild an individual’s identity from the ground up.
The film also shows that like all humanitarian aid efforts, there are massive holes in the program due to lack of funding – no safety equipment, poor medical facilities, and a paucity of raw materials that any average shop class would stock. Just as the Congolese must make do with the little they have, so Tafaro and her students must do likewise.
Above all, I found The Flux Mothers to be very inspiring, and given that it was made four years prior to this post, it would be interesting to see how much the program has progressed. In the meantime, the film-maker himself has uploaded the film to Vimeo, which means I can present it below. It was produced through an organization called Global Humanitarian Photojournalists, with the aim of attracting donations for Tafaro’s program.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/22004375″>The Flux Mothers</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jacobfoko”>Jacob Foko</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>f
The Opaqueness of Sustainability
Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.
Several years ago, I came to hear a few tracks off a new album I mistakenly believed to be the work of the late Donna Summer. It was an obvious mistake: after all, the album was credited to a ‘Donna Summer’ and given the title ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, which seemed to fit – was not Donna Summer a woman of great style? Then there was the ‘music’ on the album itself, a motley assemblage of aural cacophony that even Bjork would only think fit to record after six months of heavy acid usage, occasionally interspersed with twisted samples of familiar tracks by the disco queen herself.
What I did not know was that ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’ was in fact the work of ‘Donna Summer’, aka British electronic and breakcore obsessive, Jason Forrester, who adopted Summer’s name for stage purposes. I mean, it’s obviously really, isn’t it? It didn’t help. Knowing the real intent of the album did not somehow magically reassemble the mad mix into something coherent – which for all I know is what breakcore exists in the first place.
Many years later and not long after the real Donna Summer released what would be her latest – and last – album, I found myself given the dubious pleasure of editing bid proposals by various organizations hoping to secure international conferences. It could be an interesting job in theory, but for the fact that I quickly discovered that none of the bidding hopefuls knew the first thing about how to sell their host city as the site of a potential global congress. Thus would the Power Point presentations and PDFs be a soul-destroying kitchen-sink collection of random facts interesting to no-one and of dubious connection to the main thrust of the proposal’s argument, which itself was only optionally present. Perhaps the authors felt that to assault their audience with a barrage of facts and figures would beat them into stupefied submission, if not baffled silence, causing them to cave in completely.
“Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.”
So, then, we see that context is everything, but your ignorance of that context does not always mean your hosts know what they’re talking about. Which brings me to this Congo-focussed oddity.
SOPI Architects, an architecture/urban planning firm based in the UK and Cote D’Ivoire, once put together a proposal for achieving sustainable development in Brazzaville and beyond. Following what has to be the longest company ident in history, we see a curious mish-mash of a film that centers around showing us a long text-based feasibility study that seems ultimately to conclude that what the Republic of the Congo needs more than anything are more attractive buildings. Well, you would expect an architecture firm to say that. The problem, however, is that the other 98% of the video (8% of which worships the ident) does not really build up an argument in this direction, preferring instead to take the scattershot approach of throwing in facts and figures about the country’s development problems across the board.
At least I assume that’s the case, given that the text is too small to read, and not on screen long enough to read in any case. It appears for all the world as if someone has filmed the pages of a book, more to show you what each page looks like rather than an effort to help you read it. There is also the apparent assertion that you are fluent in both English and French, given the randomly-inserted talking head video clips predominantly in French despite the English text, and not subtitled. The footage is also a strange collection, at one point a long self-congratulatory sermon from no less than the nation’s president, Denis Sassou Ngouesso on forest preservation to clips of flood victims complaining – and quite rightly – about the ease with which their villages are frequently underwater.
Like ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, it’s all over the place. One could argue that I may have failed to grasp the finer subtleties of the argument – maintaining forests + shoring up river banks = build more duplex apartments – but I remain skeptical on this point. At any rate, if you would like to make sense of the presentation, you can watch it below.
“The island’s seemingly impenetrable mass of opaque green palm trees and tooth-jagged mountain ranges easily suggest the untamed exotic Javan wilderness far from Batavia’s comparative civility of more than half a century ago”
World On Film visits the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, looking at examples of their use in storytelling – typically as a stand-in location for somewhere else. You can see a trailer for one of these examples below. We also take a good look at the archipelago as it truly is, and I can already say it’s convinced me to go there someday. That’s next time.
This week, World On Film travels to the small island archipelago of Comoros and finds out what happens to those left behind – and those who should never have been there in the first place. What does all that mean? Read on…
The Ylang Ylang Residence
(2008) Written by Hachimiya Ahimada & Katia Madeule Directed by Hachimiya Ahimada
“It’s happening to the neighboring houses too. The owners abandoned them. They forgot this is their land.”
“It seems they’ve forgotten us too.”
Many years ago, I remember reading former New Zealand Minister for Communications David Cunliffe complaining about the national “brain drain”, an apparently rampant phenomenon in the previous decade wherein many of his skilled and talented fellow countrymen were relocating overseas in search of better job opportunities and leaving a major social void in their homeland. Consequently, the ‘returnees’ who’d made good and wanted to bolster those opportunities back in New Zealand, like a certain Peter Jackson, were all the more applauded.
Cunliffe was of course speaking of a phenomenon as old as civilisation itself, and indeed anyone trying to make it in a film industry outside of Hollywood or its Indian and Nigerian counterparts knows all too well just how dry is the creek bed of employment. He, however, was also speaking of the IT industry and of industry in general. How then does abandoning one’s homeland for pastures greener affect those in impoverished nations?
In Hachimiya Ahimada’s short film, The Ylang Ylang Residence (aka La Residence Ylang Ylang), the tiny East African archipelago nation has lost many of its people to France and beyond seeking escape from a home with no future. In the principal island of Greater Comoros, dour young resident Djibril continues to maintain the stately former home of his brother, now gone for the past twenty years and unlikely ever to return. When an electrical fire burns his own modest house to the ground, Djibril and his wife are forced to rely on others for help. One neighbour even suggests he move into the abandoned family home, but somehow, it just doesn’t feel right…
“How…does abandoning one’s homeland for pastures greener affect those in impoverished nations?”
The Ylang Ylang Residence is Comoros’s first film, and shot on 35mm, is in no way any the lesser for its short running time of 20 minutes. The island archipelago has had a very chequered history, still affected by occasional civil war today. It also has a truly cosmopolitan history, due to its proximity to Africa, the Middle East, and Austronesia, the cultures from which have all left their mark across the centuries. In the film, this is evidenced by the fact that those who have returned have elevated their social status by previously living and working in France, the predominance of Islamic culture, and the language of the film being Arabic – just one of the languages used on the islands.
Perhaps this explains the profound level of formality, politeness, and above all emotionless reserve displayed by the characters of the story. Every line is stilted, every face a blank tableau of inscrutability, which seems to suggest the people of Greater Comoros are only half-alive and going through the motions of existence, with all inner hopes and dreams stifled by a lifeless economy, few prospects, and an authoritarian religion.
Yet the great irony of all this is that The Ylang Ylang Residence is also a film about knowing who your friends are in times of hardship. For Djibril and his wife, when family has deserted them, salvation comes in the kindness of strangers, or more accurately, friends and neighbours. It is the kind of communal altruism we typically romanticise as being the lifeblood of rural areas, yet in reality is by no means guaranteed to occur. If it shows anything about Comoros, it’s that twenty minutes is nowhere near enough time to truly understand this complex, multi-layered culture. Ahimada clearly agrees, and is doing something about it.
“In 2008, I directed my first fiction short cut Ylang Ylang Residence in Great Comoro island. Actually, I am working on my documentary project ‘Ashes of Dreams’ which is located in the whole Comoros Archipelago. I am editing it now.” (Source: MUBI.com)
That source, by the way, is the only place I know of where you can see The Ylang Ylang Residence. For 99 US cents, it’s well worth it.
I also watched…
On the 23rd of November 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was hijacked on its way to Nairobi by three Ethiopians planning to seek asylum in Australia and forced to land in the waters off Comoros when the fuel ran out. 125 of the 175 members of the passengers and crew died in the incident, including the hijackers. It is also noteworthy for the fact that it is to date the only time an aircraft of its size – in this case a Boeing 767 – made a true water landing and with survivors aboard. The actual footage of the landing can be seen below:
It’s perhaps unsurprising that someone would eventually attempt to dramatise the fate of Flight 961, and this indeed was the case with the Ethiopian movie, simply titled Comoros. It is more disheartening however, that the Ethiopian film industry concluded that what was really needed to mark the occasion was a poorly-constructed melodrama that had actually very little to do with the real-world events which spawned it. The end result proved to be about as intelligent as opening up a white goods store in Amish country and every bit as misguided.
The ‘story’, which convention dictates we’ll have to call it, centres around the incredible sinewave-like existence of Edie, a young Ethiopian flight attendant, who proves to be as dangerous to hang around as Jessica Fletcher. Striving to make her way in life following the tragic deaths of her parents, Edie meets Mike, a young business executive, they fall passionately in love and soon produce a young son, much to the immense delight of Mike’s mother-in-law. The child then proceeds to almost drown in a river before finally being killed off for good in the Flight 961 disaster. Mike’s mother, who from the outset has made no secret of the fact that a daughter-in-law’s only usefulness is to produce a son, promptly disowns Edie while belittling and insulting her very existence in an unnecessary attempt to prove how completely unpleasant the old woman truly is. As a result, the beleaguered young wife, further motivated by the profound ennui exhibited by her husband, resolves to give her ungrateful in-laws another child. Except that the doctors have made it absolutely clear that she risks death by any further pregnancies and would be stupid even to try. Add several more tragedies and you have Comoros, ninety minutes of shirtsleeve emotional indulgence that makes Days Of Our Lives look like Last Of The Summer Wine.
“The end result proved to be about as intelligent as opening up a white goods store in Amish country and every bit as misguided.”
However, a dire plot was not enough of a crime for the forces behind this histrionic farce. Acting with more ham than an Elvis breakfast was subtly combined with ludicrous production choices, the worst offender of which was the presence of long sequences involving dialogue between characters that we can’t actually hear. There’s nothing Ethiopian about it. Azerbaijani karate krapfest Seytanin Talesi reveled in forcing the audience to watch pointlessly mute conversations just to show the act of people talking in case anyone out there didn’t know what it looked like. Comoros however ups the incompetence ante by overlaying a constant stream of banal narration from the lead character herself that to a seven-year-old might seem highly profound and to anyone no longer in short pants, commits the hideous crime of telling rather than showing drama.
“Mike’s secretary told me that Mike had all but stopped working since the tragedy. Although I understand why Mike is grieving, finding a way to bring him out of his misery is proving difficult.” – ‘Crucial’ narration accompanying a sequence where the audience can clearly see Mike not working, and Edie unable to reach him.
Comoros also shares another of Seytanin Talesi’s dubious production choices, that of employing only about three pieces of generic mood music, which are then re-used endlessly throughout the film, ill-fitting the mood of every single dramatic sequence they accompany. Clearly convinced he is onto a winner with this approach, the director even commits what can only be described as an act of true genius by often piping in the music before the mood of a story element is visually-apparent, thus saving the viewer the agony of having to figure out how they should interpret the drama themselves.
And of course we have the African social stereotypes: the young independent woman who quickly becomes subservient once her true goals of marriage and procreation are realised; the moderate, progressive son who must kowtow to the whims of his ultraconservative parents; the utterly ineffectual but well-meaning sibling; and of course, the reprehensible parents of the son who demand worship yet spit venom upon anyone not living up to their narrow standards of existence. The problem is not the presence of these archetypes. They clearly exist and demonstrate the generation gap in today’s Africa (with the caveat that ‘Africa’ is of course a huge assemblage of differing cultures and peoples, but Nollywood-style cinema appears not to have noticed this), thus there is an audience who keenly relates to their behaviour. The problem occurs when the characters are presented in this ridiculously two-dimensional pantomime fashion, resulting in it being impossible to take any of them any more seriously than a high school debating club talking about the evils of the corporate world. Last year, I reviewed a Nollywood film exhibiting much the same cheap character.
In a way, I’m glad I was unable to find any production information on Comoros. Watching it was more than enough punishment – as it will be for anyone else who dares to watch it – like you, if you click on the video below.
We find out how the young women of the Republic of the Congo are being given a new future and also learn why coherence is so important when making any kind of visual presentation. That’s next time, on World On Film.
High up in the Colombian Andes, a squad of soldiers manning a remote mountain bunker mysteriously all go missing. Believing their disappearance to be the work of the enemy guerrilla, base command sends another squad to investigate. However, the new arrivals soon find themselves unwittingly re-enacting the events leading up to their predecessor’s fate and it may not be the work of enemy agents.
(2011) Written by Tania Cardenas and Jaime Osorio Marquez Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez
(You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“Haven’t you realized it yet? There’s nobody out there! The only murderers are us, goddammit!”
The above quote may seem to give away the film’s twist, but The Squad, sitting somewhere between horror and claustrophobic thriller, is a dark tale that will keep you guessing until the end. Taken as horror, it’s a story that benefits from director Jaime Osorio Marquez’s solid understanding that invoking the paranormal effectively benefits from the ‘less is more’ approach. This is not a man interested in cheap thrills. In fact, some viewers will question whether or not there really is a paranormal element to the film, given that it flirts with, but never conclusively states, an otherworldly force behind the drama. The most obvious example, and I will try to avoid spoilers, is the soldiers’ discovery of an old woman seemingly kept prisoner by their missing comrades. Speculation turns to fear when she is accused first of being a guerrilla spy, then an unfortunate local caught up in the country’s perpetual civil war, and then a witch – in any event the source of all the misery that befalls anyone cursed with entering the bunker. Marquez walks a fine line with all three possibilities, and gives just enough circumstantial evidence to allow the viewer to conclude that any one of them might be true.
However, since The Squad is so Spartan with its horror elements, it is predominantly a thriller about claustrophobia and fear in general. The war has completely polarised both sides of the conflict, and so the only dimensions of character among the soldiers we meet range between the aggressive, bullying nationalists and the moderates forced into a military environment they have no taste for, yet they too have no sympathy for the other side. It’s probably the most important thing to understand about the citizens of any country where national service is mandatory.
Add to this a deep sense of battle-weariness that the characters seem almost to breathe out from the very first scene. Although the narrative is entirely confined to the isolated Colombian outpost, lines of dialogue make it clear that this is simply the latest in a long line of engagements with the enemy. In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved. This, we are being told, is what it means to live amidst civil war.
Then the story actually begins and, after a quietly tense sequence in which the characters survey their surroundings, the screws start to be tightened even further. In many ways, The Squad is a base-under-siege film, both figuratively and literally. Visually, Marquez could not have chosen a more perfect location: it really is a bunker high up on a mountain somewhere, where the fog is so frequent that venturing in any direction will make you hopelessly lost if you’re lucky. The weather itself is a mental and physical barrier. All of which only helps make the ‘siege’ very much the cabin fever variety, taken to new heights by human weakness and paranoia. Already convinced they are under attack by guerrilla forces that always seem to be one step ahead of them, the unraveling of self-control for each beleaguered soldier seems only a matter of time. Yet as indicated earlier, there may be other forces at work.
“In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved.”
I couldn’t help but be strongly reminded of the in-many-ways-similar Korean horror-thriller Antarctic Journal, where a group of initially optimistic team of scientists attempt to be the first Koreans to reach the South Pole. There, writer/director Yim Pil-Sung similarly tries to offer both mundane and supernatural reasons for the group’s ultimate descent into madness and murder, so much so that he almost makes two different films running concurrently, and the whole doesn’t quite come together. Marquez is clearly the more adept at weaving the seemingly real with the seemingly unreal – perhaps because his main commentary is upon the prolonged effects of war on the psyche, especially when cornered. And yet in many ways, I find Antarctic Journal the more enjoyable film for all its faults.
Perhaps The Squad is too claustrophobic. Its protagonists, seemingly doomed to begin with, make the transition from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ rather than Antarctic Journal’s ‘good’ to ‘bad’. We are thrown into the tension almost immediately, and when characters aren’t descending into madness, they are sniping at each other or making intense declarations of family loyalty. The true protagonists of the story are helpless from the outset, dominated by their unstable, aggressive and wholly unpleasant colleagues. Add to this an ongoing barrage of tight close-ups, washed-out colour and a very confined set, and there really isn’t room to breathe in The Squad. On paper, the almost Blair Witch-like approach should work well, but you can have too much of a good thing.
And perhaps the imbalance of the supernatural and the more down-to-earth brutality of the situation is another factor. If the film is allegory for the horrors of war through the use of supernatural elements – as John Carpenter’s The Thing is allegory for Antarctica-as-blue-collar-dystopia via sci-fi elements – then it doesn’t go far enough to work as allegory. Or to put it another way, while I applaud Marquez’s carefully-judged use of the supernatural (if, again, that’s what it is – and it’s up to the viewer to decide this) for the purposes of intelligently-made horror, there’s too little of it to work as a symbol of real-world psychological fear. Equally, since The Squad is therefore mostly a real-world study of human madness, that weighty discourse is derailed somewhat by occasionally saying ‘Hey, maybe these guys are being manipulated by forces beyond their understanding.’ This is where Antarctic Journal also ultimately fails: film-makers not deciding clearly enough as to what their story is ultimately about.
Which is a shame, as there are certainly a lot of interesting ideas in The Squad and a location setting that was absolutely made for horror. Then again, if true horror is human behaviour, then those Colombian mountains have likely already told that story many times over the years. While the film lacks clarity in some areas, not even the cold blanket of the fog can enshroud the utter senselessness of a never-ending conflict that exists now only to consume man until nothing but his fear-stained face, frozen in death, remains. If the film-maker somehow lost his way slightly in getting his story across, there is a certain irony in the fact that his characters – and the real-world analogues upon which they are based – are so deep within their society’s conflict that they are fated only to disappear without trace, like the lost people of whom they came in search.
We travel to the remote island archipelago of Comoros and discover how the locals cope with the country’s massive brain-drain in its very first film, The Ylang Ylang Residence. Plus: how to turn a real-life tragedy into a cheap melodrama. Air disasters and asinine production choices in the Ethiopian farce Comoros – next time on World On Film.
July 2012 saw the 16th edition of Pifan, or the Puchon International Film Festival, held annually in Bucheon, South Korea. I was there and you can read about the first half of my experiences in the previous post. Here, then, is the second half.
I’m sure it would surprise precisely no-one that a Korean international film festival is principally for Koreans. Even the Busan International Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia, makes little more than a perfunctory effort to provide English to international visitors most of the time. I still haven’t forgotten the debacular mockery inflicted upon non-industry ticket purchasers at BIFF 2011, forced, thanks to the virtual impossibility it was to purchase online, to be herded like sheep along a rubber-ribboned maze toward a hastily-erected festival ticket booth outside the world’s largest department store only to be told the tickets had already been snapped up by everyone who’d arrived 30 minutes earlier. “Wow, thank you BIFF for selling 80% of the tickets online to everyone in the film industry and local government officials who probably won’t even turn up – not to mention relocating the festival to one single city block so this ocean of human slave puppets can fight like dogs for jacked-up hotel prices before standing in a queue on the street full of frustration and broken promises. This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.” Meanwhile, darting around the line of disillusioned faces like bright red sheepdogs, barked a zig-zagging group of festival volunteers wielding portable whiteboards onto which were scribbled a bizarre series of numbers possibly denoting how many dumb suckers were letting themselves be robbed of their dignity, but were in fact a rapidly-growing list of number codes for all the films selling out before you reached the booth. None of which was explained in English, and so became a time experiment wherein one determines how long it takes each mystified member of the cattle run for the penny to drop.
“This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.”
And again, this is the biggest film festival in Asia. It’s meant to be a big-name brand event designed to attract niche tourism. The more diminutive and less-funded Pifan, meanwhile, can be forgiven for lacking many of the needed resources, not least the ability to pave the streets next to the venues. Not only can the regular masses actually purchase tickets online, but also the staff is actually trying to make it possible for them to enjoy themselves. How else to explain BIFF’s red-shirted counterparts actually walking around with bilingual signage, or the fact that I was at one point assigned a personal interpreter so that I could enjoy a post-screening Q&A session?
Pifan is also trying to make a big name for itself, evidenced by the foreign film-makers and press I met there, and needs to be properly bilingual if only to draw that kind of crowd. I apparently cut an incongruous figure, being asked three times if I were “industry or press”, as though those were the only two options. Sure, there’s this blog, and I did act in a short film recently, but that wasn’t the point. I was there as an enthusiast. I can’t have been the only one. To me, international film festivals are an incredibly important service, offering average citizens a (relatively) rare chance to see something beyond the strong-armed monopoly of mainstream cinema. For half the price of a normal ticket.
Ironically, the mainstream played a much larger role in the rest of my Pifan experience, to mixed results.
(1980) Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ’em was good.”
Yes, I know – surely Stephen King wrote The Shining? Not this version he didn’t. King’s celebrated novel tells the story of a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues trying desperately to do the right thing and hold on to his damaged family by accepting the winter caretaker’s job at remote Colorado mountain lodge, the Overlook, as a last-ditch chance to avoid poverty. However, his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are completely disrupted by the hotel’s evil spirit, its power accentuated by his telepathic son. The story is a strong blend of the supernatural and King’s usual exploration of blue-collar family relationships put to the test by forces beyond their control.
Contrast this with The Shining, a story about a barely-under-control malcontent seemingly saddled with a family he doesn’t especially want taking a job at the Overlook in order to gain the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel. Quick to begin losing his sanity long before the hotel asserts its malign influence, this version of the character is the principle catalyst for the Amityville Horror-style rampage that follows, with the Overlook simply tapping into a pre-existing madness. While wrapped in similar packaging, the two stories could not be more different – and the above comparison barely scratches the surface of their asymmetry. Stephen King clearly agreed with this assessment, overseeing a televised adaptation of his book in 1997, which is, aside from the story’s climax, about as faithful as a four-hour miniseries can be.
“This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it.”
And yet while The Shining both largely dismisses and tramples upon the source material, it has the kind of unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere coupled with the trademark eye-catching cinematography and editing that make anything Stanley Kubrick does so compelling. This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Add to this yet another force of nature in front of the lens in the form of Jack Nicholson, very much at the top of his game and with the kind of presence that superglues your eyes to the screen, almost afraid to see what he’ll do next. Jack Nicholson could perform the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Those of us still clinging to the remaining tatters of King’s original story have little choice but to declare him completely miscast as Jack Torrance – not because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I for one haven’t even seen it) – but because every nuance of his performance, every arched eyebrow, every glint in his eye and every cynical tone drawling from his lips telegraphs Torrance’s impending madness like flashing, ten-foot-high neon. Yet none of those people would actually say what he was doing on screen wasn’t interesting.
Then there’s that softly-disconcerting soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind intermingled with various classic found tracks of a different lifetime, the imposingly-dark brown visage of the Timberline Lodge-as-Overlook, the threatening majesty of Mt. Hood, and a whole raft of elements that make this psychological base-under-siege melodrama work so well. For King fans, it is an exercise in doublethink, where they must put aside the author’s middle American melodrama and enter Kubrick’s realm without any preconceptions. Imagine if King’s version of ‘The Shining’ was a true account of events, and The Shining is the fast-paced Hollywood thriller based on those events. Except that Kubrick was clearly seeing the story through an entirely different lens.
(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher
So imagine that you’re a fan of The Shining, and you’ve watched it over and over again in the 32 years since it was released. You know every line of dialogue, you’ve consciously studied every one of the set props, you’ve been struck by the symmetry of cross-fading shots, and you’ve stared at that opening shot of a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary until the idea of it being just a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary is patently absurd. Because you know Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick the perfectionist auteur who once made Shelley Duvall swing a baseball bat over and over again until she lost her mind. Stanley Kubrick the obsessive-compulsive director who turned a 17-week shoot into a 46-week shoot and had Jack Nicholson demolish 60 doors for the “Here’s Johnny!” scene. This is not a man who does anything by accident. Every one of those Spherical 35mm frames has been planned to the Nth degree.
