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).
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.
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.
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:
(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.
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. Trained in the art of film-making by the international volunteers, the participants could give Burundi a voice on the world stage. Under the mandate “Inspire, Educate, Entertain”, a selection process yielded 5 potential scripts that went into production during the summer of 2007, the end result being 5 short films that today have been played at film festivals across the globe and are also available online. I had the opportunity to catch them recently and considering their amateur origins, found them quite enjoyable. While the young film-makers are of course helped by the volunteers with everything from art direction to script editing, the works clearly bear their marks, telling the stories they want to be seen.
Covering a broad range of topics guaranteed universal appeal from AIDS to refugees, the shorts films have something for everyone and hopefully mark the beginning of greater projects down the road. Indeed, the BFC is still active today and working to give Burundi a bona fide film industry. I think it’s a great endeavour – tempering the world-weary cynic and suggesting there may be hope for humanity after all. Below are short reviews and synopses of the first five films:
Moma is a young man who dreams of becoming an architect, saving every penny of his day job to enroll at the local university. However, his impoverished family desperately needs money to buy a house of their own, presenting Moma with a difficult choice. A solid human drama, Bigger Plans ably demonstrates the talent of these new film-makers, its script well-plotted and evenly-paced for the 11-minutes of running time and boasting an engaging story of universal appeal. Landry Nshimye has a definite screen presence as the industrious lead while Kareem Bakundukize gives a convincing natural performance as his friend Zozo. The sets are also quite expressive, with Moma’s dilapidated house for example clearly conveying the family’s predicament and the tough decision set before him. All in all, a very solid first effort.
Nothing’s The Same
Shot in just one day, Nothing’s The Same tells the story of Anémone, a young Christian girl about to marry having her ordered world violently turned upside-down by a life-changing traumatic incident. Coming in at just under 11 minutes, the film has much to convey in that time, dealing as it does with two major social issues and the way in which those affected by them have to deal with the cold realities they bring. The principal cast therefore have a complex sea of emotions created by the predicament that befalls their characters, and although it proves something of a challenge, they get the message across. Ginette Mahoro as Anémone has clear acting potential and a very expressive face that will hopefully be seen again in the future. Produced at breakneck speed by the sound of things, Nothing’s The Same is nonetheless an excellent effort considering the high goals the production set itself. The short also benefits greatly from its strong use of exterior filming, giving the viewer a snapshot of everyday life in Burundi. The music too is well-chosen, dramatically changing in character following the major plot conflict. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this work beforehand.
“Covering a broad range of topics guaranteed universal appeal from AIDS to refugees, the shorts films have something for everyone and hopefully mark the beginning of greater projects down the road.”
In Reveal Yourself, a chance encounter between a Burundian woman and a Congolese refugee on the outskirts of Bujumbura, the nation’s capital, bridges the wide gap between these two disparate groups leading to new-found understanding and possibly more besides. Writer/director Ginette Mahoro (star of Nothing’s The Same) opts for visual rather than dialogue-driven storytelling for the most part, letting the city’s war-impoverished evacuees paint their own picture – the destitute denizens of the streets we see on screen being the genuine article. With the refugees typically ignored by the local population, Reveal Yourself shows how easily acts of humanity may bring the two sides together. Although I found the ending rather abrupt, causing the overall short to feel more like a scene from something larger rather than a film unto itself, Mahoro’s subject matter is compelling, her visuals evocative, and her choice of leads well-founded, with Linda Kamuntu and co-star (whose name I can’t find anywhere) building some nice chemistry in the short time they are together on screen.
Aline, a university student from the countryside, finds herself the unwanted centre of attention when she comes to stay with her friend’s family in Bujumbura. As the title suggests, Abuse tackles one of society’s most damaging social problems, with the cast competently realising the power play, fear and reasons for its recurrence. Carrying the ambitiousness of Nothing’s The Same, it did feel as though 10 minutes was rather rushed for the subject matter, something that needed time and a build-up of tension to really be effective. However, given the limited time and resources available to the production crew, Abuse is a valiant effort, coherent, well-structured and evenly-paced, with a conclusion viewers should find satisfactory.
Kivumvu: Basket Boy
Tired of being relentlessly teased by his peers for his unusual name, Kivumvu determines to find out its origin, discovering the difficulties surrounding his birth in the process. Every entry in the BFC series has been entertaining, though for me, Kivumvu is the cream of the crop. Possibly the richest of the five productions, it boasts a large cast, flashback sequences and a number of locations all used to good effect. Abdul Karim Bakundukize gives a stand-out performance as the boy’s father, frustrated by the high fees the hospital demands for assisting in the birth of his new son. The film’s commentary on the local health care system favouring the haves over the have-nots is certainly something viewers worldwide will have no trouble sympathising with, the parents’ unique solution for which is sure to raise a smile. Jeremie Hakashimana’s soundtrack is also wonderfully-evocative, helping along the pace of unfolding drama nicely. An excellent effort for all involved.
This brings us to the end of the ‘B’ series. As with last time, this means a few weeks’ break from the main run of reviews and a chance to delve into other topics of interest in the world of cinema. Next week however will not seem terribly different, as I recently had the chance to see Bedevilled, a memorable South Korean thriller-horror first released in 2010, and couldn’t help writing down my thoughts. There is an English-language trailer, but I thought it was dreadful, and doesn’t do the film any favours. Therefore, below you can find the original Korean trailer, in which the visuals will give you a good enough idea of the story.
This week, World On Film returns to Bulgaria for the somewhat overambitious commentary on the human condition in Eastern Plays. Ironically, I found myself enjoying the film more when writing the review than when actually watching it.
(2009) Written & Directed by Kamen Kalev
You can find a trailer at the bottom of the previous entry.
“Many people start [are starting] to wake up and realize that their soul is sick.”
The long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world is the premise of Eastern Plays, a Bulgarian film that comments as much about that country’s society as it does about society in general. The story is told from the perspective of two brothers, Christo and Georgi, one in his thirties and recovering from drug addiction, the other young and impressionable, yet both staring into the abyss with only impenetrable darkness staring back. By turns, they fight and fall into meltdown as the chaotic world around them offers little meaning to guide them toward happiness and purpose. The premise of Kalev’s tale is certainly sound, however in practice, I found the delivery fairly disjointed and listless. It is peppered with touching and thought-provoking studies of human frailty, but ultimately does not really pull together as an entertaining whole.
One of the principal difficulties I had with Eastern Plays is its lethargic beginning, and a fairly rudderless one at that. A raft of characters is introduced; all pursuing their own paths to destruction, but there is no real clue as to either whom the story will principally focus upon, or what that story really is. Possibilities include a young man’s descent into gang violence, nationalism and politically-supported anti-immigration riots, family breakdown, and the generation gap. Then there is Christo, an unpleasant, self-loathing, chain-smoking artist, staring oblivion in the eye and desperate to pull himself away from it yet lost as to how. Ultimately, it becomes clear that Eastern Plays is his story, and as he battles his inner demons, the many layers of his character come to the fore and a more sensitive, highly-pensive character is revealed.
One could certainly argue that there is no reason why a film couldn’t contain all the above elements with multiple character arcs lightly intertwined with each other and the sum of the parts being a comment on some aspect of the human condition. In this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Bolivian film, Sexual Dependency, reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. However, whereas Sexual Dependency triumphs because all the parts slot into place within the greater commentary, Eastern Plays, attempting to do the same, fails because the result is hazy and the various sequences somehow more drawn out and dull in the process.
In hindsight, it seems far clearer that Kalev’s approach to the first half of the film was to fill the canvas with the wider problems of society so that the viewer will see Christo’s pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Seemingly germane, there is however pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, there is perhaps too much of this, thereby causing narrative incoherence: is the film about him or is it about Bulgaria? It is in the second half, when Christo’s story becomes the dominant narrative that things begin to pick up. Love interests and family become soundboards for attempts to make sense of everything, and these prove to be the more interesting sections of the film. It is the character interactions themselves rather than merely the occasional philosophical debate that shows humanity finding understanding and balance that are especially touching, although those brief philosophical debates do sum up the themes quite nicely.
“[Eastern Plays looks at] the long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world.”
There is much to recommend on the acting front. Ovanes Torosian as gang member-wannabe Georgi does a very good job of portraying the confused adolescent whose inner turmoil is more evident in his eyes and quietude than his dialogue. Highly memorable also is the lovely Saadet Aksoy, a young and intelligent woman able to bridge the gaps between worlds despite fear and who is able to put voice to the social discord. The scenes between her and Christov are among the most engaging of all in Eastern Plays, save for some other touching moments where Christo puts voice to his fear and aspirations, and a scene near the end where he encounters an old man filled with the tranquility of understanding that Christo so desperately yearns for. The late Christo Christov is eminently believable as his namesake: bored of social expectation, longing for something more, and frustrated when it fails to materialize. He is pitiless to those unable to help him in his quest, and eminently warm and human to those seemingly able to provide it. It’s a great shame that Eastern Plays is both Christov’s debut and finale to the acting world, and an even greater shame that the film’s narrative disarray somewhat undermines his performance.
The character of Bulgaria itself, as depicted, is cold, lifeless and bleak. It is violently insecure as it struggles to define its own national identity, its citizens borne of both the Soviet nation it once was and the unsure republic it is today. The elderly cling to the orderly past, the young embrace the chaotic present, yet neither are happy. A line from Georgi, however, implies that the changes are for the better, implying that the Bulgaria of today is perhaps simply experiencing the birth pains of a new nation, though a generation will be lost to the uncertainty of transition as a result.