All of which you know, of course. Now imagine someone decided to shoot a documentary where uber-fans like yourself get to discuss all the hidden meanings and themes you know are what Kubrick was aiming for.
This is Room 237, a brand-new celebration to deconstruction peopled by individuals who know The Shining better than you do and possibly Kubrick himself. Some of the theories aren’t new: there is long-debated good evidence to suggest The Shining is in part recreating the destruction of the Native Americans by the “weak” white interloper, likewise the Holocaust allegory has been around equally as long, and ‘everyone’ knows the film is one massive allegory for Kubrick’s tension-filled assignment to fake footage of the Moon Landing for NASA. The ‘Obvious When Pointed Out’ file is well-explored also, in particular Kubrick’s tendency to mess with a passive movie-going audience with visual non-sequiturs and provocative props just outside the first-time viewer’s field of vision. The suggestion that Kubrick’s face has been superimposed into the clouds in the opening sequence however, that a standing ladder is meant to mirror part of the hotel’s exterior architecture, or that if you play the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, you’ll see all kinds of intentional thematic symmetry, definitely belongs at the speculative end of the pool. However, the various attempts to reach beyond reasonable lengths at the film’s discourse are welcomingly absurd interludes between the more serious – and in all likelihood more accurate – interpretations of Kubrick’s work. Ascher neither wants nor expects us to take all of Room 237 seriously, and in so doing ensures his documentary doesn’t bear all the stomach-tightening hallmarks of an Alex Jones conspiracy piece.
Consequently, what you won’t find in this film are musings from cast and crew, or indeed what they thought The Shining was about. For that, Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute on-set short is still the best bet. Room 237 is a light academic paean to the film which spawned it, and for fans, is definitely worth a look. Everyone else will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.
3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom
(2012) Written & Directed by Jordan Roberts
Time now to unzip our parachutes and float down to Dick Joke Island, where relative newcomer to film Jordan Roberts, perhaps in a bid to prove our species really did evolve from primates, clearly believed the market needed another 90 minutes of genital-related humour, now that Harold & Kumar have annoyingly grown up. The infantile Frankie Go Boom also inflicts upon the viewer that other ‘essential’ element of frat-boy comedy, the intensely annoying main character one is supposed to find loveable and hilarious. Twenty years ago, it was the disturbing mental case brought to life by Bill Murray in What About Bob?; today, it’s Chris O’Dowd donning an American accent to play the sociopathic Bruce, a young man oblivious to the lifelong psychological trauma he has inflicted upon his younger brother Frankie by filming every one of his most compromising moments and screening them to a giggling public – a practice all the more destructive in the age of file-swapping and broadband. Add the obligatory ‘touching’ romance, ‘crazy’ and unsympathetic family and Ron Perlman sacrificing the last vestige of his dignity, and presto: another tedious trek through the teen mire. You know, maybe we could get Scorsese interested in that Yellow Pages idea.
Puchon Choice Short 1
Another collection of short films, of which the quality averaged slightly lower than last time. Things get off to an uneven start with the Korean black comedy, The Bad Earth, where office employee Seung Bum puts himself at odds with his co-workers by refusing to clap along during company presentations and after-hours reverie. Clapping, as Seung Bum, firmly believes, is in fact an insidious form of alien virus that makes the human race ripe for the plucking. I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore. However, the story’s premise is a little too ludicrous to be taken seriously, even if Seung Bum just might have good reason for believing it.
Very little credit, meanwhile, should be afforded Han Ji Hye, who in The Birth Of A Hero quite shamelessly takes the ‘Rabbit of Caerbannog’ scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail and transposes it onto a rooftop in downtown Seoul. The idea that he might possibly be ignorant of this hallowed source material evaporated once the otherwise docile white rabbit began flying through air towards its victims and gouging out their necks in precisely the same manner. If Han is lauded as a master of surrealist cinema after this unbelievable cribbing, he deserves to be fed to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!
Quality began to reassert itself at this point to the unusual Korean stop-motion animated short, Giant Room, in which a man rents out a space in a strange, colourless building. Told explicitly by the landlord not to enter the room marked “Do not enter this door”, the newcomer ignores the warning to his great peril. It’s always hard not to be impressed by the work put into old-style animation – just getting 10 minutes of useable material must have taken months. The claustrophobic miniature sets are also well-designed, and the decision to abstain from dialogue a good complement. Hopefully this is not the only feature we will see from Kim Si Jin.
“I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore.”
The drama finally moved overseas at this point for the dystopian US horror, Meat Me In Pleasantville. It is the near future, where overpopulation has finally used up all of the world’s meat reserves, causing the federal government to make cannibalism legal. Inevitably, some citizens agree with this decision more than others, particularly dependent upon who is at the other end of a meat cleaver at any given time. As the Pleasantville population’s taste for human flesh turns them all into murderous zombies, a father and his daughter fight to escape, though they too are only human. Fans of slasher horror will not be swayed too much by the gore of Greg Hanson and Casey Regan’s half-hour kill-fest, though the real-world basis for the story would, I think, amuse George Romero. It’s a little difficult to imagine a government making cannibalism legal, or that a population would ever go through with it, but anyone who thinks that humans couldn’t acquire a taste for their own flesh – or want to keep eating it after that first bite – ought to read the real-world story of one Alexander Pearce. Unfortunately, both acting and dialogue fail to match the worthiness of the concept, making Meat Me In Pleasantville a little hard to digest.
The theme of vampirism returns in fellow US horror short, The Local’s Bite, where a young woman traveling home via ski lift after a night out with friends tries to evade a stalker. Film-maker Scott Upshur puts the unusual transport system common to his local town to good use in this suspenseful drama, which squanders its build-up at the last moment for unrealistic fantasy in the name of plot twists and humour. And again, the acting is highly variable, with the horribly wooden appearance of a clearly real-world ski lift operator struggling like mad to deliver a single line. However, Upshur’s talent for rising tension, good location choices and decent editing cannot be ignored, and those are the areas he should focus upon in the future.
It was the final entry in the collection, Antoine & The Heroes, that proved most enjoyable. In the French comedy-pastiche, B-grade film obsessive Antoine is forced to choose between two simultaneously-screening films at his local cinema complex, each showing his two favourite screen stars and each on their final showing. Unable to decide, Antoine decides to watch both, dashing back and forth between cinemas to catch the highlights. Hailing from the days when kung-fu couldn’t be achieved without a funky disco track and heroines screamed and screamed without ever needing Vicks Vapodrops, cool cat Jim Kelly beats up the baddies without messing up his bouffant in his latest piece of kung-fu cinema, while long blonde silver screen star Angela Steele dodges groping zombies in her new horror blockbuster. At first, Antoine manages to alternate between the two spectaculars with ease, but a small accident results in the blending of realities, films and genres to comedic effect. The best thing about this film is Patrick Bagot’s excellent pastiche of 70’s style kung-fu and B-grade horror – both very much in-vogue during that hirsute decade – realized by some great acting, costumes, sets, and appropriate period soundtracks. Anyone with childhood memories of 70s pop culture will feel more than a little nostalgic by the end of Antoine & The Heroes, reminded of why it was all so much fun – even if it does look ridiculous four decades on.
“From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”
World On Film pays a visit to Christmas Island and comes face to face with its most colourful inhabitants – a sidestep from the usual film fare, next time.
In this edition of World On Film, I look back over my visit to the recent Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (Pifan), and give quick takes on the screenings I managed to catch.
I’d been wanting to catch Pifan for a few years now, but always somehow managed to forget when it was on. However, after the complete debacle that was BIFF 2011, it was time to get serious about it. For those wondering, Pifan takes place in Bucheon, a city in the Korean province of Gyeonggi, located roughly halfway between Seoul and Incheon. There are eight categories, including World Fantastic Cinema, Ani-Fanta, and Fantastic Short Films. Only one category, Puchon Choice, is competitive, with the winners being screened on the final weekend of the festival. This is Pifan’s 16th year, making it almost as long as its counterpart in Busan.
Physically-speaking, Pifan is smaller than BIFF, and organised much the way BIFF used to be, ie – with screenings sanely distributed across in a number of cinemas throughout downtown Bucheon with one particular venue, Puchon Square, at the centre. It has yet to become the almost industry-only event that is BIFF today, which in practical terms means the average joe can actually get tickets for this thing both online or by simply turning up to the ticket offices in timely fashion. There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.
On the flipside of this, Bucheon is hardly the most exciting city to hold a festival, the main street seems to be in a permanent state of construction, and the more modest department stores in which the cinemas are located don’t have the greatest selection of cuisine. On balance however, I had a very positive experience, so I aim to make the best of Pifan until it inevitably becomes so successful that getting tickets for screenings will become as difficult as convincing Adam Sandler to stop making movies.
I managed to catch something from most of the categories mentioned during my visit. Here is what I saw:
(Brazil, 2011) Written & Directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Sao Paolo housewife Helena is about to realise her dream of starting her own business in the form of a neighborhood supermarket. Yet just as she is about to sign the papers for the property lease, her husband, Otavio, is fired from his job as an insurance executive after ten years’ faithful service. However, the couple decides to risk the investment and the store opens, though for some reason, business just doesn’t seem to be taking off, seemingly in direct proportion with Otavio’s failure to find work and mounting alienation from the family. As an increasingly-stressed Helena struggles to hold everything together, she finds her attention drawn to a crumbling supermarket wall and wonders whether it might hold the answers to her problems.
“There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.”
For much of its screen time, Hard Labor is more a drama about family breakdown than it is a horror movie, which is especially important for horror fans to bear in mind when going into it. Although there are definitely supernatural elements to the story, they are there to be allegorical, to act as a catalyst for the primarily human conflict which takes place. The problem for me at least is that neither of these elements quite reach the crescendo they could have had and there is a little too much stillness throughout. It isn’t really until the final scene that I felt the two strands really came together, but that does mean that Hard Labor has a satisfying ending. Anyone who’s ever had to face long-term unemployment through no fault of their own will appreciate the film’s central message that to get by in this ultra-competitive world, you sometimes have to unleash the inner animal. Good casting choices, lighting, and set construction also help to push Hard Labor over the line, along with the occasional dash of dark humour.
The Heineken Kidnapping
(Netherlands, 2011) Directed by Maarten Treurniet Written by Kees van Beijnum & Maarten Treurniet
As its title suggests, The Heineken Kidnapping retells the true-life incident when in 1982, Alfred Heineken, then-president of the family business, was kidnapped by four individuals for the ransom money. Based loosely on the events as reported by Peter R. de Vries, the film focuses on the careful planning, abduction, and aftermath of the event, in which the traumatised Heineken struggles to cope with his imprisonment as well as fight various legal loopholes in order to bring the criminals to justice.
Since its release, the film has been criticised for playing fast and loose with the facts of the case, as well as glossing over the highly meticulous planning the four young men undertook before making their move. I therefore probably had the advantage of ignorance, in that I had never heard of the kidnapping before, and simply took what I saw at face value. To me, The Heineken Kidnapping was a fairly compelling crime drama with a strong cast, most notably in the form of Reinout Scholten van Aschat as the psychopathic young Rem Humbrechts, for whom the operation is as much for sadistic pleasure as it is for financial gain. Meanwhile Rutger Hauer turns in a strong and sympathetic performance as Alfred Heineken himself, which, given that the audience is being asked to care about the plight of an extremely wealthy adulterer, is a testament to the actor’s longstanding talent. Those more familiar with the source material may feel differently, but for me at least, The Heineken Kidnapping was an enjoyable example of Dutch cinema, and proved to be one of the more talked-about entries at Pifan – at least going by some of the people I met during my visit.
(Spain, 2011) Written & Directed by Nacho Vigolondo
When a series of flying saucers begin hovering over the cities of Spain, most of the population takes to the hills. However, for Julio, a young advertising artist in Cantabria, the more pressing concern is to stay as close to Julia, the girl of his dreams, in whose apartment he has just spent a passionate evening. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the presence of Julia’s nosy next-door neighbour and the return of her longtime boyfriend. But Julio will do anything to be with the girl he loves – even if that means making up a convoluted series of lies about an alien invasion – just to stay on the premises.
“At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands.”
With dramatic shots of a saucer hovering above urban skyscrapers and dire warnings by the authorities to stay out of harm’s way, one could be forgiven for thinking that Extraterrestrial might be another District 9. However, as with Hard Labor, the fantastical elements of the script serve merely to push a group of individuals together into a confined space and add colour to the background. At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands, and the unusual setting little more than an elaborate misdirection. That said, it is a pleasing enough 90 minutes with some enjoyable humour, and Julian Villagran makes for an unconventional romantic lead. Nonetheless, would-be viewers are advised to set their phasers on ‘low expectations’ for the best result.
Spellbound (aka Chilling Romance)
(South Korea, 2011) Written & Directed by Hwang In-ho
Yuri, a shy young woman living in Seoul, is haunted by the ghost of her dead schoolfriend who lost her life during an ill-fated class excursion. Desperate for human company, Yuri has resigned herself to the fact that she will never enjoy close friendships or romance as long as a malignant ghost frightens away anyone who comes near. Hope comes in the form of Jogu, a wealthy stage magician who becomes intrigued by Yuri after he hires her for his illusionist act. With everyone else running from her in fear, will Jogu’s affection for his star performer be strong enough to overcome resistance from the Other Side?
I’d been warned before the screening began that Spellbound was something of a corn-fest, and by the end credits, felt so overdosed on saccharine, I nearly checked myself into a medical clinic for a diabetes test. In a country where clichéd melodrama is so popular it’s a major international export, Spellbound does not stand out from the crowd. With every passing minute came cliché after tired cliché about ill-fated romance, and every stomach-churning line about love and dreams meticulously welded to a truly nauseatingly-twee soundtrack had me twisting in my seat and groaning like an old man putting Viagra to use for the first time. If Extraterrestrial was formulaic, Spellbound was the formula, right down to the wise-cracking but experienced friends and sidekicks of the lead characters. All of which was so overwhelming that the horror element to the story, and raison d’etre for the whole situation was never adequately built up to be anything especially convincing and had me longing for the Dementors to float in on special dispensation from Azkaban and suck everyone’s souls into oblivion. Son Yeji gave a creditably agonised performance as the long-persecuted female lead, but frankly, the entire cast could have simply sat in a pool filled with corn syrup and elicited the same drippy performance. That, at least, would have been more honest.
Fantastic Short Films 7
The great thing about short film collections is that if one film proves awful, you don’t have to wait long for the next one. FSF7 however started strong, with the Korean entry Delayed, in which a young middle-aged woman waits patiently at a near-deserted train station for her husband to arrive. Yet as she strikes up a conversation with an inquisitive man claiming also be expecting an arrival, nothing seems to be quite as it appears. Cast and crew of this very moving short appeared live on stage at the end, where director Kim Dong-han explained his desire to connect lost souls with lost train stations. My thanks to the Pifan personal interpreter who sat with me during this unexpected bonus event!
Next up, the Japanese parody-pastiche Encounters, wherein two very good friends look for adventure in the countryside and find more than they bargain for with giant monsters roaming the streets thanks to the machinations of an evil professor. Shot entirely using plastic action figures and some deliberately wonky props and sets, Encounters is a tongue-in-cheek Godzilla-like comedy, complete with lame action sequences and bad dialogue. I’d like to think the English subtitles weren’t meant to be quite as poor as they were, but if so, mission accomplished!
“The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened.”
The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened. Two long-time friends out hiking in the forest suddenly find themselves kidnapped by a crazed religious fanatic who begins torturing them in his secret underground lair, replete with bad lighting, corpses and handy tunnel system. The pointless and gruesome tale offers no depth in terms of the reasons behind the mad psychopath, nor indeed the ridiculous twist at the end. Which is an interesting coincidence, because I can offer no reason why anyone should watch it.
The macabre continues – though in a very different style – in the form of the Korean silent film, The Metamorphosis, a shadowy sepia affair with the disconcerting performances of Eraserhead and the visual echoes of Nosferatu. Claustrophobic static shots combine with heavy industrial clanking and retro white-on-black dialogue text inserts to tell the story of a family beset by vampirism. In truth, it’s a great example of style over substance that adds little storywise to the genre and comes close at one point to mobs with burning torches. Yet it’s the style that proves the most compelling here, so that while I’m not entirely sure what I saw, it was impossible to take my eyes off the screen. There are plenty of music videos like that.
Rounding out the collection was the light-hearted martial arts/crime spectacular, Pandora, in which taekwondo trainee Jeong Hun arrives in the city of Chungju for a performance, only to accidentally switch his cell phone with that of a man on the run from a gang intent on seizing the secrets the identical device contains. The film is a fairly unremarkable, reasonably-paced runaround that could not possibly satisfy fans of martial arts films, offering nothing new by way of story or visuals. When a story is full of clichés that have been done better elsewhere, you have to wonder who the intended audience really is. As a 30-minute romp in a film festival, Pandora is sufficient eye candy, but on its own, it swims in crowded waters.
The second half of my Pifan retrospective. I finally get to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on the big screen, watch the over-reaching new documentary about the very same, entitled Room 237, find myself underwhelmed by the new Harold & Kumar-style American feature, 3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom and sit through another short film collection with mixed results. That’s World On Film next time.
It’s time to visit the Middle Kingdom, where, deep in the Chinese countryside, we find state ideologies reinforced and a generation’s final journey as World On Film explores
Postmen In The Mountains
(1999) Directed by Jianqi Ho Written by Wu Si
“A boy is a grown up when he carries his father on his back.”
“Choose a job you love”, said Confucius, “and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Good advice, though for some, a more realistic saying might be ‘Keep choosing jobs until you find one you don’t want to give up.’ Learning after all comes through experience, and love through understanding based on experience. Confucius also advocated that one should unfailingly obey their parents, which in practice has often meant the parents choosing one’s job for them. A good son or daughter in turn accepts that their parents chose wisely and loves them for taking such an active interest. Thus they are expected to come to love, rather than choose from an internal desire, the work they will do with their life. Or at least that’s the practical application of Confucian thought, which has been deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche for centuries. Postmen In The Mountains is very much a demonstration of this thought, and in so doing advocates a strict code of obeisance to authority that puts the viewer in little doubt as to why a government that strongly controls the local entertainment industry would give its production the green light.
This does not mean, however, that Postmen In The Mountains is neither enjoyable nor impenetrable to a non-Asian audience. Putting aside its uncomplicated surrender to prevailing doctrine, the film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.
It was by contemplating a Westernised version of this same basic story that I found myself highlighting the uniquely Chinese character of the film, which, for the purposes of this blog, made it an all-the-more-suitable entry. Since Occidental child-rearing involves the fostering of independence within the young so they will be able to achieve adulthood, a Western version of the story would have the two lead characters at great odds with each other. There would be the inevitable falling out scene where one character would truly hit a nerve, until the equally-inevitable resolution and understanding by the closing credits. The whole affair would swerve dangerously close to melodrama and be hailed as a great emotional rollercoaster ride.
All of which would be completely unthinkable in the Chinese mindset, where elders are to be unfailingly obeyed and a shouting match might lead to disownment. We are of course speaking generally here, but so is the film. Thus it is in Postmen that the conflict between the generations is much more of an undercurrent, and even when it does surface, is comparatively little more than mild disagreement. We therefore learn of internal fears and resentments primarily through a series of flashbacks to both characters’ earlier days in order to develop our understanding of not only the reasons for their behaviour towards each other in the here and now, but also as to why their shared three-day journey is so monumentally-important for them.
“Postmen In The Mountains advocates a strict code of obeisance to authority that puts the viewer in little doubt as to why a government that strongly controls the local entertainment industry would give its production the green light.”
In turn, where the Western version would emphasise the negative aspects of the conflict in order to telegraph emotional angst, its extant Chinese counterpart focuses more on its positive aspects – in other words, how understanding and harmony is achieved through father and son as a result of their time together.
Because there is no getting around the fact that all potential Chinese films will only be made with government approval, it is therefore impossible not to view the emphasis on conflict resolution and social harmony through the lens of suppression. Authorities would, for example, like the fact that the father – the wise elder of the story – forced to retire after 30 years of hard physical labour has worn out his body, seeks no reward for his efforts and actively chooses to stay away from the politics of the district office that a promotion would surround him with. Like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm, labour is its own reward and the machinations of the Pigs are neither to be questioned nor engaged. Consequently, it is very important that the son, afforded a few minor acts of rebellion as understandable indiscretions of youth, is ultimately subservient to, and in full agreement with these attitudes so that there will be no intolerable uprisings among the next generation. One is expected to be happy with simplicity and endure hardship, an axiom the viewer sees reinforced with the impoverished villagers across Postmen’s 90 minutes’ duration. Tellingly, we never see any of the district officials mentioned, or even characters said to have left the land for university. Ambition of any kind places you outside of the Worker’s Paradise.
However, it’s ‘propaganda’ with a small ‘p’: rather than setting out to make a film designed to reinforce state ideologies, it is a film that simply happens to fit the mould and was consequently accepted for that reason. In a different environment, it would be labeled a nationalistic, feel-good type of film, designed to appeal to local sensibilities through popular uncontroversial stereotypes. The only problem with this is that its uncomplicated rural setting will not appeal to today’s urban and material-savvy Chinese. Thus it could only have great appeal to local conservatives or foreigners like myself viewing it through the lens of ‘ethnic’ cinema. If that’s the case, then there are better examples of this Chinese sub-genre out there – Zhang Yimou’s epic 1994 drama To Live being one of them.
Where Postmen In The Mountains does succeed, in its own uncomplicated way, is the father-son dynamic, which as a theme, is a surefire winner and something that for obvious reasons transcends culture. We can’t help but be moved by estranged family members discovering each other properly for the first time. Unfortunately, Ho Jianqi is not the only film-maker to mistakenly believe this character dynamic is enough of a story in itself – watch Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobson re-enact a similar voyage of discovery in the box-ticking Aussiefest Charlie & Boots, and it becomes clear that even family problems can seem shallow and inconsequential when realised with shallow intent. There is a feeling in both films that the principals should love and understand each other by the end precisely because it is the end. In real life, it’s a long, drawn-out process achieved incrementally. But for all that, you can’t help but be drawn into this most fundamental of human relationships, even when the meal you’re hoping for is little more than an entrée.
There was also a certain over-simplicity with the Wonder Years approach to storytelling, where the lead character narrates over a scene rather than letting the scene telegraph information of its own accord. The approach is employed particularly over flashback sequences, though seems to be abandoned halfway through the narrative and what follows seems to stand on its own feet perfectly well without help. This only serves to underscore the didactic aims of Postmen, by making sure we are all the same, ‘correct’ page as to its teachings. And it’s really not that complicated.
“We can’t help but be moved by estranged family members discovering each other properly for the first time.”
China itself is also major draw of the film, which is shot entirely on location. From Hunan’s breathtakingly jagged mountain peaks to its lush green valleys, filled with verdant rice paddies, to vast fields of green and the crumbling ancient mortar of genuine traditional Chinese villages, Postmen In The Mountains is awash with spectacular visuals. The realities of living in outback Hunan Province might preclude many of its inhabitants from being able to fully enjoy their everyday landscape, but from my pampered perspective, it was marvellous. What drama may have been lacking in the script was played out in full colour in the background, which Ho has clearly worked to incorporate.
The two leads are also entirely believable. Actor Ten Runjun has the weatherworn look of a man with several decades’ hard labour behind him, and imbues the unnamed father with the quiet dignity and wisdom the character is meant to portray. His talent really comes to the fore during moments when he is required to express his feelings silently as his alter-ego realises with regret that father and son have switched roles. In the character of the son, Ye Liu successfully convinces as what is essentially intended to be a younger version of his father, but in a different place and time. Liu to an extent has an easier job since he is allowed to verbalise the character’s frustrations more, though must also strike a fine Confucian balance between what is acceptable and what would be intolerably unfilial.
Zhao Jiping’s soft, pipe-driven score is also worthy of note. Zhao is a veteran of Chinese cinema, composing the score not only for the aforementioned To Live, but also the critically-acclaimed Raise The Red Lantern (I definitely recommend you see this one as well), and many other key entries in this vein. In Postmen, Zhao’s musical motifs flutter, as if through the mountains themselves, but also speak of the journey to come. Importantly, it is never overused, but an accompaniment to the frequent silence and stillness of the characters and their landscape.
In many ways, Postmen In The Mountains is afflicted with the same problems as a Hollywood film – there is plenty of talent in every department, but the story is lacking because a more complex script would be deemed not in the public interest. The overall result is pleasing, but could have been so much more. If like me, you’ve already seen many of the more prominent examples of Chinese art-house cinema, it’s a nice, comfortable hour and a half. Newcomers however ought to hold off until first having viewed a few Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige or Wong Kar-wai efforts.
Note: in my edition of the film, the subtitles state the postmens’ route as being ‘230 miles’, however in Chinese, I’m pretty sure I heard ‘230 li’, which works out to be about 115km, or 71.5 miles. Which is still quite impressive.
The 16th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival has just concluded and I was there catch some of it over the last couple of weeks. From The Heineken Kidnapping to a new documentary exploring The Shining, it proved an eclectic mix of films – all over far too quickly. That’s next time, on World On Film.
In this edition of the blog, we head over to 20th Century South America, where society is collapsing under the weight of violently-opposed ideologies in the moving Chilean drama-historical,
Machuca (aka My Friend, Machuca)
(2004) Written by Eliseo Altunaga, Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, and Andrés Wood Directed by Andrés Wood
“You insist upon acting like an animal. It’s all about you, and only you. And what about the others? Don’t they count?”
Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. The wealthy oppose their Marxist government and all who support the nationalization of local industry, while the poor, driven to near-destitution by a prolonged economic depression, lack of production and employment opportunities, champion the Communist cause as their only hope of survival. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart.
Machuca is a compelling pseudo-historical drama that explores the social upheaval during the time of Chilean president Salvador Allende. The controversial figure rose to power in 1970, more as a compromise candidate than by popular vote. The Nixon administration sought to remove him due to US fears his Marxist policies would make Chile another Cuba, and their fears were supported by local property and business owners. Those struggling to make ends meet at the other end of the spectrum saw socialism as a means to counter perceived greed: they could see that not everyone had to queue up for food rations, live in slums, or worry about job prospects. With the gulf ever-widening, strikes and clashes were inevitable. But if either side felt the hand of victory by the time of Allende’s alleged suicide in 1973, it was to be short-lived, with the country seized by a military junta and the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for the next two decades.
All of which merely strikes the surface of this truly complex chapter of Chilean history and the many forces that brought the nation to its knees in the early 1970s. Yet Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core. It is a battle between two sides so entrenched by wealth and poverty that they will never be able to reconcile – each side is seen as causing the destruction of national stability and each, in its own way, is right. And, like the similarly-themed Albanian film Slogans, Machuca shows the tragedy of such entrenched social warfare – that any attempt to look past these differences by focusing on basic human commonalities is ultimately thwarted by the very ideologies supposedly designed to create a more socially harmonious world in the first place. However, where Slogans focused more on the failure of Marxism because of party politics interfering with basic social development (eg – education, relationships, etc), in Machuca, the income divide is the principal barrier.
“Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core.”
No film really could do justice to the broad strokes of the conflict, and thus we see only splashes of it through the eyes of sensitive teen Gonzalo Infante, as he discovers the many sides to the story and finds himself unable to make true sense of any of it. Born into wealth, Infante finds himself having to reconcile his privileged world with that of Pedro Machuca, one of the many poor classmates introduced into the school by the Christian priests in charge of their education, as part of their attempt to give equal rights to the impoverished. Through Machuca, Infante experiences life on the other side of the coin, and finds himself enjoying his new friend’s down-to-earth earnestness, the Communist rallies Machuca’s family attends, and even more so, the bewitching charms of the girl next door.
Though viewing the adult world through the lens of childhood innocence is nothing new in film (other examples include The Blue Kite, Empire Of The Sun, and Great Expectations), it is an understandably-useful narrative tool for showing different sides of an issue without picking any. It is probably one of the only ways to maturely deal with subject matter for which there are no easy conclusions. Children are also the only social group within such entrenched ideologically-conflicted circumstances who will reach out to each other regardless of the stance their elders have taken. They have not yet learned to hate for stupid reasons. A similar argument could be made for romance, though we all know how Romeo & Juliet ended.
By making its principal characters adolescents, Machuca shows the point at which such hatred begins to manifest, and is as much a voyage of self-discovery for Infante and his contemporaries as it is the first steps toward understanding what the adults are fighting about. Indeed, for Gonzalo, a fairly sensitive-yet-reserved boy, the discovery of the impoverished class and their beliefs is the point at which he begins to find his voice, even if it is only able to speak with mounting confusion. It’s perhaps telling that he only begins to grow when removed from the stilted world of the private school (where indeed those with the most to say are the classist and insular bullies) and the machinations of his social-climbing mother, whose affair with a richer man and social snobbery is never subtle. In Machuca, we get the sense that this is the first time Infante experiences true friendship, and in the slightly-older shanty town neighbour Silvera, his first sexual awakening. For Infante, travel truly broadens the mind. He is a better person precisely for making an effort to understand difference that his financial contemporaries would be both unable and unwilling to perceive – a common occurrence in any society.
This universal element of growth and personal discovery is another reason why Machuca can reach out to a broad audience who may know nothing of Chilean history. It should resonate with anyone who has dared to step outside of their ‘normal’ world and see the way others live. I would even argue it’s a test of character that everyone should undergo in order to progress to some kind of maturity, and one all the more important in our increasingly-globalised world. The film even makes frequent comparisons to ‘The Lone Ranger’, a story about a man who befriends an American Native.
It’s an interesting comparison to make, given that Machuca is no Tonto, but a strongly-independent character in his own right, and because in the less ‘idealised’ Chile, class differences are seen to divide even the sturdiest of relationships. This makes the friendship between Machuca and Infante all the more important for the journey the two embark upon (how much can they learn from each other before the inevitable happens?) and all the more tragic because their union represents Chile’s last, best hope for peace.
That said, there were certainly more mature elements of Chilean society working to bridge the divide as well. We learn at the film’s opening that the school the boys attend was based upon the very real St. George’s College, a private English-language school in Santiago. In fact, director Andrés Wood dedicates his film to a Father Gerardo Whelan, who served as the college’s director between 1969 and 1973, which suggests a strong biographical element to Machuca. Father McEnroe, his fictional alter-ego, is a bear of a man with a powerful sense of justice working tirelessly to bridge the social divide – even when it seems as though no-one else will thank him for it.
And this is the truth of the whole sorry affair: this wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side, but desired true segregation, the logical end point of the class war. The lines have been drawn long before the two boys discover each other, the final clash only a matter of time. When the Pinochet junta assumes military control of the country, only one side will have the means to avoid the opening salvo of the dictator’s long reign. It is a reign that will care nothing for the previous social conflicts, except inasmuch as they have paved the way for its existence. Here, when blood lines the streets of the capital and its shanty towns have been erased from existence, does Chile follow the main characters and awaken to the reality of their world. The real growing pains are about to begin.
Amazingly, Machuca was shot under very tight conditions due to a miniscule budget that the director and his crew have done very well to mask. This is achieved firstly through the excellent on-location filming which ensures an authentic viewing experience. From the location used to serve as the private school to the standing sets of the shanty town to the frenzy of the busy urban landscape, I can only wonder how someone with more money might have done better. Post-production also plays a major role in the look and feel of the picture, alternating between the vibrant spectrum that today’s software can create – scenes of high drama are even given that colour-bled filter which works so well to match the bleakness of hope dying on-screen.
“This wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side”
Major credit must also go to the choice of actors, particularly when many of them, including the principal stars, had had no professional experience. Wood apparently spent the better part of a year coaching them prior to shooting, and it is a labour that really pays off. Great attention too is paid to the setting – it really does look like 1973. With or without the crew’s many restrictions, Machuca can stand tall for its achievements.
Those better-versed in Chilean history may perhaps take issue with the politics presented, or be disappointed that a major cinematic commentary on that period keeps its distance from a particular stance. It is still fresh in the memory for many who will have their own story to tell. In time, we may come to hear them. However, for novices like myself, Machuca is a very compelling and accessible work that succeeds because of its very universal human drama. We may not have lived through that mad episode of Chile’s development, but through this film, we can recognise in ourselves the people who did.
“The film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.”
The light, but touching Chinese rural drama, Postmen In The Mountains, next time on World On Film. See a trailer below.
Last time on World On Film, we visited the impoverished and war-torn Central African Republic to experience the other side of life. In this edition, we move just over the northern border into the impoverished and war-torn nation of Chad, where pride, jealousy and social obligation have produced
A Screaming Man
(2010) Written & Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
“Our problem is that we put our destiny in God’s hands.”
Like the Central African Republic, Chad was once part of French Equatorial Africa, and its colonial legacy lives on – in this film most notably in the language and uneven presence of modern technology. Like CAR, sections of Chad suffer from civil unrest, with rebel factions frequently staging uprisings and battling the government for control of the country. In A Screaming Man, I was reminded very much of the Bangladeshi historical drama The Clay Bird, which I reviewed here some time earlier. Both focus upon a family living far from the conflict, which is something only seen or heard via TV and radio. Life carries on as per normal until the war finally comes their way, with the film ultimately showing the different ways in which the common man either copes or turns a blind eye to it.
Chadian-born film-maker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has probably seen this scenario play out for real far too many times for his liking across the years, understanding that war isn’t something most people seek out, but try very hard to avoid until they have no choice but to face it. It would also explain why A Screaming Man, released in 2010, does not specify which of the nation’s many conflicts forms the backdrop of the story: it happens so often that it doesn’t matter. Indirectly however, we can determine a present-day setting from the aforementioned technology (cassette players and modern cars), as well as the more recent changes in Africa’s social make-up. This latter element brings us to the plot.
Central to the story is Adam, one-time national swimming champion and now, in his sixties, fiercely-proud of his job as senior pool attendant for an affluent local hotel. In close orbit are his loving wife and his son Abdel, who works at the hotel as his assistant. The happy equilibrium is upset when the hotel’s new owners downsize the staff and Adam is replaced by his son, who, no less in need of regular employment, has secretly campaigned behind his father’s back for his position. A humiliated Adam, forced to accept a low-paying job as hotel gatekeeper and continually pestered by the pushy town chief to make financial contributions toward the war effort, has his son drafted to the front lines in lieu of payment. Only then does the far-away civil war suddenly become real and Adam realise the consequences of his wounded pride.
Late last year, I happened to catch an interesting BBC documentary entitled ‘The Chinese Are Coming’, which looked at the growing influence of China’s new affluent class across Africa. Inevitably, reactions by the locals are mixed: some cite the new employment opportunities they can take advantage of thanks to Chinese investment, others see their homeland rapidly being bought up by foreigners whose profits are not shared with the indigenous population. Obviously the truth of all this depends upon each particular situation. In A Screaming Man, it is a Chinese businesswoman who takes over the hotel and begins economising. Haroun, showing a restrained observational approach to the subject matter, is careful not to demonise her, balancing her cold, yet logical book-balancing with a warmth for hard-working and loyal employees. In a sense, this is the Chinese ‘invasion’ of Africa (and those inverted commas are there for a reason) in a nutshell: obviously, the new global investors are driven by commercial interests, but even the most sympathetic Chinese employer will have to upturn lives in order to balance the books, eg, the sacking in the film of the hotel chef, whose health deteriorates soon after. Historically, it’s a state of affairs the natives have all seen before. Once upon a time, Ms. Wang would have been French, and the story played out along broadly similar lines. (Actress Heling Li is, for the record, Franco-Chinese).
“A key element of Haroun’s approach to storytelling is silence and knowing when to use it.”
Importantly, although her actions have far-reaching consequences for the central characters, setting off a chain of events that lead ultimately to misery, A Screaming Man is really about the way in which others choose to react to them. It is Adam, whose intense pride wreaks havoc with his family when punctured, who can be said to cause the most and longest-lasting damage. In almost every shot of the film, it is Adam, terrified of change and singularly unable to cope with it, who has the most power to affect the world around him. And yet paralysed by hubris and his narrow-minded outlook, he is simultaneously the most helpless, able only to operate within the framework of the world he has created for himself.
A key element of Haroun’s approach to storytelling is silence and knowing when to use it – a trait completely absent in Hollywood because of the self-fulling prophetic belief that the idiots in the audience will become insecure if people aren’t flapping their gums. This is what makes ‘reality’ television all the more laughable: we know from our own real-world experiences that many of our fears and desires go unspoken, either because we can’t bring ourselves to articulate them or because the right moment to do so never seems to come. And yet we have so allowed ourselves to be deluded by our favourite broadcasters that the opposite is true, that we may therefore look at something like A Screaming Man, where characters undergo turmoil but keep silent, as disjointed and ‘art-house’ – the latter used as a pejorative.
It is precisely because our central character, whose actions affect the those in the story we are to care most about, spends so much of his time quietly seething and feeling sorry for himself, that tension is created. Credit for this brilliantly-understated performance must go to actor Youssof Djaoro, whom Mahamet-Saleh Haroun first placed in the spotlight in his award-winning 2006 drama, Daratt. In Adam, Djaoro expertly-creates an essentially well-meaning ex-sports star unable to see past himself when recognition for his talents is denied him. Because the story takes place in Chad, I can’t help but ponder over the consequences of lashing out at the world in a relatively safe country such as those most readers are familiar with versus doing so in a land where one act of irrational behaviour can have truly dire consequences. If you’re having trouble understanding what it must be like to live in such an environment, this particular contrast must surely be one key example.
There are also far more accessible ways of doing this elsewhere in the story, such as when the war arrives in the town and the locals are forced to flee. However, it is more important that Adam sees this complete social breakdown than the viewer: only then can he interpret the war in his homeland as being more than some annoying tax on his income or as a form of macabre entertainment on the television while he relaxes in his wife’s company after a day’s work. How easy to send his son off to war when it is little more than a vicarious idea presented by others. The reappearance of the town chief later in the story, when these same realities have silenced his demands of patriotism from others, is very telling. Haroun’s message, born of direct personal experience, is clear: heroics are for people in no danger of being shot at.
“Haroun’s message, born of direct personal experience, is clear: heroics are for people in no danger of being shot at.”
Where clarity falls a little flat for me however, is the ending. To tell its story, A Screaming Man has a fairly pedestrian pace in order to develop the character and inner workings of its central protagonist – and also simply because this is how fast life would move in what is essentially a mundane world until it is forced to be otherwise. Yet there is a rising conflict building toward a high point – in other words, the classical story structure – which, without spoiling the details, seems simply to end abruptly. I interpret this as Haroun’s ongoing attempt at unfettered realism: that real life is typically not a place of endings and closure. If this was his intention, he would be right, but as a viewer, I nonetheless find A Screaming Man ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. It doesn’t undo all the storytelling that precedes it, but does colour the overall experience. And this is a valid criticism of some art-house cinema.
On a far less important note, I also was disappointed with presence of stunt-casting in the film, in the form of Abdel’s girlfriend Djénéba Koné, whose character and real-world alter ego share exactly the same name. The only member of the cast to get this treatment, Koné was an up-and-coming singer/actress who is given the opportunity to show both talents in this film, and for me at least, neither activity justified breaking the fourth wall just to provide her with a variety showcase. It seems even more unfortunate in light of Koné’s tragic death in a car accident last December, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to see one of her better-suited performances one day.
Tragedy is ultimately in-keeping with the film itself – we should remember that A Screaming Man was borne of the fact that many other Chadians have died pointlessly and many more will continue to do so. Sometimes that pointlessness can be more easily avoided if we can manage to keep our own self-importance in check – such is the message of A Screaming Man, an imperfect, but laudably honest commentary on human nature by a film-maker whose observations go beyond the turbulence in his home country to each and every one of us.
Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart. The compelling historical-drama Machuca next, on World On Film. See a trailer below (apologies for the lack of English subtitles).
A bit of a gear-change this time around, as cinema is not really high on the agenda for the country featured. Nonetheless, there is plenty to watch – and a lot to think about.
Unless you’re deaf or know someone who is, it’s reasonable not to give much thought toward those who are – what options they have in life, the extra lengths they have to go to in order to compensate, and how they are treated by others. Still, we might think, society does offer support: the deaf are taught sign language and how to lip-read, the partially-deaf qualify for hearing aids, and it’s not as if being deaf prevents you from finding work. And quite rightly.
Still, imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear; where they are given no education and no job prospects, left to do absolutely nothing from the day they are born until death comes to claim them.
Unfortunately, there are places in the world where some don’t have to imagine this scenario.
Deaf In The Central African Republic
That video was put together by the Central African Republic Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team, a non-profit organization working to coordinate the various entities trying to improve life in the country. Help was supplied by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
Now it would be easy to be highly critical of this lesser-known African state for what the video shows – that CAR society cares little for the weak and infirm. However, context is everything and we need to zoom out a little.
“Imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear”
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest nations on the planet, with the International Monetary Fund placing it 178th out of 183 in 2011 in terms of GDP. Part of a former French colony, the CAR has a population of approximately 4.5 million who have suffered at the hands of foreign and domestic oppressors for as long as they can remember. A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate (- one even declaring himself their emperor). Military rule is still quite recent, with fair elections taking place for the first time only in 2005, yet this is seen as a hollow victory.
Although the land is rich in natural resources and suitable for agriculture, a near-total lack of infrastructure and a complete absence of government subsidies has meant there is no way to make a living from either. In other words, it isn’t just schoolteachers going unpaid. And, inevitably, the rampant poverty has led to social instability, extortion, and violence exacerbating the problem still further, with a government powerless to stop those seeking to profit by it.
Under The Gun
Produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Consequently, the Central African Republic is entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid for its survival, hence the need for the HDPT and their efforts to coordinate that aid. This is particularly the case in the north, where the terrorism is strongest. Even there, however, aid groups try to provide children with education. In the previous video, teachers expressed their frustrations at the temporary nature of any schools established, particularly in the bush. UNICEF, on the other hand, is more upbeat.
Produced by the HPDT and UNICEF.
The focus in this entry has been primarily on education, but for more videos on a range of issues relating to development in the Central African Republic, please visit HPDT’s official youtube page. For more on what HPDT does and background information on the CAR, their homepage (see above) is a good place to start.
“A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate”
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely enjoyed a comprehensive education, and yet if you’re like me, you probably have many complaints about its rote-based, corporate-driven nature. Sometimes it’s good to remember that it could be a whole lot worse.
Related Viewing – CAR and African Cinema
The Silence of the Forest
Amazingly, the CAR does have the beginnings of a film industry, with Le silence de la forêt the first full-length feature produced in 2003. Shot on location, the multinational film tells the story of an well-educated CAR native deciding to throw in his job and free the local pigmy tribe of their oppression by the ‘tall people’. However, they are inflexible to change and unable to see the benefits his urbanised knowledge and expertise will bring them. Based on the novel by Marcel Beaulieu, The Silence of the Forest can currently only be seen at film festivals and has received mostly positive reviews – including that from California Newsreel.
World On Film has explored the poverty-fuelled social upheaval of a former French African colony before, in Claire Denis’s discomfiting drama, White Material. “While White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. Click here to read the full review.
The Burundi Film Center
The CAR isn’t the only central African state with a budding film industry and more importantly, a similarly troubled history. Last year, World On Film discovered how one NGO is helping to empower the people of Burundi to tell their stories. “In 2007, a group of international film-makers set up the Burundi Film Center, a non-profit initiative designed to provide interested young Burundians with an opportunity to realise their cinematic dreams. The nation, emerging from the throes of civil war, cross-border conflict and poverty, was seen as having reached a turning point where the population could at last begin to express their cultures, celebrate their differences and realise their creativity.” Click here to read the full story.
A country torn apart by war. Living just outside the danger zone, one man is determined not to let the real-world interfere with his own private paradise, until he loses his job and his self-worth. Only then does the war come close to home – but has he caused the conflict himself? Humanity and hubris in the thought-provoking Chadian film, A Screaming Man, next time on World On Film. You can see a trailer below.
On World On Film this time around, greed and hubris combine to throw acid in the face of love over in the Cayman Islands as its inhabitants are forced to question its reputation as a
(2004) Written & Directed by Frank E. Flowers
“Fucking paradise is about money like everything else!”
(You can see a trailer at the end of the previous post)
Last time, the blog paid a visit to Cape Verde, an uncomplicated former Portuguese dependency once so poor that most of its population left for (literally) greener pastures. Today, things have stabilized, and its people live seemingly uncomplicated lives, the low population ensuring no fights over resources and the still-developing society untroubled by the many problems associated with ‘modern’ life.
Things couldn’t be more difficult on the other side of the Atlantic, it seems. Not, at least, in the Cayman Islands, very much a current British dependency only a couple of hours’ flight from the U.S. It would hardly be an act of cynicism to attribute these factors as the Caymans’ contrastingly more complex character.
Of course, the Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Changes to tax laws in places like the U.S and UK have more recently made this particular form of money laundering less profitable, with the local banks falling like dominoes as a result. Nonetheless, the damage to Paradise has been done, the Western world have destroyed the local society by raising it to a level of modernity that benefits only those who colonized it and who now leave the resulting cultural mish-mash to its own, poorer ends. If there is violence and instability in the once-happy Cayman Islands, it is because of the White Man’s Greed, his every act of hubris sending irreversible shockwaves through the delicate framework of the native community.
Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight. Whether or not his melodrama could, in fact, be transposed to any Caribbean Island is something perhaps better argued by those who know the region better than myself. Nonetheless, this is the story and the setting Haven gives us in its modern retelling of the old saying about money being the root of all evil, with a good amount of Bertrand Russell anti-imperialist discourse thrown in.
It’s not even out of place for once to be reviewing a Hollywood film in this blog. Though done for entirely practical reasons (the Caymans have no film industry), the fact that this is a story told through the lens of one of the Islands’ Western colonizers is entirely in tune with the story’s message.
“Haven gives us in its modern retelling of the old saying about money being the root of all evil, with a good amount of Bertrand Russell anti-imperialist discourse thrown in.”
Told as a nonlinear narrative, Haven is the story of a group of individuals who are both the instigators and victims of a series of chaotic events initially spanning a period of 24 hours, but which ultimately have far-reaching consequences when we then pick up the tale four months later. Dodgy Miami businessman Carl Ridley (Bill Paxton) flees federal investigators to the Caymans where his former accountant, the coldly-titled Mr. Allen (Stephen Dillane), is desperately seeking new sources of income now that all his old clients have dried up. Meanwhile, Ridley’s reluctant daughter Pippa (Agnes Bruckner), upset at the sudden forced relocation, runs into local ne’er-do-well Fritz (Victor Rasuk), who owes money to Richie Rich (Rasaaq Adoti), the self-appointed local crime boss. Unfortunately, Fritz happens to spy Ridley Senior’s stash of banknotes – physical currency being the only way to hide his remaining assets from the authorities – and suggests to Rich that he rob the newcomer to pay his debts. A final major plot strand involves a star-crossed romance between young local fisherman Shy (Orlando Bloom) and wealthy school senior Andrea (Zoe Saldana), whose family is violently opposed to their union. Throughout the film, the different stories weave together into an almost Shakespearean tragedy until its players are forever scarred by their interactions with one another.
I have discussed previously about the challenge involved in pulling off a non-linear narrative well, especially when it involves telling a story from multiple viewpoints and characters. Haven is a good attempt at the craft, but not a great one, leaving viewers to wonder at times who the story is really about. I know I’m not alone here, as the IMDB entry for the film can’t even make up its mind (compare the submitted premise at the top to the plot summary elsewhere). Haven’s tagline suggests the romance to be the major arc (‘Can love survive the fall of paradise?’), which is not surprising, given that it is by far the most compelling. Yet this is clearly not intended to be the case, with so much of the film given to the machinations of Ridley, Allen, and others. Haven is meant as an anthology spearheaded by a single event – the destruction of the island community’s innocence by the selfish actions of unscrupulous Westerners. This however, is more obvious to me in retrospect. At the time, the whole was not greater than the sum of its slightly disjointed parts.
Another reason the romance storyline probably stands out the most is because it is very difficult to care about most of the characters. Ridley has caused his own misery, Allen is largely amoral, and the best excuse the gangsters of the film can offer is “I gotta get a piece, man. By the hook or by the crook.”
Ironically, this line is delivered to the most unsympathetic character of all. In wannabe gangster Hammer, the story underscores another reason why sympathy in the viewer is difficult to come by. As presented, it does not give us sufficient time to develop emotional ties with many of the characters, thus making it difficult to care enough about their plights. Frank E. Flowers attempts to circumvent this for the Romeo & Juliet segments by giving Andrea a brother insecure to the point of violent psychosis, and Shy an antagonist who doesn’t like him, not because of any class discrimination, but simply because he exists. Thus their story benefits from a villain sufficiently ‘evil’ to bring their tale to a dramatic climax, but by a very two-dimensional means.
Hammer, like many of the island natives, make it very difficult for us to feel sorry that Western imperialism has destroyed their original culture. Perhaps the closest the Russell argument comes to being successful is through Fritz, whose ancestry in the Caymans stretches back centuries yet in the halfway house of cultures that the Caymans have become, he is like a directionless pack-rat, grabbing at the material wealth he sees around him without really knowing what to do with it, much less understanding the laws that govern the world which created it. This is a highly-valid discourse one will see re-enacted by the natives of many a colonised environment – the Australian aborigines being one such example. A shame then, that Fritz’s story is simply window-dressing in amongst the many other plot strands jostling for attention.
“Throughout the film, the different stories weave together into an almost Shakespearean tragedy until its players are forever scarred by their interactions with one another.”
Mr. Allen is another good case in point. A greedy, opportunistic money launderer who brought his family to the Caymans to live a life of luxury in paradise, Allen is now a hollow shell of his former self, too consumed by greed to care for a son fighting to establish his sexual identity or his hopelessly neglected wife. This is practically a story in itself, but given only a few snippets of time to tell his story, Allen is little more than a cardboard rogue spouting cynical disillusionment as to the truth of the Cayman dream. Sorry, don’t care.
Lack of depth is ultimately the problem throughout, with Haven trying to pretend it’s there through multiple plot strands that affect a large number of people. There’s a lot going on, in other words, but zoom in on any of it, and you find only cyphers projecting unremarkable plot elements handled better elsewhere.
At the same time, Haven boasts a fine cast who do the best with what they are given. The stand-outs for me are Orlando Bloom as the downtrodden Shy, Zoe Saldana as the damaged Andrea, and Stephen Dillane as Allen. Allen may be two-dimensional, but Dillane excellently portrays his naked greed and world-weariness atop a sea of frustration at the decline of his fortunes. Saldana and Bloom work well together as the initially innocent young lovers who want nothing more nor less than to be together, forced to then grow up rapidly into a damaged adulthood by the interference of others. (There were times when I felt the tagline ought to have been ‘Can love survive the interference of total jerks?’)
Haven is also shot entirely on location – the main reason I chose it – and so benefits from the entirely authentic Cayman scenery. It’s not remotely difficult to understand why the West fell in love with the place, though very tellingly, Flowers keeps the really beautiful scenery to a minimum, so as to emphasize the great distance between the inhabitants and the paradise they supposedly came to enjoy. As director, he keeps the narrative well-paced, with an editing that indicates the rapid turning of events yet doesn’t ever feel like a lot of cynical jump cuts to appease the attention-deficit knuckleheads in the audience. Lighting is used to good effect – night time scenes make frequent use of yellows and reds to keep everything emotionally-charged. And, for the most part, Flowers does a good job of showing ‘resets’ in the drama, ie – when we loop back to an earlier event but from the perspective of another character – something I only failed to catch once.
As writer however, Flowers needed to give Haven another draft to get the balance between the various story strands right to make the overall aims of the narrative clearer, and perhaps even more importantly, add dimension to his cardboard characters. Or at least to put the same amount of effort he put into Shy and Andrea into everyone else. It was clearly a story he very much wanted to tell, but perhaps wearing multiple hats as writer and director muddied the waters come execution time.
Even now, I find myself still making up my mind about the whole thing, but on balance, Haven is not as clever as it thinks it is, nor as deep as it would like to be. Yet it shows there is a compelling story to be told in the modern-day Caymans, and offers a reasonable glimpse of how it might unfold.
A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate. Today, life is little better for the people of the Central African Republic, and that’s where we’ll be going next time on World On Film.
In this edition of World On Film, we follow a young man caught between two worlds and who goes in search of his roots all the way to Cape Verde, where he happily discovers that he has –
Cabo Verde Inside
(2009) Written & Produced by Alexander Schnoor
“What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Being a good dancer? To not stress one’s self out?”
I’ve long believed that people don’t give nearly enough thought to the way in which their inner yearning for identity shapes their every interaction with the world around them. In a sense, the narcissist is the most honest of human beings – they consciously assert that everything within their world is ultimately about themselves and proceed through life with that premise as the lens through which everything is viewed. The narcissist only becomes a figure of dislike when they interact with someone who doesn’t share their parochial assertions – someone who is consequently offended because the former does not validate their own sense of self-worth, like a rhinoceros unconcerned by the existence of an ant.
Yet we are all narcissists at heart by design: we anthropomorphise the world around us and find nothing more fascinating than the actions of our own species and how we feel in relation to those actions. Reality is entirely shaped by how we focus upon those elements of the world that validate who we are, and consequently blind us to everything else beyond. Only through social evolution have most of us learned to internalise our selfishness through recognition that our survival works better as a group, which means acknowledging the needs of others. Read political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s most well-known book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, and see the way in which his proposition that democracy is the final evolution of society must first be understood in terms of thymos, the Greek word loosely translated as ‘self-identity’. Even beneath the sexual drive, argues Fukuyama, is the base need of the individual to have their sense of being recognised and agreed upon by everyone they meet. We befriend those who do and find reasons to dislike those who do not for reasons that are not necessarily connected with our underlying discomfort with them.
The quest for the self, however, is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories. Hence the common practice by people whose identities are more complex because they may be migrants, or the children of migrants, raised in one society, but strongly informed by the ethnicity and culture of another – a society of which they may have no direct experience. At a certain point of their development comes the yearning to visit the land of their ancestors, typically justified as a spiritual journey. More telling however is when their reason is given as a need to “find themselves” and we see the true root cause.
“The quest for the self is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories.”
The time spent in the ancestral homeland is frequently an ambivalent success: on the one hand, the individual feels the joy of finally being able to connect with the other half of themselves, nothing less than the validation of an identity not understood by the locals back home. Though largely experiential, the adventure seems to nevertheless answer questions never consciously made yet obvious – all pointing back to the two fundamental questions we all have of existence – Who am I? and What do I want? Yet it is also a honeymoon period: stay too long and the reality of the homeland punctures the elation, creating an internal conflict. From here, the person may be unable to reconcile their ancestry with the values instilled by those with which they were raised or find them more compatible with those back home. Here then, is the point when they really have to decide who they are.
Alexander Schnoor, half-German, half Cape Verdean, decided to identify his own inner yearnings back in 2009 when, armed with a video camera and a creditable skill for film-making, he set off for his ancestral homeland for the very first time hoping to answer the question, What does it mean to be Cape Verdean?
To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself. Cabo Verde Inside begins in Schnoor’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and spends time both framing the voyage to come and the process by which it took place. Schnoor doesn’t simply hop on a plane to Boa Vista, but first explores the Cape Verdean influence closer to home. Economic hardships on the islands back in the 1970s resulted in a mass exodus from the islands, with the result today that more Cape Verdeans live abroad than do within its 10 islands. Thus Schnoor searches for answers first in the local expat community before moving on to Maastricht where he meets a Creole woman of similar ancestry. The latter goes on to suggest that diaspora and racial mixing are the underlying reasons for the Cape Verdean easygoing amiability. The sentiment is oft-repeated by others throughout the film and unsurprisingly, is much to Schnoor’s liking.
It is through this perception filter that Cape Verde is presented. From the quiet, agrarian-based communities of Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau to the comparatively bustling main settlement of Santiago, the island nation is the very model of a developing world Eden. Locals almost uniformly speak of their social stability while reaffirming its mixed racial demographic and tolerance as the root cause, with one interviewee even suggesting that Cape Verdeans are the model for the future of humanity.
“To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself.”
And the islands themselves are fascinating and beautiful. Geographically, Cape Verde is a kind of North Atlantic Hawaii, formed by the same shifting hotspot volcanic activity. The mountains are jagged and dramatic, the beaches long stretches of shimmering sand, and the waters a rich azure blue. Couple this with the island chain’s isolated character and you have the textbook resort getaway for the rich and the appearance at least of a Brigadoon-like simplicity. In addition, Schnoor clearly has an eye for visuals and better still, a good understanding of editing, and thus turns out a appealing video postcard of his trip that never feels overlong.
The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!”
Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so. We are viewing not so much what is actually there, but the happiness of Schnoor’s psyche made manifest in rose-tinted brilliance as long-held desires within him finally connect with the one-and-only people who can mirror their need.
The real Cape Verde, long a Portuguese colony with a turbulent history, is never explored. Even the economic hardships mentioned above go without mention – the locals just seem to have left because they’re open, highly-adaptable people who can live anywhere. The roughly 20% who live below the poverty line are presumably content to make do on land with few natural resources.
It isn’t that I don’t believe Cape Verdeans are warm, welcoming and happy. They have a reputation for being just that. Even the Wikipedia entry makes this point. They live in a warm climate, the population is low thanks to the mass exodus so everyone has the space to be comfortable, and life is uncomplicated. I just didn’t learn a great deal about them in this film. The population is low because people within living memory were starving following the collapse of the slave trade and the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial masters. People have the space to be comfortable because most of them left. Life is uncomplicated because Cape Verde has been neglected for the last 40 years and again because most of the population left. What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Living almost anywhere else.
“Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so.”
All of which is ultimately demanding too much from Schnoor, when by now, we understand precisely where he was in his life while making the film and why it couldn’t be anything less than Disneyfied. Meet anyone of mixed origins who has grown up in one place and later visited their ethnic birthplace and ask them how things were those first two weeks. Very likely this will be their experience. Had Schnoor left Germany behind and actually relocated to his ancestral homeland, what might he have to say of it today? The title itself is explicit enough – it is not ‘Inside Cabo Verde’, but Schnoor finding Cabo Verde Inside. I’m glad he had such a positive experience, but I’ll have to look elsewhere to discover Cabo Verde For Real.
But enough from me. You can watch the whole thing free and legally for yourself right here:
“The Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Nonetheless, the damage to Paradise has been done, the Western world have destroyed the local society by raising it to a level of modernity that benefits only those who colonized it and who now leave the resulting cultural mish-mash to its own, poorer ends. Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight.”
Paradise lost in the 2004 melodrama Haven, up next on World On Film. To see a trailer, click below.
This week, World On Film returns to the work of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan as his most well-known feature takes us through the trauma of loss and beyond to:
The Sweet Hereafter
(1997) Based on the novel by Russell Banks Screenplay & Direction by Atom Egoyan
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, —
`It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!’
(You can find a trailer at the end of the previous post)
When I last ventured into the world of Atom Egoyan, he demonstrated his intimate understanding of human suffering and the gaping void that fills the lives of those who must carry on. The veteran auteur has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering. The sheer weight of that anguish seems to burden the passage of time until its hands slow down, bereft of mercy and conspiring to prolong the torture far beyond that which seconds, minutes and hours would claim has actually been endured.
The manipulation of time is very much an Egoyan trademark: his films often break up the linear narrative and present the viewer with a collection of events they must rearrange as the film progresses in their efforts to understand what is going on. Exposition is something to be doled out sparingly in order to create suspense and help the viewer understand the sense of disconnect suffered by the characters when tragedy has struck. Effective, non-linear narratives are much harder to create than they look, and as demonstrated in the previous post’s similarly-constructed White Material, when overused, will collapse under their own excessively-clever weight. The latter film perhaps also demonstrates that non-linear narratives will need to be composed of an especially compelling story if the viewer’s intrigue is not to be swapped with frustration and disappointment once they have it fully reassembled.
To ensure his dramatic tile puzzle would be so rewarding, Egoyan turned to American author Russell Banks’s 1991 novel, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, exploring the aftermath of a devastating bus crash in a small town that kills many of the local children. As the grieving locals struggle to carry on following the disaster, an opportunistic lawyer appears on the scene and attempts to rally them together in a lawsuit against anything that will award the highest amount of damages. Driven by the anguish of their loss, many of the parents agree, with only the crash’s one survivor finding clarity in the changed circumstances of her own life and able therefore to see through the madness and greed around her.
“[Film-maker Atom Egoyan] has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering.”
The conspiring interloper is practically the subject of a film in and of itself. Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic. His daughter, once the apple of his eye, now an unrepentant drug addict, has the final embers of his divorced and solitary dying compassion in her thrall whenever she requires money to feed the habit. Stevens perceives the world around him through this imprisonment and has unsurprisingly strong opinions on the fate of children in modern-day society. It is far easier to blame ‘society’ for his daughter’s loss than accept that the situation may have happened of its own accord. His denial thus forms the solid foundations of his outward persona as a would-be moral crusader. Devoid of an actual cause, his every declaration is akin to Olivier taking to the stage, wrenching the townspeople’s anguish back to the surface and igniting the flames of vengeance. However, not all of the bereft, most notably grieving father Billy (Bruce Greenwood, nowadays more famous for his role in Star Trek) and sole-survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), buy into the performance. Seeing Stevens’s true nature for what it is, they find themselves confronted with its infectious spread throughout the residents, particularly among those close to them.
Of Holm’s contribution, Olivier may not in fact be the best comparison, since he had a reputation for delivering Shakespearean dialogue with a natural authenticity few have replicated. Ian Holm’s lawyer instantly brings to mind the stage and the actor’s mesmerising presence forces the viewer to pay close attention to his alter-ego’s grotesque nature. However, natural it isn’t, neither in performance nor dialogue, which jars with the down-to-earth, more understated performance of the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is deliberate on the director’s part: Stevens is not only attempting to convince himself that he isn’t merely inflicting his personal problems on innocent parties, but is a performer by trade, as all successful lawyers are apt to be. I remain unconvinced at this point.
Just as the non-linear narrative serves to build up the way in which the chief antagonist is bound by events far removed from the quiet mountain town, so it also paints the equally complex set of circumstances that allow Nicole, a seventeen-year-old girl who has seen her contemporaries die first-hand and had her world turned upside-down, to see through the trauma at the wider issues beyond. Likewise Billy, who loses both his children in the struggle and who acted as mechanic on the vehicle that somehow managed to tumble over a cliff. It is very telling that both in their own ways stand apart from the rest of the community in having suffered great personal losses elsewhere. One has lost a family member, the other is forced to realise that a loved one is not who they have claimed to be, which is a traumatic loss of a different kind. Yet both end up in the same place. Their world is already in ruins, and a collective lawsuit will simply destroy what remains of their society.
“Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic.”
The notion of children being taken from their community never to return reminded either director or writer (I am unfamiliar with the novel) of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose tale is quoted liberally throughout. Yet I found it rather grating in its continual appearance, and it would be extremely unsubtle (unworthy of Egoyan) were it not especially relevant in the first place. Angered that the council of Hamelin will not properly reimburse him for ridding the town of its rat infestation, the enraged piper bewitches the children of the community with his flautations and spirits them away to a cave for fates unknown which to the villagers, is equivalent to death. The elders are thus forced to examine the price of their selfishness. “If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise,” declares Browning’s moral.
Yet in The Sweet Hereafter, the children are the product of loving parents, and although it is the father of the lame child who could be said not to have kept his promises, her lameness is the product of a different cause – indeed, her lameness is caused by the ‘event’, rather than preventing her from taking part in the event like the others. The amorality tale of the film is not really a re-enactment of what happens when one does not keep their word, and the fable merely a vague contextual similarity that has been shoehorned in to add a layer of subtext. That’s the thing about subtext – by definition, it shouldn’t jar.
Nonetheless, when one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness. It holds up, in contrast, our response to the toll the swift death of loved ones takes on the psyche as opposed to the ongoing impact a protracted death of ‘personality’ will continue to eat away at the soul. Left to their own devices, people are by nature equipped to adapt even to the most horrific of changing circumstances. For Banks and Egoyan, the issue is what happens when that process is interrupted – or in the case of some, never allowed to begin – when bereavement is ongoing and the deeply-buried embers of remorse are perpetually fanned. Our ability to move on ultimately defines how we will live in the changed world of the sweet hereafter.
“The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!” “
A young man goes in search of his ancestral roots in Cape Verde, hoping to gain insight into their character. But is he really in search of the truth or simply fulfilling a greater need to satisfy his inner cravings for self-identity? Discover Cabo Verde Inside next time on World On Film.
Previously on World On Film…
The Busan International Film Festival is the largest such event of its type in Korea. We scoured BIFF’s online program so that come credit card time, we’d have a big list of ‘Films We Really Wanted To See’, ‘Films We’d Be Reasonably Interested To See’, and ‘Films We’re Choosing Because We’re Begging For Scraps And Could We Just See Some F#@$!&% Films Please?’
It was a narrow window of opportunity: electronic purchasing would be granted to the masses for a specific few days and you’d obviously have to be greener than Kermit The Frog not to know that this essentially meant Day 1 would be a mad frenzy.
Tickets were sold out within two hours of being made available, and with the 26th being a weekday, you either had to be unemployed or find time out of your work schedule to brave the crowded digital waters.
Was BIFF re-enacting Monty Python’s ‘Cheese Shoppe’ sketch where customer and vendor play a merry verbal dance until it is finally revealed the premises was bare of cheese from the beginning?
Defeated, we took solace in the knowledge that we could still rock up and buy tickets on site like we did last year. The website promised that 20% of the remaining tickets could be purchased up front.
At last, nestled in between crimson souvenir stands and sprawling revelers, the ticket offices revealed themselves, where a girl on the volunteer side of the counter explained helpfully that we could no longer purchase tickets for the days in advance. On-site ticket purchases had to be made on the day of the screening.
“Did you see any mention of that on the website?”
“No, did you?”
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that.”
Thus was the first day wasted completely. Back to the hotel for a makeshift dinner of supermarket food and irritation at 11PM, knowing that tomorrow would be an early start.
I’m Looking For A Miracle In My Life
I’m frantically trying to wash myself in our hotel bathroom. It’s one of those single-mould, capsule-like bathrooms popular in Japanese tourist hotels where everything is shiny plastic and stiflingly-compact. I could stand in the bathtub and kick the outer door open if I wanted, but I’m too busy cleaning myself for Day 2 of our attempt to enter a cinema at the Busan International Film Festival.
Our breakfast is a pocket of Busan air as we step outside for yet another arduous sightseeing tour of the local subway tunnels. There’s no time to eat and the stairs leading into to the subway smell of urine. With the train crowded with weekend commuters, I feel as if I’m going to work as per usual, which is appropriate given the hell of a job we’re having getting tickets. The journey seems to take even longer because I’m too filled with anticipation over what lies ahead to bury my face in a book.
“Our breakfast is a pocket of Busan air as we step outside for yet another arduous sightseeing tour of the local subway tunnels.”
The sun has passed the 8am mark by the time we crawl out of Centum City station into the crisp air of a film festival gearing up for another day. There are two temporary ticket offices for up-front festival ticket purchases, we’ve been told – one at the Busan Film Center we so enjoyed visiting the night before and the other erected outside the main street entrance Shinsegae, the little department store that overdosed on steroids and leveled a city block.
Presumably, the queue is behind that enormous crowd over there.
Oh god, please tell me that isn’t the ticket queue!
A long and narrow sine wave of a queue slowly oscillates next to the temporary ticket office, filled with enough people to replace all the inhabitants of Svalbard, including the dolphins. We join the outer lane, which is situated closer to the perfume department than the ticket office, and begin that ultimate testament to social evolution, waiting in line. It’s clearly not as easy as it looks, with frustrated individuals frequently giving up and resigning themselves to alternative arrangements for the day. I love those people. I want them to breed. I want them to spread their impatience throughout the crowd until they all find the idea of cinema utterly repulsive.
Alas, their numbers are too small just enough to build up false hopes. The majority is probably like us –come too far to turn back now.
It quickly becomes apparent however that there is another force to be reckoned with. Dancing around the crowd are the black-shirted festival helpers, the glue that hold BIFF together by doing all the leg work. As if awaiting an arrival on a long-haul flight from Heathrow, they hold up makeshift white signs onto which are hastily scribbled long columns of numbers they’d very much like us to read. Every so often, a new number is called out in Korean, which each volunteer immortalizes by adding it to his tally in black pen, like a massive game of street bingo.
Then the realization dawns upon us that these are the films that have already sold out. In large film festivals such as BIFF, you are provided with a free festival booklet containing daily schedules, featured programs, and film synopses. Next to each entry is the numeric code the film has been assigned for record purposes. Only this year, it has an extra function – to signify that you can’t watch it without mugging someone annoying enough to have secured a ticket.
Excellent, I think to myself; how thoughtful of the staff to give us something to do while we stand here in line. It even has all the major facets of human drama built in: tension, suspense, anticipation, hope, anger, frustration…and despair.
I can feel myself ageing as we study the film schedules for alternatives as every few minutes another movie number is padlocked from the dwindling list of options. It must have been fun for the international visitors to figure out what the whiteboards were all about – the announcements are only made in Korean.
It’s a funny thing standing in a long line with the same people. After a while, you feel you’ve come to know them, especially if you can hear their conversations. You start to wonder who they are and how they came to be here. Look at those jerks up the front. Bet they came here at 6. Probably live in Busan – probably have friends who live across the road or something and crashed at their place. Bastards!
The glacial pace of the line continues, causing scores of people behind us to give up. If they do, their only chance of seeing a film is to put themselves through all this again tomorrow, and every day afterward until the festival ends. But I can’t blame them, being close to erupting myself. By now, anything we were even vaguely interested in seeing has been murdered by a whiteboard marker and we’ll just have to take whatever’s left. Funny, they’ve got a lot of films here.
Finally, after over an hour of waiting, going mad, waiting, conspiring to re-enact Friday The 13th on everyone in front of us, waiting, and going mad, we reach the ticket office. The girl inside the booth helpfully explains that the next available film to watch is at 6.30PM as all the others are sold out. Those remaining start upwards of 8PM. Guess which one we picked?
I look back over the still-waiting crowd as we depart with our tickets. Most of them will get nothing and have to try again tomorrow. If we were even perhaps ten places further back in line, we might have had to join them. I decide then and there that there is no way in hell I’m going through this again. Especially with the knowledge that even after having secured two tickets for Parked, we now have 8 hours to kill.
To Learn As We Grow Old
2011-10-08/9.54AM: Second day in Busan and still haven’t seen any films yet. Things aren’t exactly going according to plan. (cell phone memo)
If the queuing seemed to take forever, getting to 6.00 seems to stretch beyond the concept of time. A lot of eating at various venues takes place to relieve the monotony, including lunch at a very traditional-looking Chinese restaurant famous for a dish that contains enough sugar and starch to simultaneously kill and petrify a diabetic. We also experiment with more café-style options, such as determining how long we can sit in Starbucks before going completely mad, or how much pureed fruit I can get through at Smoothie King before developing violent stomach cramp.
“I decide then and there that there is no way in hell I’m going through this again.”
Naturally, the surrounding area is explored, however Centum City is essentially a quickly redeveloped residential area and once beyond the confines of Shinsegae and the festival spaces, proves about as exciting as an overripe watermelon. Without a major event in town, the area is a soulless concrete garden with a shopping district only urban planners could love. And if you can’t catch any films…
I would like to stress at this point that Busan does have its share of attractions. Ancient temples, bright sandy beaches, island cruises, and seafood markets are just a few such examples. They just aren’t in Centum City, and we’ve seen those within easy reach on previous trips. And we’re tired, annoyed, and didn’t come here to smell burning incense, get our feet wet, or stare at whales.
Still queasy after a dodgy Chinese, we pay a daytime visit to the Busan Film Center to see what it has to offer besides screenings. I’m a sucker for good souvenirs, so am a little disappointed when the offerings include the BIFF logo on a half-hearted collection of stickers, cigarette lighters, and an assortment of apparel I’ve managed to get through several decades of existence without wearing. Certainly there are no films, posters or genuine movie merchandise connected with the event, the only purchasing of anything connected with film being the Asian Film Market, and that’s for buyers and distributors. All of which is simply further proof of whom BIFF is really for.
The center itself is suitably impressive in size, almost like visiting an airport in some places, and filled with theaters – from some of which come the sounds of lectures, discussion panels and indeed films. Here, the huge investment into the festival is readily apparent, and does at least make you feel you’re in a place where cinema is taken seriously. Pity we can’t actually see any of it.
We alight in a crowded foyer somewhere within this great complex, looking very much like people about to catch a film rather than two extremely pissed off out-of-towners bored out of their skulls, when we are approached by a female volunteer armed with clipboards. They do care about what we think, we are told, and would love it if we filled out a survey giving our opinions as to how we’ve enjoyed the new-look festival.
She has to come back three times before I’ve finished filling up every square inch of paper with lead.
Outside, the space near the souvenir stalls and ticket offices are filled with day-trippers enjoying a performance of acrobatics and magic tricks by a group of young street entertainers. Koreans are big fans of this sort of visual entertainment and so the crowd is very appreciative. Aside from this, there seems little else to divert the visitor’s attention, with most of it taking place behind closed doors for the privileged few. There’s nothing else for it – we still have hours to go before Parked and we’ve seen everything else that’s around. It’s time to wander around Shinsegae.
Like most men, I hate department stores. They are little more than shiny, overpriced shrines to the Usurer of Profitable Meaninglessness and mostly geared towards women. Asians understand this well and construct their department stores accordingly. Shinsegae Centum City was simply more of this expensive dreariness writ enormous. I have vague memories of standing at the entrance to various clothing stores while my wife darted about inside them wishing I were her sister, and of a torturous hour inside the stationery department staring at a billion birthday cards and anime figurines.
Trembling On The Brink
2011-10-08/5.08PM: Second day, after 5pm, and still haven’t seen a bloody film. Irritated. (cell phone text)
Even she was ready to hang herself by 5, so we spent the final hour or so waiting at the CGV (local cinema chain, and venue for our one-and-only film) where I became so bored I started filming passersby with my cell phone. If I couldn’t see any of their films, I might as well make a few of my own.
“If I couldn’t see any of their films, I might as well make a few of my own.”
Finally, after a stint in a nearby gaming arcade (and actually enjoying myself more than I care to admit – must do that again sometime), the hour finally approached. We were really doing it. Only 36 hours of waiting and we were actually going to see a film as part of the Busan Film Festival!
It had better bloody well be good.
In fact, Parked was a film I’d put on my top ten list weeks earlier when we were hoping to secure online tickets and had forgotten all about it. Produced in 2010, it’s an Irish drama/black comedy about two unconnected people of different ages living at the very fringe of society and who strike up a friendship. Ultimately they have to face their own demons but for one them, it may be too late. Parked was the first feature film directed by one Darragh Byrne and starred Merlin regular Colin Morgan and veteran of Irish and American film and television, Colm Meaney.
And it was brilliant – touching, heartbreaking, funny, and just full of pathos. No stupid Hollywood by-numbers structure, no cowardly happy ending, just a real, down-to-earth drama about two very real people. Everyone involved really stepped up to the plate and Byrne clearly has much to offer the film world. I really ought to give it a full review sometime, but for now at least, simply recommend you go and see it.
If that wasn’t enough, Byrne himself and co-producer Dominic Wright appeared in stage after the credits for a Q&A session. Both were very personable, and very pleased at the positive reception Parked had been given in Asia.
This is why I go to film festivals. This is why I watch international cinema – real films not driven by a marketing department in order to sell products and here, the chance to see some of those genuine artists in the flesh. We left the cinema, for the first time since we’d arrived in Busan, happy. It was time to go back to the hotel, get drunk, and relax.
We weren’t scheduled to depart Busan the next day until late in the afternoon, but I’d absolutely had enough of the whole farce that was BIFF. I had absolutely no intention of standing in line on the off-chance we might be thrown scraps if we behaved like good little proles. Besides which, if yesterday had been anything to go by, the odds of catching something before leaving were close to zero. And after the excellence of last night, there was nowhere to go but down. Better to leave it at that. We’d wasted a lot of time and money, but for 2 ½ hours at least, it had been worth it. So we spent the morning exploring the fish markets and taking lunch close to the station. BIFF was over for us. We probably wouldn’t be coming back.
This account was just our experience of BIFF 2011. Maybe we weren’t doing things properly. Perhaps we had unrealistic expectations. Could be that we didn’t get up early enough to buy tickets or click fast enough when they were available online. Maybe there were other options we didn’t know about. To all this I say we studied the official site and acted on the information presented. It didn’t inform us that unlike previous years, we would not be able to buy tickets up-front for subsequent screenings. That to me was the biggest difference and something that ensured PIFF2010 hadn’t been a similar waste of time. We also had little choice but to stay at a hotel far from the venue and as out-of-towners, were not entirely prepared for just how long the commute would take.
“We’d wasted a lot of time and money, but for 2 ½ hours at least, it had been worth it.”
We know what to expect now, but it doesn’t seem worth it.
I don’t want to deter anyone from attending BIFF if they want to see it for themselves. If anything, take my experiences and use them to forewarn yourself when planning your trip.
As far as I’m concerned, the Busan International Film Festival has been transformed from a celebration of film that anyone could enjoy into a backslapping event for the industry and the local government, as well as an exhibition for distributors. I think the latter is obviously important for getting Asian cinema out to a broader audience and there is some great local talent deserving of wider recognition. However, by putting all their eggs in one basket and concentrating the festival in a small area, the event has become overcrowded and favors the VIPS, the guests and those able to get tickets more easily than the rest of us. Much of this was already the case prior to 2011, but by spreading the festival out over a wide area and forcing people to queue hours for tickets because the majority have already been sold in blocks to those with connections is hardly the answer. There is always an element of ‘first come, first served’ with any such event, but there are also such things as a bottleneck and personal expenditure.
I hope all of this proves to be simply the growing pains of a film festival now in its teenage years. For now though, I’ll be sticking to the smaller, local events.
“When one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness.”
A small town is paralysed by disaster when a school bus crash kills many of the local children. As the survivors grieve, and opportunistic lawyer arrives to take advantage of their pain. Atom Egoyan’s Canadian drama The Sweet Hereafter when World On Film returns. Click below for a trailer.
In this entry, I take a side-step from the usual reviews and discuss my experiences of last year’s Busan International Film Festival. Writing it has brought back a lot of irritating memories, and so for sanity’s sake, I’m splitting the entry into two parts, the second to be posted later.
With a blog like this, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy the odd international film festival. I’m not terribly interested in the light entertainment celebrity side such events inevitably attract. I just want to see some films. Of course, there’s a great atmosphere at a film festival since you’re surrounded by fellow cinemaphiles and seeing people actually involved with the making of a film is a plus. Ultimately though, it’s what is on screen that counts. I have now attended three Korean film festivals: Seoul’s ‘Chungmuro International Film Festival’, the ‘Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival’, and the ‘Busan International Film Festival’. Of those, only one is truly in the big league, and in 2011, it evolved into something bigger still.
That may have been the final year I bother to see it, unless things change there dramatically. BIFF 2011 was a perfect example of when a film festival becomes a purely commercial exercise for the host city and networking opportunity for industry insiders rather than a chance for the locals to experience new and alternative cinema from the world beyond Hollywood. It was the year when the ordinary people would be made to beg for tickets like food scraps, waste inordinate amounts of time trying to enjoy anything the event had to offer, and generally be pushed onto the sidelines. It wasn’t always that way, though.
The Busan International Film Festival (formerly the Pusan International Film Festival) is the largest such event of its type in Korea, and quite significant in Asia overall. It celebrates its 17th anniversary in 2012 and has come a long way since its disorganized, humble beginnings. It has always championed local film-making, and been a critical opportunity for both established and upcoming talent in Korea and the region at large to bring their work into the public sphere. Famous examples of such talent over the years have included Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wei, Kitano Takeshi, Kim Kiduk, Hideaki Anno, and Tsui Hark among many others.
“BIFF 2011 was a perfect example of when a film festival becomes a purely commercial exercise for the host city”
Regular screening categories have included A Window On Asian Cinema, which feature entries from both new and established Asian film-makers; Korean Cinema Today and Korean Cinema Retrospective; World Cinema, Open Cinema, where selected new films are introduced; and special focuses on particular countries, such as Kurdish Cinema: The Unconquered Spirit in 2010. Other highlights include the usual opening and closing features, celebrity appearances, and Q&A sessions with cast and crew after screenings. In more recent years, BIFF has included the Asian Film Market which, as the name suggests, brings together buyers and exhibitors from within the industry.
And of course, there are the parties for those wishing to see and be seen with film’s prime movers.
BIFF 1996 saw the screening of 173 films from 31 countries to an audience totaling 184, 071, with BIFF 2011 screening 307 films from 70 countries to a total audience of 196, 177. The first festival attracted 224 participating guests from 27 countries, the latter attracting 11,268 (including the media). The numbers have inevitably fluctuated over the years, but the general upward trend is clear.
So there is no denying that BIFF has become increasingly more popular and successful with both industry and public alike. Alas, with increased success and profitability comes parochialism and selfishness.
Memories Of Yesterday
I first attended BIFF in 2010, and the difference between that and its successor could not have been more pronounced. In its smaller manifestation, BIFF was the pride of downtown Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, in the shopping and entertainment district of Nampo, dubbed ‘PIFF Square’. It was literally a few stops away from main transport hub Busan Station, making it easily accessible for out-of-towners like myself arriving by train or bus, and surrounded by various other attractions and eateries to keep one amused in between screenings. My favourite nearby attraction was the Jagalchi Fish Market, literally a couple of minutes walk from the cinemas, where we would stock up on all kinds of sashimi (hoe in Korean), take it back to the hotel with a few drinks and feast on raw fish after a long day. For the more outgoing, the area provided numerous bars and restaurants and though crowded, made being festive relatively easy.
The cinemas themselves were somewhat aged by 2010, having been installed a couple of decades earlier with some designed originally not for film festivals but simply the regular traffic of ordinary citizens. Every BIFF would stretch them to their limits, but their down-to-earth character was their virtue – after all, ordinary cinemas are where most of us watch our films.
Long before 2010 however, the festival had outgrown its spiritual home. Though Nampo was the center of activity, other cinemas across the city had been drafted into service to handle the increased number of screenings, including CGV Centum City, located not far from the still-under-construction Busan Film Center. While this might make the more energetic enthusiast leap about the city, average filmgoers could simply pick one location and expect to see a good handful of films and events. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but it meant that people were spread out: PIFF Square alone was a sea of film fans at high tide on weekends, and would have imploded were everything concentrated there.
Another crucial factor in BIFF’s pre-2011 success was the ticketing. The purchasing of tickets online was, like the Olympics, heavily rigged in favour of anyone vaguely connected with the event, leaving everyone else to fight over what remained, the victors being the precision mouse-clickers used to buying something from eBay at 11.59.59PM. If you failed here, a certain percentage of tickets were reserved for on-site purchase, and you could even buy tickets for other screenings taking place on subsequent days from the box office at whichever venue you happened to be in. The only average citizens attending the opening ceremony either knew someone who knew someone, or had managed to move like lightning at the right moment, but there was plenty of everything else to go around – even if you didn’t always get your first choice.
“The purchasing of tickets online was, like the Olympics, heavily rigged in favour of anyone vaguely connected with the event.”
I’ve already documented my experiences of BIFF 2010 and the films I managed to see, which you can read here.
One final aspect of BIFF I’d like to commend before the rant begins is the volunteer staff, typically aspiring college students majoring in film and otherwise-interested youths keen to be part of the experience. While not always well-versed in English, their enthusiasm and welcoming behaviour has always smoothed over the rougher patches of crowded venues or the ordinary problems of being a foreigner in a different country. Without their efforts, no-one would see anything at all.
Two Steps Backward
So now to 2011, and keen to be more organized than the previous year, we arranged to be in Busan an extra day to avoid arriving exhausted. More important was the concerted effort to join the exalted ranks of People Who Bought Their Tickets Online. We scoured BIFF’s online program with the precision of an archaeologist so that come credit card time, we’d have a big list of ‘Films We Really Wanted To See’, ‘Films We’d Be Reasonably Interested To See’, and ‘Films We’re Choosing Because We’re Begging For Scraps And Could We Just See Some F#@$!&% Films Please?’
It was a narrow window of opportunity: electronic purchasing would be granted to the masses for a specific few days and you’d obviously have to be greener than Kermit The Frog not to know that this essentially meant Day 1 would be a mad frenzy. Memory tells me it was September 26th, though given that the whole setup was a pathetic joke, it may have been April 1st. Tickets were sold out within two hours of being made available, and with the 26th being a weekday, you either had to be unemployed or find time out of your work schedule to brave the crowded digital waters.
We couldn’t help but wonder: had a huge chunk of the available e-tickets been reserved in advance by an uncaring industry elite, interested government officials, their families and friends? Had a small few purchased huge blocks of tickets in that ridiculously-small gap? Was BIFF re-enacting Monty Python’s ‘Cheese Shoppe’ sketch where customer and vendor play a merry verbal dance until it is finally revealed the premises was bare of cheese from the beginning?
Defeated, we took solace in the knowledge that we could still rock up and buy tickets on site like we did last year. The website promised that 20% of the remaining tickets could be purchased up front. We’d have to make do with what was available, but what the hell: discovery is what an international film festival is all about.
Then came the problem of accommodation.
In 2011, BIFF relocated wholesale to Centum City, an up-market district of Haeundae, famed for the popular beach of the same name. In previous years, a chunk of the festival had already taken place at CGV Shinsegae Centum City, CGV being Korea’s nationwide cinema chain, Shinsegae one of the country’s largest department stores, and this branch was in close proximity to the now-complete Busan Film Center. The Asian Film Market would now be held at the nearby Busan Exhibition & Convention Center, and many industry parties were already Haeundae-based. From now on, Centum City was the epicentre of the whole event – a change of affairs that had forced surrounding hotel owners to chain themselves to the floor lest they leap through the stratosphere and find themselves propelled into the sun, unable to contain their excitement. With the BIFF of previous years so scattered throughout Busan, festival-goers took rooms far and wide secure in the knowledge they’d be near at least one of the venues. Now everything was super-concentrated. Super.
All of which meant that everyone had to stay in the same area, had to book months in advance, and pay double-rates, or whatever the local hoteliers were charging. And they’d have to deal with rooms being blocked for all the invited guests. Which meant the industry insiders, their friends and families. And they’d have to be able to plan a good nine months ahead. Which is nice if you know when you can get time off work that far ahead. Which is likely to be the weekend if you don’t live locally. Which is when everyone else will have time off and want to do the same thing.
Now obviously, this isn’t annoying enough in itself. How else can things be made more difficult?
“Was BIFF re-enacting Monty Python’s ‘Cheese Shoppe’ sketch where customer and vendor play a merry verbal dance until it is finally revealed the premises was bare of cheese from the beginning?”
Ah yes, with us foolishly finding a reasonably-priced hotel further from the venue. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t demanding our future earnings for the next decade, the Toyoda Inn was located literally right next to Busan Station. Getting in was easy, getting out was mercifully painless. Getting anywhere else, on the other hand… Busan Station is several light years away from Centum City, which took 45 minutes to reach via two subway lines for we ordinary proles unable and unwilling to sell our kidneys to the Ramada.
So then, after the Milky Way galaxy had turned a full quarter, we finally staggered out of the subway into Centum, connected directly to the Shinsegae mentioned earlier, and began our search for the aforementioned CGV from where we expect to buy tickets. This is when we discovered that Shinsegae Centum City is today the largest department store in the world – and that the cinemas were located on the top floor. Another half hour passed before we reached the ticket office, to be found at a different latitude from the ground floor, though just beyond the inviting theaters. Are we having fun yet?
Naturally, this is when we were told that the cinemas themselves no longer sold festival tickets and that we’d have to purchase them from the dedicated ticket booths over at the Busan Film Center a quick ten minutes across the road.
We came to know that department store extremely well by the end of our trip. Another half hour passed as we gained escape velocity from Shinsegae’s Jupiter-like gravity and made a slingshot over to the aircraft-hangar like film center, half of which had been cordoned off to make way for some cacophonous K-pop concert populated by a huge crowd of locals desperate to see celebrities unconnected with film face to face. So great was the unseen balladier’s influence that he appeared to have rendered invisible any signs indicating where the ticket booths might be located. Were they on the far side of the building? Of course they were. Funny, this doesn’t seem to have taken a quick ten minutes. We must have been doing it wrong.
At last, nestled in between crimson souvenir stands and sprawling revelers, the ticket offices revealed themselves, where a girl on the volunteer side of the counter explained helpfully that we could no longer purchase tickets for the days in advance. On-site ticket purchases had to be made on the day of the screening – each and every day, from the designated ticket booths both here and next to the department store.
“Did you see any mention of that on the website?”
“No, did you?”
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that.”
Thus was the first day wasted completely. We would see no films and because of the enormous amount of time it took to reach Centum, no anticipated raw fish supper from the local market. Back to the hotel for a makeshift dinner of supermarket food and irritation at 11PM, knowing that tomorrow would be an early start. I had visions of sleeping outside a ticket office somewhere on the freezing concrete in order to be first in line.
Little did we know that’s more or less what we needed to have done.
“Please tell me that isn’t the ticket queue!”
Time slows down and tempers become frayed as the story continues when World On Film returns.
This week, World On Film visits Cameroon for an unusual commentary on the madness of war. Though filmed in the central African state, its message applies to the continent as a whole, where the locals are in perpetual conflict and their former European overlords are simply:
(2009) Written by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau Directed by Claire Denis
“I’ve nowhere else to go. I won’t give up.”
(You can find a trailer for this film at the bottom of the previous post.)
French film-maker Clare Denis has firsthand experience with the realities of African colonialism, having lived in Cameroon where the film was shot, as well as Burkina Faso*, Senegal, and Somalia during the period when her father was a civil servant in these former French dependencies. As such, while White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. While this approach achieves varying levels of success, the blurred geographical borders are appropriate to the story since its principal characters inhabit the murky waters of reality, and one is never entirely sure if they too know where they are.
*World On Film previously visited Burkina Faso via Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s acclaimed social commentary, Moolaadé. To read the review, click here.
Chief among them is White Material’s most interesting and most frustrating main character, Maria Vial, in charge of the family’s coffee plantation and determined to keep it operational despite the escalating chaos. France has abandoned the colony, the French army has withdrawn, and even Maria’s ex-husband Andre realises the writing is on the wall. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the business is a lost cause and their continued presence in the country puts their lives at risk, Maria refuses to acknowledge any of this and remains determined to maintain the status quo.
One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is. Perhaps this has much to do with the way it lays its emotional cards on the table, yet keeps people guessing right to the end: you know it can only end in tragedy, but precisely how is difficult to gauge. This is further heightened by Denis’s choice of a non-linear narrative, which makes it clear from the opening scenes that the situation is out of control. We begin with a desperate Maria seemingly stranded in the middle of nowhere and forced to hide from an adolescent rebel militia, after which a series of flashbacks show life on the plantation already collapsing. Long-term employees have fled as gangs of child soldiers sweep through the towns and local government is more concerned about its own immediate survival.
“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”
Ironically, that same disjointed narrative, compelling the viewer to assemble the story, also undermines its impact. It takes the non-linear approach too far, to the point where it felt as though I were arranging a tile puzzle. It’s hard to maintain a buildup of drama under such circumstances, and felt as though it were being done simply for the sake of artistic complexity. One of the difficulties created, for example, is in placing the actions of the White Material’s many secondary characters, from plantation workers to the many participants of the civil war, in the scheme of things. Ironically, where it works far better is in jumping around the actions of the principal character: the fact that it doesn’t matter where we meet her in the story says a lot for her state of mind.
It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message. Possibly the hardest thing for the viewer to accept is Maria’s behaviour, oblivious to the truth and even her own family’s disintegration. If the line were drawn between indomitable spirit and steadfast denial, it is clear that she crossed it long before we met her. The motivation of such a person is borne of even greater instability than the ravaged country in which she chooses to ignore: its collapse is as nothing compared to what the terrified individual must endure if they should ever face themselves, the ongoing denial ultimately robbing them of their sanity.
Unfortunately, Denis chooses to avoid exploring the wider causes behind the conflict itself. In White Material, it seems to be sufficient simply to indicate that white landowners are rich and the black locals are poor, and they’re not happy about it. This, however, is insufficient comment to justify ten-year-old children taking up arms and murdering strangers for money, or indeed a major civil war. Nor are the Vials – the plantation’s owners and only Caucasian characters in the film – seen to mistreat the locals in a manner deserving of such uprising. The result is simply a simplistic painting of the colonial landscape – events happen simply because they are the sort of events that happen in such places. Stereotypes are reinforced and explanations are thin on the ground – ironic, given that this is a film spearheaded by someone who would know the underlying mechanisms of the conflict all too well.
“It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message.”
Taken instead as a discourse on the human psyche, White Material fares far better. It is brought to life by an extremely good cast headlined by Isabelle Huppert. So much of the film’s impact centres around the complex lead character and our struggle to understand her motivations that it is not an exaggeration to say that Huppert is responsible for much of its successes. Marie’s blind determination and hyperactivity masking a deep well of fear is precisely what I have encountered in real-world sufferers of the condition, and if anything, Huppert could have taken it even further.
In contrast, Nicholas Duvauchelle memorably portrays the unbridled descent of Manuel, the son. Here is also a complex character, whose long introduction off-screen as a frequently-mentioned source of trouble, lulls us into a false sense of security as to his true nature – a further extension of his mother’s neglect of the world about her.
Ultimately, it is the brightly-coloured painting of that colonial world that Denis wishes to create. The deeper politics of the clash between the cultures and the reasons underpinning the drama that ensues does not interest her in favour of the image the various elements create together. I’ve used words like ‘commentary’ and ‘discourse’ when in reality, ‘snapshot’ or ‘portrait’ would be more apt. However, the detached rationalisation is compensated for by the emotionally-charged interplay. A ‘beguiling ambiguity’, as one reviewer of Denis’s similarly-themed debut film Chocolat, sums up the endeavour extremely well: come in search of understanding and you will be disappointed, yet you will not walk away unaffected. Perhaps this in itself is the message, but I can imagine many viewers still yearning for more at credits roll.
What happens when a film festival stops being an event for the people and becomes simply a profit-driven vanity exercise for the wealthy elite? In 2011, I returned to the Busan International Film Festival, and found it almost impossible to see anything. I’ll be explaining why I may never attend one of Asia’s biggest celebrations of cinema ever again, and what to expect if you do. That’s next time, on World On Film.
World On Film returns after a slight absence (did anyone notice?) with a trip to Cambodia, where proof that our species is highly selective about its morality is cast in the stark light of hypocrisy as the child sex trade and those who perpetuate it form the basis for:
(2006) Written by Guy Moshe & Guy Jacobson Directed by Guy Moshe
“There’s crime, and there’s crime. These people already have a reservation for Hell. They care about nothing. Your life, maybe $5 and I will miss you.”
An American expat in Cambodia, deadened to the realities of life there after many years of living in the country and dealing in stolen artifacts, is suddenly awoken from his torpor when he encounters Holly, a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold into sex slavery. Attempting to rescue her from her fate, he discovers that saving even one of the millions of victims to child trafficking in South-East Asia may be a lot harder than expected.
A co-production between the U.S, France, Israel, and Cambodia, Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry, with over 2 million unwitting minors sold into sex slavery every year, according to the U.N. Although a fictitious account, the film is part of the producers’ K11 Project (http://www.myspace.com/priorityfilms), an attempt to raise public awareness of the issue. Jacobson chose Cambodia for his setting following an eye-opening visit to the country years earlier, where he found himself repeatedly approached by young children on the streets of Cambodia offering up their bodies.
Indeed, the real power of the film lies in the extensive location shooting in the country, including many scenes shot in actual Phnom Penh brothels where trafficked girls end up after having been sold by destitute parents unable to provide for them and not given the full picture as to their offspring’s fate. It is implied in Holly that a fair portion of the underage children facing this tragic future in Cambodia are often smuggled from neighbouring Vietnam. At one point, the eponymous victim explains to her would-be rescuer that parents like hers were forced to balance the cold equations of basic survival, and had little chance of making a living other than by selling her off. Such is a decision that anyone not of an impoverished society (ie, you and I) may struggle to fathom, and therein underscores the truly desperate nature of the Third World. This is even assuming that the children were not simply abducted in public.
“Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry.”
Holly also makes the obvious, but oft-overlooked point that the only reason the trade exists is because there are adults willing to pay for it. Artifact dealer Patrick is to an extent Jacobson himself years earlier, discovering the ridiculous ease with which sex tourists can find underage girls to sleep with or to buy, simply by venturing into the red light districts of Phnom Penh. The easy manner with which those handling their human commodities in the presence of a potential customer belies how frequently it occurs, the sex tourists in the film originating from wealthier nations or even from within local government – the latter becoming a major source of conflict as the story progresses. For the former group, the Third World is like the internet, an unmonitored realm where they believe their anonymity gives them the right to abandon the social mores they observe in the ‘real world’ of their home countries. Nationalist rhetoric programs them to believe that only ‘their people’ are truly human like themselves, while the foreigner, falling outside this narrow fiction, is little more than an animal to be consumed when the appetite demands.
Beyond the activist groups working to combat the underage sex trade, it isn’t surprising that so many turn a blind eye to it. That there are those capable of treating the young of their own species in this way is tremendously hard to face in the developed world, and just one of a billion other problems to live with in the undeveloped world. The power of the film itself relies on getting across this sickening reality.
At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such. It is rather clichéd in places, depicting as it does the rugged, white American male swooping into the chaotic Orient to save the poor Asian girl from her own evil people. Ironically, Jacobson is far too aware of the realities of the problem in Cambodia to ignore this, with Patrick encountering volunteer campaigner and women’s refuge worker Marie who explains to him that what he is attempting to do in reality flies in the face of all manner of legal and psychological problems, not to mention mafia-related retaliation. In short, it will create more problems than exist already.
“At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such.”
The need to create a dramatic storyline with the usual elements of rising action, major conflict and so on also undermine the reality of the situation. Characters all too often just happen to run into each other in the right place at the right time despite the size of the setting in which the story occurs, leading to the CSI effect, wherein crimes are solved every episode as opposed to real life, wherein unsolved crimes are the norm. All of which criticism may sound a little unfair if Holly is taken simply as a drama. However, due to the concerted effort on the part of the film-makers to be as realistic as they can, whether it be real location shooting or the script’s dissemination of the hard facts about child trafficking, any attempt at unreal melodrama stands out all the more.
Ron Livingston is also very-much the stoic, square-jawed, good-looking hero who somehow cares about the situation more than anyone else we meet and is inevitably prone to emotional outbursts in all the right places. His checkered past is therefore easily forgiven and indeed simply makes him the classical dark and damaged hero that the Hollywood formula has proved works well with the audience. He’s on the run from justice in a world that wants him silenced. He’s not trying to save the everyone – he’s just trying to save one person, thereby reducing the conflict to the level of interpersonal melodrama.
And the formula works. Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side. Behind him, the whole cast is a perfect fit for the exercise: Pen Sopheap, for example, plays with conviction the vicious gang leader and smuggler, while Montakan Ransibrahmanakul is all too believable as the horribly cruel Madam of the first brothel in which Holly finds herself. Thuy Nguyen as Holly most definitely has an acting future ahead of her if she so chooses, imbuing the title character with pride, fear, stubbornness, confusion, and a whole range of emotions that convince the viewer utterly. Between them, Livingstone and Nguyen carefully confront the ultimate tragedy of their association, that of attachment which, in the twisted world they find themselves in, can only lead to their downfall.
“Ron Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side.”
Finally, Cambodia itself, colourful, chaotic, otherworldly, and on the precipice of civilization, is a powerful character in its own right. While the film’s message could ultimately be delivered in any country, the uniquely Cambodian flavour of the setting indelibly stamps Holly with its own very particular identity, making for a very rich visual experience.
Where it can be legitimately argued that the film’s problematic Hollywood-ised nature should be secondary to its raison d’etre, I will agree up to a point. While the dialogue of the White Man’s Burden is long past its sell-by date, it is very much a reflection of the writer/director’s attempts to come to terms with the horror he has discovered. It is a horror very real to a young and silent multitude for whom the adult world around them treats with a dismissiveness only they are immoral enough to live with. Where Holly fails elsewhere as a patronising cliché, it succeeds in making clear this last point. In all the ways in which it is an exercise in generating awareness and fuel condemnation of the child sex trade, it is a gut-wrenching success.
“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”
Colonial collapse and myopic madness in Claire Denis’s Cameroon-based drama, White Material. View a trailer below:
A couple of documentaries go under the spotlight on this week’s trip to Side-step City. Up first:
The Town That Was
(2007) Directed by Chris Perkel & Georgia Roland
Recently, I had the chance to see this evocatively-titled documentary that had sat on my Must Watch list for several years, concerning the fate of a most unconventional ghost town. Part-inspiration for the game/Hollywood flick Silent Hill, Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving community until deadly subterranean fires forced all but a handful of stubborn long-term residents to evacuate. Established in the early 1840s, it was a key player in the region’s massive coal mining industry and its core reason for being until alternative forms of energy took hold and the practice became unprofitable in the 1960s. Early the same decade, the local council hired a team to clear away the local landfill. Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea given the locale and in 1962, the fire found the coal seam of the disused mine and has been burning ever since. Indeed, it’s believed that it will be some centuries before it finally dissipates.
Centralia was a proud and tight-knit community, but when the citizens began to succumb to the toxic gases erupting from every fissure in the ground and children began to fall down sinkholes, relocation became highly-desirable. The local government assisted by buying back houses, officially declaring Centralia ‘eminent domain’, which meant that anyone still remaining no longer owned their property and reduced to the level of squatters.
“Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea.”
By the time of The Town That Was in 2007 only 11 residents remained, and they attempted unsuccessfully to sue the government over the eminent domain claim. Through a series of interviews, location and archive footage, the documentary shows how the once thriving town came to be in such a sorry state. With wisps of smoke wafting around its near-empty streets and driveways leading to empty housing estates, Centralia is every bit the modern-day ghost town. Principal interviewee Jon Lokitis Jr. is the most colourful character. When not at work in a job some two hours drive away, Lokitis stubbornly refuses to let the town release its last gasp. When he’s not moving council grass and repainting peeling park benches, he’s erecting fairy lights on the telephone poles in time for Christmas. It’s a dedication taken to extremes that can only cause his ‘traitorous’ ex-neighbours, now comfortably residing in nearby boroughs, to speculate on his mental wellbeing – his claims that the poisonous inferno literally eating the ground beneath his fate is in no way dangerous earning particular disbelief. The prevalence of this uncompromising resident does make the film rather one-sided, although from an entertainment perspective, it’s not hard to understand why. Even the current IMDB synopsis for this entry describes it first and foremost as “a portrait of Jon Lokitis Jr.”
Things have moved on a bit since 2007, and not for the better. However, since I can happily tell you that the film is freely (and legally) available to view online, I’ll let you discover the final chapter via Google for yourselves. For now, sit back and enjoy the sad tale of The Town That Was. View the official trailer below for a taster, then go here and watch the whole thing. Note: in order to bring it to you for free, the site has placed sponsored advertising at the beginning and mid-point of the film, and spooling through will result in it restarting from the beginning, so be prepared to sit through the film in one setting – definitely worth it, I think.
Google Earth enthusiasts might also be interested to know that Centralia’s main roads are available on Street View, allowing you to see what’s left. Get in now before they update their source photos – there may be nothing left next time!
On a side note, I was amused to discover there are no less than 12 places in the U.S. called ‘Centralia’. Sure, it’s a bit classier than ‘Gobbler’s Knob’, or the equally imagery-inducing ‘Whiskey Dick Hill’, but it’s not that special.
(2011) National Inflation Association
College – the biggest scam in U.S history. So say the National Inflation Association, a non-profit organisation dedicated, according to their official site, “to preparing Americans for hyperinflation and helping Americans not only survive, but prosper in the upcoming hyperinflationary crisis”. Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst. Aspirations of wealth and success have become synonymous with a tertiary education, but the playing field remains level when everyone has a degree.
Except that now, they also have a massive college debt for qualifications that thanks to seriously increased competition, did not yield the career of choice and condemns them to spend the rest of their lives paying for it. Once the province of the banks, college loans are now provided by state funds – funds that a soaring educated class of underemployed wage earners cannot hope to repay. Who then but the tax payers to foot the bill and a state forced to print more currency leading to a vicious cycle of hyperinflation? Meanwhile, a rising population demands ever more from agriculture, yet no-one is interested any longer in making a career in it, thanks to dreams of an urban high life as a high-paid doctor or lawyer.
“Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst.”
Such is the premise of College Conspiracy, an urgent call to all Americans to wake themselves up from the myth of college education and the inevitability of debt slavery, and to the alternative paths to success, a vast arena of industry necessary to the continued survival of our world, from farming to all forms of local business.
Whichever side of the debate one may find themselves on, the documentary cannot fail to provoke a response. Though U.S-centric, College Conspiracy’s arguments apply just as easily to tertiary education in most of the world, whether it’s simply the high price of a university degree to its ever-diminishing value as means of gaining a leg-up on the career ladder. It has become an unchallenged mandatory path to success and, rather like the Confucian exams of old East Asia, the divider for class, opportunity, and respect, an attitude which continues to define that region of the world.
This however is a telling point: for many, a college education is essential, not simply for those who have a clear career path in mind, but even for those simply seeking a standard office job. It is precisely because society regards it as mandatory that simply having a degree is required even to open the most average of doors. It therefore would have been nice for College Conpiracy to have devoted more time to illustrating further the alternative paths to not only wealth and success but general and basic financial security beyond university. Also, the diminishing agriculture sector, while massively important, should not be the only example – the message shouldn’t be interpreted simply as “Lawyers suck! Your tractor needs you!”
Self-made professionals can occupy a whole raft of industries, which is the intended conclusion, just not adequately explored. Whatever the field (excuse the pun), the NIA’s underlying point for students is that as their country slides ever further into recession, the last thing the world needs are more solicitors searching for loopholes in property laws and instead a new generation of citizens armed with skills from which we can all benefit, and that for those who develop their talents with such skills, the rewards are there. Until all sectors of society, especially employers accept this however, it’s a bit much to simply expect youths looking to secure a future to turn their backs on university. Many are well-aware of the farce tertiary education has become and the debts they will accumulate, but don’t feel they have much choice in the matter. The underlying message of the film is not invalidated, but it will take more than simple awareness of the problem to rectify it, and a commitment on the part of those with the power to effect change. Nonetheless, awareness is the first step and interested parties can watch College Conspiracy for free via here, courtesy of NIA’s official youtube page:
This blog features reviews of films from across the world, ranging from the celebrated to the obscure. For the time being, the movies are selected based on alphabetical country order. Read on to find a brief introduction to the ‘A’ series where it all began, giving the reader an idea of what is here already. Click on each film title where it appears in blue to be taken to the full review.
It all began with ‘A’ for Afghanistan, and Siddiq Barmak’s powerful drama showing the plight of women under Taliban rule. “Filmed on location in Kabul, Osama needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different. The complete undermining of Afghan civilisation by the Taliban is omnipresent in every scene where they are not in frame.” – Osama
Next, communist extremism sent 1970s Albania into a cultural cul-de-sac, in Gjergj Xhuvani’s darkly-humourous Slogans. “The film is an excellent study in farce, and claiming to be based on real events, it is a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down.” – Slogans
Extremism of a different kind ripped apart 1990s Algeria, and in Yasmina Bachir’s heart-wrenching drama on this chapter in recent history, one woman who lived through it all finally decided she’d had enough. “In every group, there is always one person who stands up to the madness, not borne of heroics, but because they cannot do otherwise – it’s simply who they are.” – Rachida
Catalan director Ventura Pons took the madness of love to crazy extremes in his film Amor Idiota. “While I’m not a devotee of the romance genre, I can’t help feeling that it’s so over-mined that the sub-oeuvre of ‘misfits in love’ itself is bound to have been explored to better gain elsewhere.” – Amor Idiota
Since the above was more Catalonia than Andorra, I later discovered Josep Guirao’s short film, Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain, a condensed adaptation of a Mike Resnick sci-fi novel. “The script as executed feels slightly ‘Dan Brown’ – excessively didactic without ringing true, and having rather foolishly worked my way through The Lost Symbol recently, the overblown lecturing smarts all the more.” – Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain
The action then returned to the African continent and the nation of Angola via Antonio Duarte’s half-animation, half live-action short, Momentos de Gloria. “An interesting series of vignettes depicting life in modern Angola, with the country’s many conflicts, from the recent civil war to rampant street crime forming the story lines to each segment.” – Moments Of Glory
My Caribbean keen was severely curtailed when I turned my attention to Antigua & Barbuda for the independent drama Hooked, which “suffers from some truly horrendous, clichéd dialogue that even dialogue disaster master Dan Brown wouldn’t touch. This might almost be mitigated by the presence of creative acting talent, however Hooked is not at any time populated with anyone skilled in the craft.” – Hooked
Fortunately, things picked up dramatically with Juan Jose Campanella’s masterful historical Argentinean romance/crime drama, The Secret In Their Eyes. “If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché. Likewise, if you don’t care for a study on the mechanics of human behaviour, this isn’t for you.” – The Secret In Their Eyes
Next, Canadian-Egyptian Atom Egoyan explored the uglier side of relationships with Armenia forming the backdrop to a masterstroke in minimalist unease. “It’s certainly not a pleasant cinematic adventure, but anyone who has experienced that phase of a relationship will at least know the horrible awkwardness created between two people who were once close, and the helpless feeling of loss as a result.” – Calendar
The dark underbelly of Australian colonial history was next, in which writer/director Jonathan auf der Heide introduced audiences to the mottled sepia world of one of the country’s most notorious figures. ”The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia, and it was only through this film that I myself became familiar with this dark chapter of White Australia.” – Van Diemen’s Land
Over in Austria meanwhile, Götz Spielmann forced spectators to question how they would react to extreme loss in his soul-wrenching human drama, Revanche. “It is a film that not only challenges you to predict what comes next, but one that forces you to decide whether revenge ever makes sense, to confront feelings of anguish and make decisions you can live with.” – Revanche
Finally, bad film-making and karate joined forces in Azerbaijan to form the impenetrably-bad Şeytanın Tələsi, a film that “contained acting more wooden than a pine chest, the production values of a finger painting and fight scenes seemingly choreographed by a coma patient. I quickly found myself in more pain than anyone having their face rearranged on screen, and constantly fighting the urge to walk away and stare at the wall in search of something more entertaining.” – Şeytanın Tələsi
In between each main series of reviews, World On Film also takes short-trips and side-steps into other topics connected with cinema in general. In 1989, keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman was asked to create a new and contemporary alternative score to Rupert Julian’s celebrated 1925 adaptation of Phantom Of The Opera. “It’s almost hard to believe that the late 80s/early 90s faux vibraphone and harpsichord were as in vogue as one could get at the time, yet they are now just as anachronistic and primitive-sounding as the computers that powered them – the eternal evolutionary punishment for digital hubris.” – Phantom Power
Around the same time, I had the good fortune to catch a couple of days of South Korea’s largest global cinema extravaganza, the Pusan International Film Festival. “In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood: the deep and unbreakable bond forged between two men (who may or may not be actual brothers) by blood, sweat, and above all, tears.” – Secret Reunion (Also reviewed: Voice Over from Bulgaria and Honey from Turkey)
Film as a means of chronicling history as it happens was explored through a journey back to Iceland of 1974, when an island was forever altered by one of the most famous volcanic eruptions of the 20th Century. “A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.” – The Coming Of The Church Mountain
Finally, the question, is a soundtrack still a soundtrack if you’ve never seen the film it was made for? was asked, and I offered two of my all-time favourite examples up for analysis. “From the reverberating keyboard offsetting an almost visceral scraping of metal-on-metal into an unaccompanied, yet insistent quasi-tribal drumming of the introduction, to the hauntingly-beautiful Mediterranean acoustic guitar melody reappearing in multiple forms across the album, sometimes accompanied by Vangelis on piano and a small choir peppered with swirling keyboards and spangling percussion, Sex Power offers many of the sounds Vangelis would continue to develop and repeatedly delight music fans with for decades to come.” – The Independent Soundtrack, or Sex Power Meets Fire & Water
The above entries are occasionally bolstered by additional reviews and commentary. There’s only so much you can say about a 10-minute short film, for example, or the question may arise as to why a particular country hasn’t been represented.
Early reviews would typically begin with a few comments on whatever I’d also seen that week, but when Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain proved especially short, I decided to introduce readers to the vagaries of the South Korean cinema complex.” Within, you will find the same kiosks selling chocolate covered sugar bullets, caffeine and snow-covered popcorn at prices designed to belittle you for your weak glucose-dripping willpower.” – Where I Live
When a similar problem presented itself with Moments Of Glory, I found myself explaining why the Åland Islands, “the attractive Finnish archipelago of 6,000 islands and skerries populated by Swedish-speaking natives”, wouldn’t be featured (although there is an interesting tourist film on offer), as well as a review of the British postmodern sci-fi comedy Shaun Of The Dead-style, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. – In This Place I Call Home
Atom Egoyan’s dark drama Calendar was followed by my account of the closing ceremony of Seoul’s Chungmuro International Film Festival 2010, of which I have mixed feelings. “The warning bells were ringing, but it was too late. I was committed by this point no matter what happened. Nonetheless, I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.” The film of the evening was Tony Chan’s saccharine-filled fluff, Hot Summer Days. – Sugar Bullets
The even darker Van Diemen’s Land was followed by a brief trip to Aruba, where the pickings were very slim indeed, as evidenced by the short film Marry Me. “Well, at least it was shot in Aruba – as indeed I wanted to be by the end credits.” – Do You Wanna
Why didn’t I spend more time reviewing Revanche? I now ask myself. Why did I let myself write about one of Australia’s worst horror films? “Road Train does not have re-watch value, being about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips. The script is about as bulletproof as a KFC refresher towel, while the only formula it adheres to is that of a Molotov cocktail, bombing as it does with unsanctioned alacrity not long after the opening credits.” – Road Train (aka Road Kill)
Finally, when it came time to visit Azerbaijan, I found myself “reminded of Donkey Kong” with the amusing short entry Bu da belə, a far more enjoyable trip to Baku than the main, karate-infested feature. – Bu da belə
Click here to be taken to the main page and the most recent entry.
(1983) Written by Tatsuo Nogami, Susumu Saji , Toshirô Ishidô, & Koreyoshi Kurahara
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
Showa, established in January 1957 on East Ongul Island, was and continues to be one of Japan’s most active Antarctic stations. After construction was completed, 11 men and 15 sled dogs remained on site and Showa began its long life as a polar scientific outpost. In February of the following year, the team left the base having completed their tenure, and the dogs were left behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished until the relief crew arrived shortly afterward to take over their care. However, adverse weather conditions prevented the intended 2nd expedition team from making landfall, and the animals had to be abandoned. It would be a full year before another expedition team returned to Showa. Joining them was Professor Yasukazu Kitamura, responsible for the dogs in 1958 and whom had never forgiven himself for his decision to chain them together – a sentiment shared by the Japanese public of the day.
The team would discover 7 dogs dead on the chain, with 6 having broken free and missing. Miraculously, brothers Taro and Jiro, who had been born and raised in Antarctica, had managed to survive. Kitamura suggested that they had subsisted on a diet of penguins, trapped fish, seal faeces, and seabirds. The dogs became national heroes and interest in the Sakhalin breed saw a major resurgence in Japan both in 1959 and again in 1983 with the release of Antarctica. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s epic dramatisation of these events combines both fact and fiction as it retells what is known as well as attempting to speculate on the fate of the huskies.
Showa Station also appears in Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection, where scientist Yoshizumi and his colleagues first learn of the infection’s decimation of Japan and beyond. The feature was reviewed recently as part of Antarctic Film Month.
In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama, one in which the canine performers could be said to have equal screen presence with their human counterparts. To an extent, any film that makes use of Antarctica in its storytelling cannot help but be dramatic. The severe, jagged white landscape of the continent is the very essence of spectacle, and, as demonstrated in The Thing – even though the sci-fi/horror was filmed entirely in North America – a place of great hazard.
“In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama.”
All of this is encapsulated at the very beginning of Antarctica, from the montage of polar scenery accompanied by Vangelis’s dated but still powerful electronic score to the near-fatal expedition by Ushioda, Ochi and Ozaka, along with 15 sled dogs to remote inland post Botsnnuten. This sequence alone conveys the deep bond and interdependence between the dogs and their human masters, particularly the first two members of the team, responsible for the dogs’ wellbeing. Ushioda is the alter ego of Professor Kitamura in the film, and actor Ken Takakura expertly brings to life his Atlas-like sense of responsibility and later anguish at having chosen to chain the dogs together in the expectation that the 2nd expedition will ensure their care. With the expedition pilloried in the Japanese press for abandoning the dogs to their fate, both director Kurahara actors Takakura and Tsunehiko Watase as Ochi work hard to show that no-one was more haunted by that decision than the men themselves.
The film also suggests the wanderlust of the two dog lovers, the men finding themselves at a loss to reconnect to Japanese society upon their return. It is not only the dogs that they have left behind, but a major part of themselves and a sense of purpose as the pioneers of the new Antarctic base. Colorful and busy Hokkaido has carried on without them, its people only dimly aware of their experiences and unable to understand their feelings of disconnect. Indeed the only citizens who come close are the families who supplied the dogs, and bereft of their loved ones, have only recrimination to offer the polar scientists. The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world. This is made all the more powerful by the continual juxtaposition of these scenes with the ongoing fate of the dogs in the Antarctic: we cannot carry on without them because we alone know they are still there, and their fate has not yet played out.
With the humans gone from Showa, the dogs take centre-stage, and it is down to some serious animal training, special effects, and post-production that the Kurahara is able to sell his drama to the audience. A good measure of how successful this was is the fact that the director was criticised at the time for animal cruelty, gaining a rating of ‘Unacceptable’ by the American Human Association. Kurahara Productions would respond by stating that all death scenes or sequences placing animals in peril were carefully recreated in a studio under controlled conditions. Filming reportedly took place in the snow-covered climes of Northern Hokkaido, interspersed with second unit footage of Antarctica itself.
The term Sakhalin derives from the Russian island of the same name, where the huskies were originally bred. North of Hokkaido, the long and slender landmass known in Japanese as ‘Karafuto’ has long been a point of contention for the two nations, only in recent history becoming fully Russian territory. Before this, its sovereignty regularly changed and it was once home to the Ainu, an indigenous population since relocated to Japan in the 20th Century. The dogs used in the expedition were bred in Hokkaido. Eight Below, Hollywood’s remake of Antarctica, uses Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes – a malamute also having been used in The Thing, reviewed last week.
Pictured left: A Sakhalin husky. Acknowledgements to www.dogfacts.org for the photo.
“The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world.”
However it was done, the attempt at realism paid off, with the plight of the dogs still just as believable today as it appeared in 1983. Sequences that could now only be achieved through CGI are all the more solid and powerful knowing that they were practically realised. Kurahara seems also to be aware that such sequences can only be used sparingly, not only for dramatic reasons, but also because even in a canine-centric tale, human drama will always be more compelling.
This is further evident with the presence of a narrator over the scenes where the huskies are fending for themselves. It gives both the impression at times of a documentary, but also an uninvited dose of silliness, as the narrator attempts to explain what the dogs are feeling and their motivations in a particular scene. The viewer is well-aware of the situation and can easily discern the action from the screen. It would have been far more powerful to let the visuals and the soundtrack to tell the story than a patronising anthropomorphisation of the protagonists. Fortunately, this is not a major irritation and the visuals do indeed speak volumes.
There is a definite underlying theme of Japanese indomitability throughout the tale, perhaps unsurprising given the pioneering subject matter. An amusing scene between the rescued crew and the captain of the U.S icebreaker Burton Island assisting in their departure underscores the strong sense of nationalism that might have been more pervasive had Antarctica told the story of the Showa base itself. While those at home did not fully appreciate the difficulties of the mission, there was a great sense of national pride at the expedition itself. It had not been long since the Second World War and a rapidly rebuilding nation had in only 12 years joined the Antarctic program long dominated in the early 20th Century by public and private enterprise in the U.S. The sentiment of which only occasionally bubbles to the surface in Antarctica, serving as a powerful undercurrent to the story and a context to the ‘can-do’ spirit of the team, as opposed to a time-serving mentality one might be more likely to find in the South Pole today now that the novelty has worn off.
To the average viewer however, Antarctica is the poignant true story of life and death for man’s best friend in one of the harshest places on earth. I won’t claim to have shed tears during its 143 minutes, but having owned a dog or two in my life, I also cannot say I was unaffected by their predicament. There is a certain amount of guilt at confessing to an enjoyment of animal-based drama, largely in part due to Disney’s many years of cheapening the genre. The genuine article is a different beast altogether, and stands on higher ground with its honesty. Realistically-drawn, well-paced and visually-arresting, Antarctica remains an epic retelling of history and a compelling emotional tale for humans and canines alike decades after its original release. For the polar enthusiast, it returns us to the final days of an era when Antarctica was the last great frontier, before it was conquered by the inevitable mediocrity of familiarity and taxation.
To see photos of the actual expedition at Showa Base and the dogs Taro and Jiro, visit this page. Scroll down until you see the photo section.
Click here to read the assessment of the American Human Association on Antarctica.
Visit this page to learn additional information, including the thoughts of Professor Kitamura.
Clips, or it didn’t happen: we return to where it all began and look at the ‘A’ series of World On Film – a chance to discover the films reviewed earlier all on one page. With pictures.
So far in this series, we’ve explored the triumph of science in the South Pole, looking at the ways in which Antarctica has been a frontier for advancing the human endeavour and a deeper understanding of our planet, both in fiction and genuine footage of a famous expedition. Time for a change of pace now. Antarctica isn’t a place of eternal wonder for all who have worked there, or, as with Virus: Day Of Resurrection last week, a land where the nations of the world put aside their differences for the greater good. Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.
Neither is Antarctica universally seen as simply a giant laboratory for altruistic science. Even during Byrd’s time, there were many who saw the South Pole as new land to conquer, its position more of strategic than scientific value. The U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1939-1941 had as much to do with establishing an American presence there as it did exploration. Today, when the major nations have indeed become a permanent fixture at McMurdo and other base camps, many who work there simply see it as a job – one they are even taxed for – and certainly bound by government and commercial interests just as with anywhere else. Add to that the fact that Antarctica is a hostile environment far from most of the basic comforts, where holding onto one’s sanity is a very real concern, and where one is frequently trapped for months on end with people they don’t necessarily like, and the rose-coloured lens through which the Byrds of the world viewed Antarctica become mottled.
This rather sobering perspective forms the ethos for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing From Another World, itself an adaptation of the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr, published in the August 1938 edition of America’s longest-running science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories. In terms of cinema, it is Carpenter’s version of the tale that has most famously – and most effectively – depicted the blue collar perspective on Antarctica, using the science fiction and horror of the novella as allegory for the difficulties they face there.
(1982) Screenplay by Bill Lancaster Directed by John Carpenter
(You can find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”
In the story, a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed within three years.
One of the ways in which The Thing succeeds so well in its genre is the careful minimalism of Lancaster’s script and Carpenter’s direction. At no point do we ever truly learn, for example, of the alien’s origin, the reason it crashed to Earth, why it landed in Antarctica, whether or not it is sentient, or indeed its true objective in taking over other life forms. Even the title of the film makes this ambiguity plain and if anything, underscores not only the mystery, but the anti-intellectualism of the base personnel: it is simply a threat to be dealt with, its extra-terrestrial identity more of an irritation than of interest. Unsurprisingly, any survivors might argue that its lethality renders any such disinterest entirely justified.
“Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.”
Nor indeed do we learn a great deal about the characters themselves or the purpose of their presence in Antarctica. There seems little, if any, significant research being conducted there and what work does take place is of supreme indifference to the staff. They are simply filling out a contract and counting down the days to its completion. The base staff in turn appear merely to tolerate each other akin to Adamsian office workers, albeit office workers forced to see their colleagues round the clock and to the exclusion of all else. Conversation is stifled by familiarity, contempt, and lack of stimulus (until the drama begins) and entertainment takes the form of alcohol, months-old off-air television recordings, ping-pong, and a well-worn record collection.
Embodying this seemingly-pointless, isolated existence is the classic antihero and main character of R.J. MacReady, very convincingly played by a young and hirsute Kurt Russell. The perpetually Stetson-wearing, hard-bitten and cynical time-server is purposely constructed as a cowboy of the modern age, able to fit quite easily into the seedy saloon bar of some Tombstone-like frontier town of over a century ago. The anti-intellectualism inherent in MacReady and his fellows is expertly summed up in an early scene where his response to losing at computer chess is to pour the remains of his whisky into its circuitry.
The cynicism and mistrust is further exemplified and exacerbated by other common elements of Antarctic life. Not only is technology seen to cause problems rather than solve them, but so too other nations – a far cry from the spirit of global fellowship seen in Virus. It is the Norwegians – often derided by others in Antarctica for their prowess in polar climates (and derogatively dubbed ‘Swedes’ by the main character) – who bring the alien to the U.S. base, having failed ironically to deal with it. Even in Virus, it is the Norwegians who are quicker to succumb than their multinational counterparts. Elsewhere, in another role-reversal, an Alaskan malamute, typically used as a sled dog, is the initial carrier of the alien creature.
The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger. It is far from the warmth of civilisation, will quickly kill anyone who strays from their electric-powered shelters with its sub-zero temperatures, and the ground beneath harbours monsters who bring swift, painful oblivion. The ‘thing’ is the ultimate Antarctic allegory for the long-term resident – the near-unbeatable agent of death who threatens to rob them of their humanity, not with merciful swiftness, but by rotting them slowly from within. The South Pole is still the giant laboratory it has always been for those looking at the other end of the microscope: at the furthest frontier of civilisation, humans are unwittingly being tested to see how they fare in extreme conditions. In reality, British Columbia doubles for the frozen continent, but is visually no less convincing to all but perhaps the skilled geologist. The brooding atmosphere is strongly accentuated by Ennio Morricone’s evocative score, different in style from Carpenter’s own compositions and unsurprisingly smoother and more accomplished, yet still fitting quite well into the era of the early Halloweens and The Fog.
The veteran horror director had by this point established his expertise in suspense-filled, well-paced tales of the macabre. The two films mentioned above were both classic examples of highly-effective base-under-siege drama, and in The Thing, Carpenter finally takes the term to its most literal conclusion. The cold, functional, and labyrinthine Antarctic base we see in the film is a perfect counterpoint to the bleak perpetual winter of nothingness outside. The disillusioned denizens inside provide only a candle-flame of human warmth, serving not even enlightened self-interest, but simply the powers of inertia. This disillusion is Carpenter’s contribution to the story, with the original novella produced during the positivist golden era of Byrd-mania. As is typically the case, the remake shows the rising cynicism of the public since the time of the original, no longer so easily caught up in nationalist fervour.
“The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger.”
Carpenter and Russell had already collaborated on the director’s earlier apocalyptic outing, Escape From New York, with the young star by now fully aware of what was required of him. Other standouts in the cast include Wilford Brimley as Blair, the scientist who realises no-one present should be allowed to get out alive, Keith David as disbelieving aggressor Childs, and Donald Moffat as Garry, the self-admitting ineffectual leader of the base. A great deal of credit at this point should also go to both Jed, the Alaskan malamute, and his trainer, who between them do an excellent job of creating the dog’s alien nature. Jed, who would go on to play the title character in White Fang, though obviously unaware of the script, is one of the best trained dogs in the business, his body language convincing the viewer of his alter-ego’s menace with every step.
Pushing the envelope for early-80s practical effects is master of gore Rob Bottin, who in The Thing really gives contemporary innards wizard Lucio Fulci a run for his money. Bottin, whose make-up effects work includes The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Total Recall, lived on set for over a year during the making of The Thing, working round the clock to create visuals that were so gruesome for the period that they polarised film critics worldwide. While from a modern perspective, the clunky movement and obvious puppetry of the alien invaders is evident, so too is the sheer amount of detail in their construction. They are still far more ‘solid’ than any CGI equivalent, and still just as horrific in their design, helped by the well-matched screeching sound design. It could be argued effectively that a number of sequences exist simply to serve the visual effects extravaganza and a more cerebral interpretation of alien metamorphosis might have been employed. The Thing, however, is not intended to be The Midwich Cuckoos, and thanks to good pacing, does not fall into a long, drawn-out visual-effects love-fest at the cost of a story, which is more than can be said for Fulci’s The Beyond of the same period. It’s probably also fair to say that time and familiarity have dulled the senses with my reading of the film, and its efforts seem tame compared to say, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.
The somewhat forgiving nature for old cinema and a healthy suspension of disbelief also help in areas where The Thing does not accurately depict Antarctic life, allegorical or otherwise. Compelling though his performance is, Kurt Russell’s cool cowboy image is more 80s action hero than Antarctic expedition pilot, likewise Childs and Garry fit the typical formula of antagonist and weak authority figure, while radio operator and Jeff Lynne lookalike contest runner-up Windows clearly went to the Crispin Glover school of ‘We’re All Going To Die, Man!’ acting. The easy availability of firearms and flame-throwers to all personnel, along with the high population of open-standing fuel drums also tends to stretch credulity, even before the coming of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s easy to hold up the extra-terrestrial element as justification for action-genre fantasy, but every story should still operate within its own internal logic. Nonetheless, the abundant weaponry and especially flamethrowers are used to satisfying effect, the latter proving especially critical in helping contain the alien menace. Dramatic license is well-served, and the film reaches the type of satisfying ending one would reasonably expect of its horror shoot-em-up credentials, indeed concluding in Carpenter’s signature open-ended dystopian fashion.
And it seems that the story is not over. In 2011, viewers will discover just what happened at the Norwegian base prior to the events of The Thing in a new prequel due for release at the end of the year. Only time will tell if the exercise worthwhile. In the meantime, I encourage interested parties to rediscover the flawed, but entertaining ‘original’ in all its blu-ray glory. I had occasion recently to do just this and found it held up extremely well. It needn’t wash away all that optimistic Antarctic fervour, but perhaps the last word should go to Mr. Campbell himself in this extract from Who Goes There? as the alien spacecraft is destroyed in a mass of flame:
Somehow in the blinding inferno we could see great hunched things, black bulks glowing, even so. They shed even the furious incandescence of the magnesium for a time. Those must have been the engines, we knew. Secrets going in a blazing glory -secrets that might have given Man the planets. Mysterious things that could lift and hurl that ship -and had soaked in the force of the Earth’s magnetic field.
The human adventure continues.
- Keep up to date with the latest news on the U.S. Antarctic program and the people who make it possible with the Antarctic Sun.
- Serious Thing enthusiasts might like to read Robert Meakin’s in-depth analysis of the film here.
- Learn more about today’s Antarctic program and meet the people who actually work there, as well as discovering how they view the place.
Antarctica, February 1953: The first year of Japan’s new Showa Station has drawn to a successful close. The expedition team depart from the base to make way for the relief crew, leaving 15 huskies remaining behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished during the changeover. However, adverse weather conditions prevent landfall and the second expedition never arrives. The dogs are abandoned to their fate, forced to survive alone in the harsh, polar landscape. Antarctic Film Month concludes with the epic true story of Antarctica, when World On Film returns. Click below to see the original trailer.
Having established our historical credentials last week, the polar journey continues with a dramatic left turn into thriller with the epic international co-production:
Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection
(1980) Co-written & Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
(You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“I wanted my name to be entered into the history books, but I wanted it to be for something meaningful, something lasting. What could I have done that would have made the slightest damn bit of difference… wha… what could I have done?”
Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over.
Coming in at just over 156 minutes, Virus is a truly epic disaster movie from the days when practical and video effects were the only tools in the creative film-maker’s arsenal. At first, I found myself somewhat put off by the excessive theatricality of the production: there is enough ham in the acting to keep Smithfield Foods overstocked until the end of the Holocene epoch, while the unsubtle script, camera direction and film score give Virus a cartoon-like simplicity even Gerry Anderson would find over-the-top. Yet when I ‘clicked’ that this was in fact a pre-cgi precursor to a Roland Emmerich spectacular (fresh in my mind after having been recently silly enough to watch 2012), I found myself quickly shifting mental gears and relaxing into the cinematic pantomime that unfolded. The Emmerich comparison is no fleeting analogy either, as the future director of disaster and cheese must surely have worshipped at the altar of Kinji Fukasaku in his youth before inspiration told him to inflict a new ice age upon North America and play tectonic origami with the world’s continents all the while hand-cranking the cornball-o-matic up to ‘gruyere’. If anything, it’s only fair to give Fukasaku the credit for bringing the idea to the screen first – and I’ve always been a sucker for a fun disaster film.
With disbelief now firmly suspended somewhere in limbo, I found myself glued to the screen as the world fell to its knees. Here was a tale of incredible human tragedy, where a terrified population succumbs to a disease from out of seeming nowhere. Hospitals are overrun, military law is imposed, and scientists work frantically in search of a cure. As the urban crowds thin and the bodies pile up in the streets, the ghostly silence of millions of souls sets a deathly pall over the landscape. A lone submarine crew surveys the damage from their watery quarantine, before setting a course for ‘home’, which we learn is Antarctica. And this is only the beginning of the tale. Fukasaku’s sharply-tuned sense of melodrama is so powerful that you can’t help but see past the cheese and be caught up in the horrible futility of mankind’s desolation and sense of despair at every tear-stained effort to hang onto existence, knowing they will come to dust.
The political commentary of Virus is similarly not intended to be subtle, with the engineered disease in question the product of one power bloc, designed to give it an edge over its rival. The finger of blame points squarely at the Soviets, yet ironically should be directed in the opposite direction. In the film’s Cold War allegory, we have met the enemy on home turf, and the broadly-drawn caricatures with their fingers on the button encapsulate the fears of 1980’s terrified speculation.
“[Director] Fukasaku’s sharply-tuned sense of melodrama is so powerful that you can’t help but see past the cheese and be caught up in the horrible futility of mankind’s desolation and sense of despair at every tear-stained effort to hang onto existence, knowing they will come to dust.”
The Japanese sensibilities of Virus also make it interesting viewing, since the film attempts to tell its story from multiple viewpoints and through chiefly American as well as Japanese protagonists. The broad caricatures of the U.S. government, for example, with its heroic president acting for the good of mankind, loyal senators, and egomaniacal army generals, not to mention scientists hushed up for the ‘common good’, all fit the typical Western disaster film profile perfectly. Yet both script and direction paint them with stereotypical brushes clearly not wielded by someone indigenous to the culture. They are too two-dimensional, if such a thing is possible – created by someone who sees only what is on the surface but doesn’t quite grasp the inner workings of their nature. Hollywood of course paints other cultures with precisely the same preconceptions and limitations in every single entry of the genre, but only through seeing your own culture pigeonholed by another does it become especially apparent. The Japanese sequences are no less Godzilla-like in their melodrama, meanwhile, with certain extreme performances so expertly lampooned on South Park, it’s hard not to emit a postmodern laugh.
Although the script’s more altruistic approach makes heroes of Americans as well as Japanese, only one man from the very beginning shines through the perpetual pantomime to become Virus’s true star, that of Masao Kusanakari as Doctor Shûzô Yoshizumi, the workaholic scientist who, while not necessarily holding all the answers to mankind’s salvation, is clearly the heart-throb hero of the piece. The international cast include a number of well-known figures, including George Kennedy, Robert Vaughan, Chuck Connors, and Olivia Hussey, but none can truly escape the limitations of their cardboard characters – the death scene of presidential loyalist Senator Barkley, as portrayed by Robert Vaughan, a case in point, or perhaps case closed. Nonetheless, the gravitas the veteran cast are able to convey within these limits adds weight to the drama – they at least are not playing things for laughs.
The film makes good use of extensive location filming, with the action taking place everywhere from Tokyo to Washington, stopping off at Macchu Picchu on the way to the Antarctic. Although Alaska and Canada frequently double for the South Pole, footage of the genuine article is intercut for added realism. In cinematic terms, Antarctica is frequently either the site of exploration and adventure of the battleground for man and extra-terrestrial. In a film powered by exaggeration, it’s certainly entirely plausible that a virus able to wipe out humanity would struggle to finish its work in colder climes, thus making the happenstance temporary residents of the frozen southern continent all who remain. That they would then be forced to put aside various national claims to slices of Antarctica is a very entertaining notion, with Fukasaku observing that even here, human nature would doom the remainder to extinction, not only due to power squabbles, but also the inevitable gender imbalance, all make for excellent post-war drama. It is very telling in these sequences who ultimately takes charge of the situation and what takes place as a result.
The ultimate difference between this very Japanese approach to storytelling and it’s Western disaster movie counterparts is the sheer bleakness of the piece. Over-the-top though it frequently is, Virus never succumbs to the nauseating Disneylike cheerfulness infesting the likes of Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow. To put all of this on cultural tastes is possibly unfair, since Earthquake, hitting the silver screen six years earlier than Virus, manages to conclude without the vat of schmaltz its modern counterparts are drowned in. Nonetheless, it too cannot compare to the trademark Japanese fatalism seen everywhere from Evangelion to Battle Royale, wherein since humanity is taken literally to rock bottom in apocalyptic fury, even two-dimensional characters can develop as they are forced to deal with overwhelming odds. Virus is no exception: just when the viewer has reached the conclusion that the worst is over, it quickly becomes clear that the tumult is only just beginning and the rollercoaster car has just found an-almost vertical slope, its wheels already starting the terrifying descent.
This is the structure and raison d’etre of Virus, and the reason it rises up above its flaws. While its Cold War ethos is now a distant memory for those old enough to remember and an alien concept for a whole new generation in which all the major political chess pieces have shifted around the board, the sheer power of the film’s dramatic juggernaut is enough to make it arresting viewing decades later. It pulls at the same fundamental fears within us today and makes a mockery of the test-audience de-clawed demographic formulaic fluff that are its successors. Nonetheless, it is with a working knowledge of Armageddon, 2012 and their cousins that a modern audience will be able to approach Virus in any meaningful way. Hopefully the viewer will quickly find that the irony of that situation will quickly become irrelevant.
The sobering blue collar perspective of life in Antarctica is taken to extremes as a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed in a matter of weeks. John Carpenter’s memorable interpretation of The Thing next time, when World On Film returns. View the original trailer below:
As the banner above subtly suggests, it’s Antarctic Month here at World On Film – not in fact corresponding to any particular month on the calendar (that would be too easy), but four weeks devoted to that large sweep of ice and land filling up the South Pole. The four films selected to represent it over those weeks will capture its many moods, but perhaps more importantly, the many ways in which we perceive Antarctica. It’s a place of distant beauty and adventure, but it’s also a place of danger and drudgery. Both fact and fiction will be used to explore the subject, and it all begins this week with the very first colour footage ever captured of Antarctica recorded during the United States Antarctic Expedition at the height of South Pole-mania.
Antarctica, the final frontier of Earth exploration, is an austere world of mystery and quiet menace. Once part of the massive supercontinent of Gondwanaland and covered in rainforest, its ancient past lies buried beneath impenetrable glaciers of ice, guarded by deadly ice-cold winds and temperatures hostile to human survival. It is today a glittering interglacial reminder of the powerful forces that shape our planet, and ready to claim the lives of any who dare to take its capricious nature too lightly.
This has not, however, stopped the bold and adventurous from setting a course for the South Pole with the unknown firmly in their sights and discovery fuelling their souls. The list of names associated with Antarctic exploration is long and embedded into the public consciousness, from Amunsden, Mawson and Scott, to Ross, Hillary and Fiennes. However, one name above all others defined human endeavour in the poles: Richard Evelyn Byrd. Not only did Byrd undertake no fewer than 11 expeditions to Antarctica, he was also responsible for galvanizing both government and public interest in the continent. He contributed significantly to and induced the enormous frenzy of scientific activity across the 20th Century that dramatically broke through the quiet, dismissive ignorance the world entertained about its most southerly neighbour.
“Antarctica, an austere world of mystery and quiet menace.”
At the height of the public interest in Antarctica Byrd had himself generated, the explorer, scientist and naval officer was a massive celebrity – almost impossible to believe when today’s incumbents of the term are the dubious breed of cheerfully ignorant, narcissistic attention-seekers whose trifling contributions to the human endeavour are championed and beamed across the globe with undeserving relentlessness by the media. Yet in his day, Byrd was every much as famous, his exploits excitedly recounted in newspapers and radio programs worldwide, his countenance visible on all manner of merchandising from stamps to signed photos. By 1935, he had overseen two highly-successful privately-funded expeditions to Antarctica, and both he and the public were hungry for more.
Eager to capitalise on this popular sentiment, the U.S. government of the day under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly began assessing the feasibility of a government-funded expedition to the region – the first in over a century. In 1939, the impressively-titled Executive Committee For The United States Antarctic Service was formed and Byrd, who had been preparing for his own return to the region since 1935, readily accepted the invitation to take charge of the new venture. Officially entitled, ‘The United States Antarctic Service Expedition’, to the public it was ‘Byrd Antarctic Expedition III’, with the Admiral overseeing the government objective of establishing a permanent seasonal base at ‘Little America’ and another south of the Cape of Good Hope.’ On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history.
Little America was in fact the name given to a series of bases on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales between 1929 and 1956. The breakup of the shelf has seen at least two Little Americas float away to see on icebergs. They were the site of the first-ever radio broadcasting stations in the Antarctic, which, during the expeditions, sent regular transmissions powerful enough to be picked up by household radio sets in the U.S, thereby significantly contributing to the ongoing public interest in the program.
Harrison Holt Richardson
Responsible for capturing the expedition on celluloid was Byrd enthusiast and youngest member of the group, Harrison Holt Richardson. His interest in both Byrd and Antarctica began when, as a teenager, he attended a speech being given by the Admiral at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, where his father was a trustee. He would later write to Byrd hoping to persuade him to let Richardson join the crew of the U.S.S. Bear for the summer, a request which was later granted. Owned by Byrd, the Bear had been one of the principal ships used during his second expedition to the Antarctic, and Richardson the elder would subsequently convince Byrd to keep Richardson on for the third Antarctic expedition of 1939-41 in which the vessel was again utilised.
Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program. Over the winter of 1940-41, he would be a member of the biological team stationed there, working as a dog team driver and meteorological observer. Mt. Richardson in Marie Byrd Land, and discovered during his time there, would be named in his honour.
“Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program.”
In later life, Richardson would graduate from Geneva College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and serving in the U.S. navy as a medical officer during subsequent military expeditions to the North and South poles, helping to open the United States Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland, finally working as a radiologist for two hospitals back home. He would die at the age of 80 in 1999.
Richardson’s remarkable footage was produced using a 16mm film camera, which documents highlights of the 3-year expedition, from the crews’ departure in Boston to the closure of Little America in 1941. The silent footage would subsequently go out under the film title Antarctica, unsurprisingly credited to the United States Antarctic Expedition Service, with the occasional caption card to provide some kind of narrative.
Captured On Film
Whether or not Richardson was given much direction as to what he should document, the young cameraman/cinematographer does an excellent job under the circumstances, making sure to capture every aspect of the expedition, from the multifaceted scientific programs conducted to the equipment used in their implementation and the people behind it all who would go on to make history. He is also adept at capturing some of the breathtaking scenery and the mood of those around him. Probably the happiest surprise for me at least in viewing Antarctica is the fact that Richardson starts filming in Boston harbour at the very beginning of the journey, with impressive equipment like the Snow Cruiser, the overambitious and ultimately problematic all-terrain diesel car designed for ground-based mobility at the other end, excitedly paraded along the wharf prior to loading. An enthusiastic crowd is assembled, excited to be present at the momentous new chapter of scientific history, while crewmembers aboard the USMS North Star, the first ship to depart, cavort about on deck in pirate costumes, clearly lapping up every minute of their fame.
Along the way to icier climes, the crew would check in at destinations no less interesting, such as Pitcairn Island and Rapa Iti, with Richardson’s camera work ensuring the stopovers are saved for posterity. Pitcairn Island is a rich subject unto itself, being the very remote southern paradise the mutineers of the H.M.S Bounty would choose to make their home centuries earlier, with the North Star encountering their latter-day descendants as they trade for much-needed items during the 48-hour stopover. To the West, Rapa Iti, tropical outpost of French Polynesia and sinking volcanic remnant of a younger Earth, offered further trade and shore leave for the crew. Not to be confused with Rapa Nui (Easter Island), ‘Little’ Rapa bears the legacy of similar feats of stonemasonry, this time in the form of hill forts rather than giant statues. Richardson however, appears to be less concerned with history than the bare-chested Polynesian natives – his interest purely in anthropology never in doubt for a moment.
Choosing not to document the most crucial stopover of all in Dunedin, New Zealand, which would act as a major supply stop for the Bear and the North Star over the course of the expedition, the filming resumes once more as the first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.
“The first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.”
Then begins the expedition proper, with Richardson producing many recorded highlights throughout. The Snow Cruiser quickly demonstrates its design flaws from the moment it leaves the ship in much the same way that elephants and rope bridges don’t mix. Some of the scientists develop a deep fascination for the local penguin population, engaging in an intimacy that today’s naturalists would frown upon. Meanwhile, the spectre of death looms over the team, with crevasses hiding their true depths and threatening to swallow up the unsuspecting newcomer for all time. Away from all this, the natives show how perfectly they have evolved to suit the natural environment, with seals surfing joyfully across the powdery surface of the land towards the food-rich depths of the icy water, while rubbery penguins bounce across the achromatic landscape very much at home in this frozen world.
The expedition would nonetheless become more adept at survival in the Antarctic than most, and snapshots of their efforts give tantalising glimpses into their mission. Every conceivable scientific study was conducted over the three-year period, from biological to meteorological. Two bases were maintained, 3,540km apart from each other by sea and 2,575km apart by air. With this, successive teams made up of scientists and the U.S. military were able to fill in the gaps between lands explored by previous expeditions. The Bear would be regularly deployed along the coastline, often hampered by sea ice. Seaplanes would venture inland as well as helping to determine whether sections of coast were island or peninsula. Sledging parties would all for ground-based research, often away for weeks at a time and subject to the harsh Antarctic weather. Together, their efforts would result in the mapping of some 1,127km of coastline, as well as shed light on current glaciations and fully map ranges such as the Queen Maud Mountains, which Byrd had discovered several years earlier.
The daily work of the expedition, from the maintaining of the bases, to the construction and maintenance of equipment and even the feeding of the huskies (seals being their primary diet) can also be seen. Camaraderie and downtime show a cheerful atmosphere, and there can be no doubt that such an experience would create very strong bonds among the crew.
The camera lens also captures the otherworldly, yet very Earth-like quality of Antarctica itself. Huge, jagged pyramids of rock rise into the sky, forming mountain ranges that fade off into the horizon where few have dared to tread. Hauntingly-beautiful coastlines radiate the sun’s rays while offering none of its warmth. Terrain, forged and crumpled by glaciers that melted before the time of man, is beaten relentlessly by icy, power-filled winds. Blocks of ice as large as Hyde Park collapse into the sea. Icebergs, some as flat as table-tops, others emulating the pointed mountains they have left behind, float almost imperceptibly forward – some returning to the continental shelf, others destined to drift out of sight forever.
By 1941, global upheaval had reached fever pitch, and the base camps would be abandoned, much of their personnel redeployed to join the conflict. Antarctica’s airwaves fell silent and the dreams of establishing a permanent presence in the region were forgotten in the chaos of the Second World War. The Antarctic program would eventually continue, however, and thanks to Harrison Holt Richardson, the golden days of polar exploration are there in full colour for future generations to enjoy.
You too can enjoy it for yourself by clicking on the video below. To compensate for the lack of audio, I watched it accompanied by – what else – Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica.
Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of resources on the expedition. Those searching online in particular will find a plethora of resources, including this site, which gives a good overview of 200 years of Antarctic exploration, as well as chronicle the life of Admiral Byrd himself.
In contrast, little information exists on Harrison Holt Richardson, and what I did find was largely sourced from his New York Times obituary.
Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over. The epic Japanese thriller Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection next time when World On Film returns. Click below to view the original Japanese trailer:
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Elvis Costello
Several months ago, I wrote what could only described as a shameless paean to two of my all-time favourite soundtracks – soundtracks to films I hadn’t seen, and how this made them simply great pieces of music in their own right. In a similar vein this week, I look into the phenomenon of the film soundtrack you love and enjoy before finally seeing the production itself, and how both are changed by the experience. The Hans Zimmer fan, for example, having enjoyed his scores from Rain Man to Gladiator may buy the album for Inception, even if a recurring stomach ulcer inflamed by the perpetual pouting of Leonardo diCaprio will prevent them from actually seeing the film itself. Soundtrack albums often take on a successful life of their own entirely independent of the film: how many have the score to Pulp Fiction without having actually seen it? It is to this particular category that my first personal choice belongs, that being Neil Diamond’s memorable musical marriage to the less-than-memorable ‘epic’:
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
(1973) Music by Neil Diamond
“Listen, everybody! There’s no limit to how high we can fly! We can dive for fish and never have to live on garbage again!”
Fifty years ago, Buddhism had permeated the pop culture of the day, influencing every artist from The Beatles to American author Richard Bach. In the eponymous novel, Jonathan is a seagull cast out of his flock for daring to suggest that there is more to life than squabbling over food scraps. With his talent for flying (the reader is encouraged to put aside the obvious point that all seagulls have a singular talent in this arena) and wanderlust powered by an eternal curiosity, he rises to new levels of consciousness, discovers that Heaven is not a place but a state of mind, and that all things are possible for those who dare to dream. First published in 1970, Jonathan Livingston Seagull became one of the most famous U.S novels of the 20th Century and is still in print today. Its ultimately upbeat, can-do attitude is perfectly attuned to American sensibilities, predating the self-help innervations of Anthony Robbins by decades and appearing at a time when the nation was in rapid growth. It was not without its critics though, some of whom derided it for being overly simplistic, dull, preachy and anti-Christian.
Film-maker Hall Bartlett meanwhile decided in 1973 that the tale was fit for the big screen, despite the seagull-heavy nature of the characters and the fact that there was no such thing as CGI. Obvious material therefore for an animation one might think, but to Bartlett, it was a live-action extravaganza or nothing. More of this later.
Unsurprisingly, I was not especially aware of this when I first discovered the soundtrack around the age of four. It simply seemed to be an album by someone calling himself either ‘Neil Diamond’ or ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ (equally plausible at that point in my life) filled with songs and music about seagulls, flying and oceans crashing into sandy shores. None of these elements were mysteries however – I lived in a coastal town lined with beaches of varying temperament and heavily populated by those flying rats of the shoreline. It was true though that the seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above. I was ironically closer to the novel than I could have realised.
I also discovered – once the confusion over who had actually recorded the album was cleared up – that this was not atypical music for Him of the Crunchy Granola. Explorations into his signature sounds left me wanting and disinterested: this album is lightning in a bottle, a one-off. It is largely orchestral in form, combined with Diamond’s vocals, acoustic guitars, the occasional choral medley and the sounds of the sea.
“The seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above.”
Presented in story order, the music feels very much like a journey, beginning with the soft and rhythmic brass and percussion of ‘Prologue’, introducing what will quickly become the signature fanfare of the album. Those same iconic motifs continue in ‘Be’, wherein the listener meets Jonathan for the first time, “lost on a painted sky” discovering freedom away from the flock and the joys of flight. It’s a lovely tune, combining assured acoustic guitar with sweeping orchestral accompaniment and haunting strings. Religious undertones occasionally bubble to the surface on the album – references to ‘God’, a ‘Dear Father’, ‘gloria’ and ‘holy’, and Jonathan’s voyage of discovery could be described as a ‘religious’ experience. The instrumental ‘Flight Of The Gull’ follows, in which our hero tests the very limits of his skills, flying higher than ever before, only to meet with disaster. Here, the orchestra captures the journey perfectly with refrains rising as if into the very sky on gusts of wind, before leveling out and soaring above the clouds. Determined percussion echoes Jonathan’s efforts to push himself ever-further while buoyant woodwind tells of his sheer enjoyment – one that cannot last.
Quiet, unassuming piano opens the song ‘Dear Father’, finding Jonathan licking his wounds and in search of answers. “Who are we to need?” he implores, for the first time forced to temper desire with understanding. Diamond’s distinctive tones capture the lead character’s longing, echoed by a frustrated orchestral interlude and finally heartfelt string rendition of the main theme. Recovered, Jonathan shows off his newly-discovered flying prowess to the flock in the upbeat acoustic guitar, bass, percussion and strings ensemble of ‘Skybird’. The elders are singularly unimpressed however and banish him from the community. Alone and adrift in a ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, Jonathan ponders his fate. The mellow and melodic song is the musical equivalent of abandonment, fading to an uncertain future.
‘The Odyssey’ marks the turning point of both album and story, in which Jonathan begins his journey to higher planes of being. An instrumental medley of the main fanfare, ‘Be’, ‘Lonely Looking Sky’ and ‘Dear Father’, consolidates the story so far. The highlight is the instrumental of ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, proving it is just as powerful with strings in place of vocals, and a very beautiful tune, although similar treatment of ‘Dear Father’ is also very powerful. There is also an excellent haunting harp section speaking of new worlds, nicely reproduced by warmer strings a short while later, only to end in ominous brass discord.
“Transcend, purify, glorious.”
Lilting violins seem to bid welcome in ‘Anthem’, coming as close as they ever will to the voice comma, before Diamond slowly intones the processes underlying Jonathan’s moment of transition. An angelic chorus set to a cheerful harpsichord melody applauds this most holy transformation before the tune reverts to its lilting origins. Then follows a short instrumental reprise of ‘Be’, with piano and clarinet reaffirming the hero’s discovery of the self. Enlightened, Jonathan returns to the flock to pass his knowledge on to others. A soaring vocal version of ‘Skybird’ describes the lesson. “Rally each heart at the sight of your silver wings!” implores the teacher as he urges his pupils to take to the skies and follow their own unique path. A short and sombre instrumental reworking of ‘Dear Father’ tells of the flock elders’ anger at his ‘dangerous’ influence, however the acolytes are convinced and in the finale, a reprise of ‘Be’, Jonathan hands over teaching duties to rising pupil Fletcher Lynd Seagull and sets off, for “on a distant shore”, there will be other outcasts searching for the truth. Where ‘Be’ was originally a livelier, upbeat song, here, it is slower, the beats more dramatic, indicative of conclusion.
Years later, I would finally see Hall Bartlett’s live-action extravaganza, in which real seagulls were utilised, forcing the post-production to work very hard at convincing the viewer that their actions were in any way related to the narrative, mainly through the work of voice acting. Meanwhile, white, seagull-shaped radio-controlled gliders were employed for the flight scenes, to varying levels of success. So underwhelmingly bad was the experience that it completely failed to tarnish my enjoyment of the score and I would urge the curious to investigate the novel instead. Familiarity with the story has forever altered my perception of the music and lyrics however, by mapping the music to particular scenery – at least until I managed to forget most of it. The production values of the album do seem somewhat dated today, and the music doesn’t seem as grandiose as it did when I was younger, and indeed seems a lot more heavy-handed and sentimental. We all have music from our childhood that we hear differently to those who discover it when they’re older and whom will probably struggle to understand what all the fuss is about. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is most definitely a prime example of this for me and probably always will be. Favourable conversion to the rest of Neil Diamond’s discography however still seems unlikely.
Under The Mountain
(2009) Music by Victoria Kelly
Another film based on a famous novel, Under The Mountain tells the story of Rachel and Theo, red-headed twins who discover they are all that stands between the human race and the evil Wilberforces, shape-changing aliens determined to take over the planet for their own malicious ends. Both the story, and its author Maurice Gee are probably New Zealand’s most famous contributions to the country’s rich oeuvre of fiction. It was one of my all-time favourite novels as a child, the 1982 television adaptation long the definitive screen realisation. 2009 saw it dramatised on the big screen for the first time by film director Jonathan King, unsurprisingly improving upon the production values of its predecessor, but significantly dumbing down the text and introducing emo-driven characterisation neither present in the original nor remotely necessary.
Scoring duties meanwhile were assigned to locally-born composer Victoria Kelly, who manages to produce a soundtrack that fits the intentions of the film perfectly. Kelly’s ominously dramatic chords, screeching strings and unsettling woodwind recreate the suspenseful atmosphere of the sci-fi/horror tale extremely well without ever standing out where they shouldn’t or failing to underpin the right emotion. It is essentially a soundtrack that does its job extremely well and listened to in isolation is a sequence of nicely suspenseful mood pieces. ‘Nowhere To Run’, one of the tracks on the album, neatly encapsulates Kelly’s style, uneasy mystery, staccato percussion for moments of high drama and ‘distressed’ string discord for creeping horror. Thumping percussion and hyperventilating strings are another trademark, heard for example in ‘The History Of The World’ and throughout. The angry drum beats perfectly capture the onscreen terror, sounding at times like someone (or something) hammering at a door, demanding to gain entry, while high-pitched strings imitating the sound of knives sharpening complete the fear factor – the track ‘One Will Be Enough’ being a good example of this. The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.
“The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.”
Fortunately, subsequent viewing of the film did not ruin my enjoyment of Kelly’s work, and it remains a great selection of tense, atmospheric music that can be enjoyed independent of the drivel it was created for. The 1982 TV miniseries is still the definitive version. Better yet, listen to it while reading Maurice Gee’s novel. Were it not for my love of the original text, I might not have bothered to acquire the score, and I recommend the film only as I would recommend pneumonia. Recommending its composer however, couldn’t be easier.
Little Tall Island is a quiet community of good, God-fearing folk where nothing ever happens. Sure, there was that whole business with Dolores Claiborne up on the hill a few years back, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Peace reigns until one day a stranger arrives and turns the community upside-down, forcing them to face the dark truth of their so-called Middle American lives and the secrets they all harbour just beneath the surface. The newcomer wants something from them before he’ll go away and leave them to their social fiction. However, to stay alive, the islanders may have to sell their souls. World On Film continues its break from the prime directive next week with a review of Stephen King’s 1999 epic, Storm Of The Century. Click below to see a trailer:
This week: isolation, abuse, and vengeance in Yang Chul-soo’s provocative horror-thriller, Bedevilled. World On Film is currently on break from its main series of film reviews, but having watched this recently, I couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents’ worth. Fans of Korean cinema can also read my brief account of my time at the 2010 Pusan Film Festival.
(2010) Written by Choi Kwang-young Directed by Yang Chul-soo
“There are kind people?”
When Hae-won, a highly-strung and unsympathetic young woman, is forced to take sick leave from her high-pressure job as a clerk in a busy Seoul bank, she decides to recuperate on Moo-do, the remote southern island of her birth. There, she is reunited with childhood friend Bok-nam, who unlike Hae-won, never left the island in search of greater fortunes, and lives with a violent wife-beating husband, a brother-in-law who routinely rapes her, and village elders who despise her for being a woman. Matters reach breaking point when her husband turns his lecherous attentions to their young daughter, and Bok-nam can finally endure her abuse no longer. However, her friend even now may not be on her side.
Script-writer Choi Kwang-young quickly earned a name for himself in 2010 with the release of two crime-thrillers, the first being Secret Reunion, which I reviewed last year. While it fell far more into typical odd-couple comedy territory, Secret Reunion did nonetheless contain some quite brutal murder scenes, suggesting that Choi might well have intended his tale of a North Korean assassin infiltrating the South to be far darker. Bedevilled, therefore, feels like the next logical step.
Meanwhile actress Seo Yeong-hie had by this time already proved herself a veteran of grim, blood-splattered thrillers, having played one of the lead roles in The Chaser, in which police struggle to catch a twisted serial killer who preys on young women in a downtown suburb of Seoul. There, Seo gives a memorable performance as one of his prey, and in going on to play the tortured character of Bok-nam in Bedevilled, has seemingly become the go-to performer when casting abuse victims. Hardly surprising, since in Choi’s uncompromising melodrama, the female protagonist is put through the wringer akin to those in Pascal Laugier’s squirmfest, Martyrs, with Seo providing a painfully incredible, and indeed real, performance.
Some viewers may have trouble agreeing with this verisimilitude, given that the island is populated by a series of characters so horribly sadistic and sociopathic that it may be hard to accept the idea of anyone in real life being so horrible. However, Choi draws his characters from the cultural wellspring of what is still one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, where historically man was the undisputed ruler of his domain and woman was his property, there only to tend to his needs. Since it was the traditional male role to look after the parents in their dotage, men were valued far higher than women, who would inevitably marry into another family, and daughters-in-law were therefore little better than indentured servants. This attitude is compounded still further in the rural setting we see here, where only men are deemed capable of the endless physical labour required for survival. Korea’s gender imbalance is testament to the enduring nature of the long-held Confucian belief, and only beginning to dissipate in more modern times. Bedevilled’s cast sits at the extreme end of the scale, which Choi has taken to its logical conclusion: a remote island populated by characters uneducated, far from modern social attitudes and driven to antisocial behaviour due to their isolation, and the almost Wrong Turn-like devolution is the result. However, it is not a cheap shot commentary on the isolated community of hillbillies, but the effect they have on their unwitting servant that sits at the heart of the film.
Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment. That same society teaches such women that suffering is part of existence, and something they must bear with fortitude, no matter how great or for how long it may be inflicted upon them. Kim Bok-nam however, is taken over the edge, and when the moment comes, Bedevilled rapidly begins to earn its slasher-horror stripes. On the one hand, it plays like a very typical Korean melodrama, with abuse and indignity piled upon the tortured lead until you begin to wonder how anyone could possibly endure any more. This is contrasted with the character of Hae-won, played by Ji Seong-won. She too is a victim of a male-dominated world, but is both too afraid to confront it and lashes out the wrong people because of it. Yet her abuse is inflicted in stages rather than as dramatically as Bok-nam’s, pushing her into self-absorbed narcissism rather than sympathetic compassion, depriving Bok-nam of her one remaining lifeline to sanity. This is of course is necessary if Bok-nam’s eventual descent into madness and quest for swift revenge is to be believable, and not simply the cheap contrivance of B-grade horror. Precisely because it is done properly is why Bedevilled is so powerful, and in a cast of such thoroughly unlikable characters (again, necessary to justify what is to come), it is the murderer with whom we ultimately have the most sympathy.
“Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment.”
For all this, the script is unburdened by heavy-handed morality. There is a complete lack of “This behaviour is wrong because…” or “That’s what you get for being a rapist!”-type dialogue throughout. Bok-nam, who had known no-one else but the unsympathetic islands her whole life, has no basis for comparison for most of the film, thus her judgement is based purely on her experiences, allowing for an organic rather than didactic tale despite its pro-feminist overtones. It would be hard to imagine the inevitable Hollywood remake treating its viewers in such an intelligent fashion.
Shot on location on Geum-o Island in Korea’s south, Bedevilled has the perfect visuals to create its prison-like setting, contrasting them with Seoul’s concrete wilderness, which is not necessarily seen in a much better light, where misogyny is no less rife. Full credit to cinematographer Kim Gi-tae for simultaneously bringing out the stark contrast between these two locales yet showing their dark similarities.
The film does suffer from certain issues, firstly a tremendous jump in the action at the climax, presumably done for reasons of time, but standing out a mile. It raises questions about how certain characters manage to end up from one location to another given their predicament, and is something that director Yang Chul-soo cannot have failed to miss. Also, while the gore scenes are for the most part handled as realistically as one could imagine them being, Bedevilled does suffer a little from Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees syndrome, where antagonists cannot possibly have managed to survive the death blows inflicted upon them so unharmed, forcing the audience to put the superhuman endurance down to masses of adrenaline caused by madness. Still, noticeable though they are, the discrepancies do not undermine the story’s principal aims, and one way or another, Bedevilled burns its mark into the psyche – or should that be ‘slashes’?
Full marks finally for the subtitles on my copy, which being the official release, should be the same for you as well. You know a film is being translated well when the subtitler works hard to capture dialect and slang in another language. In Moo-do’s grotesque denizens, it manages to heighten their inhumanity, while in Bok-nam, it brings out the simple, country girl who yearns for both affection and to see Seoul, which through Hae-won, she has equated with the entire world beyond.
Ironically, I have yet to meet any Koreans who have seen Bedevilled, although that’s clearly just the people around me, and they all knew it by reputation. Its dark, unsubtle character study and melodramatic brutality, not to mention blood-splattering second act will not endear it to many, but when viewed in the right context, which I have hopefully established for the reader above, it functions as an extremely powerful film and comes highly recommended.
In case you’re wondering, the original Korean title, which rather gives everything away roughly translates to ‘The Circumstances Surrounding Kim Bok-nam’s Homicidal Episode’. Then again, subtlety is not the point of the exercise here.
And now, for something completely different. Several months ago, I had fun writing about two of my favourite soundtracks to films I hadn’t actually seen before. While a good score should arguably be inconspicuous, it takes on a whole new meaning when heard in isolation. On this occasion, I look at two soundtracks to films that I would go on to see and attempt to put what I at least can hear into words – a possibly foolhardy and ill-advised effort that may make counting sheep an adrenaline-filled rush by comparison. The two scores thus afflicted are Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Victoria Kelly’s Under The Mountain next, when World On Film returns.