All of which brings us full circle: there are plenty of great and interesting themes explored in Eastern Plays, with the actors more than able to realise them within their believable and fragile characters. The lack of a tighter, more focused narrative, which dulls the pacing and fogs up the intent of the piece, is the biggest culprit. That Kalev is passionate about the subjects presented is very much in evidence, as is the fact that when it comes down to really exploring them through his characters, he is quite skilled at doing so. Here though, he tries to say too much at once, enshrouding the result in fog as a result. When he masters clarity and restraint, however, there is much to suggest his work will be something memorable indeed.
The conflict between generation and culture continues in Burkina Faso as one woman dares to say no to the common practice of genital mutilation. The colourful and thought-provoking window into West African traditions in Moolaadé, when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer:
This week: friendship, loyalty and desperation as World On Film travels to the slums of Rio de Janeiro for City Of Men. There’s also a brief stopover in British Indian Ocean Territory where a displaced people fight for their home. First up however, put the film City Of God out of your mind for the entirely unconnected:
City Of Men
(2007) Written by Elena Soarez & Paulo Morelli Directed by Paulo Morelli
The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. The city’s signature image is that glittering crescent-shaped downtown coastline with a mass of white skyscrapers filling the shore to the right with the shining blue sea taking prominence on the left while beyond, the solid stone massif of Sugar Loaf Mountain defines the background. And yet, while it is surely the most striking of Rio de Janeiro’s natural landmarks, it is by no means anomalous to the rest of the capital’s layout. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio’s enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as favelas, often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In City Of Men, the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.
The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle ‘Dead End Hill’, concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as ‘Midnight’ in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film’s two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.
One of City Of Men’s strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or ‘Morro da Sinuca’ in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.
“The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in [a shanty town ruled by gang warfare]: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law.”
Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.
It was not until after viewing the film that I learned City Of Men is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, City Of God, which apparently sets many up for disappointment. City Of Men, it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.
Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, City Of Men offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, City Of Men will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn’t work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.
I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on City Of Men until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.
To learn more about the original series, visit here.
To see the official website (in Portuguese), click here.
British Indian Ocean Territory
In late 2010, whistleblower site Wikileaks released documents disclosing efforts by the British government to turn the distant protectorate of islands known as British Indian Ocean Territory into a marine reserve. The archipelago had, once upon a time, been home to the Chagossians, the ethnic group of the region, principally settled on the island of Diego Garcia. In the 19th Century, the islands became part of the British colony of Mauritius (formerly possessed by France), however, when Mauritius was granted independence in 1965 (taking effect in 1968), they were separated and became what is now known as British Indian Ocean Territory. Over the next 8 years, the approximately 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the British government when it was decided that Diego Garcia was of sufficient strategic importance to host a military base. The facility was constructed in 1971, leased to the U.S. by England, and bearing the ironic designation Camp Justice.
Those in search of it meanwhile were relocated to the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles (both of which now lay claim to the territory) and the U.K. from where they would spend the next four decades protesting what they declared an illegal act. A 2006 High Court ruling agreed with them, however a 2008 ruling by the House of Lords supported the contention that the British government had a ‘royal prerogative’ to hold the archipelago. The Wikileaked documents outline the proposal by the British government in 2009 to turn the waters surrounding the islands into a “marine reserve”. This would then “assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld”, as well as make it “difficult, if not impossible, [for the native Chagossians] to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve”.
While unsurprisingly therefore, BIOT is not known for its film industry, its history is certainly worthy of a screenplay, though these days, the Chagossians would probably be depicted as blue-skinned inhabitants of a moon fighting the evil ‘Britcorp’ for their lucrative territory.
A nation experiencing the birth pains of social change. An irreconcilable generation gap. A frightened population looking for scapegoats. A man fighting for his sanity. Chaos and hope in the ambitious Bulgarian film Eastern Plays when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer – unsubtitled, but you’ll get the idea.
This week, civil war, persecution and dark humour as World On Film travels to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the memorable snapshot into madness:
(2005) Written & Directed by Ahmed Imamovic Co-written by Enver Puska
“We’re slaughtering each other like in the Middle Ages while abroad, they’re making computer chips. You know how much data a computer chip the size of a fingernail can contain? A million! And where are we? Persecuting each other on hills and in forests like we didn’t have anything more intelligent to do.”
It’s 1992, and the Yugoslavian Socialist Republic is collapsing into a series of brutal civil wars. As Serbian forces lay siege to Sarajevo, Serbian student Milan and his cellist Muslim boyfriend Kenan have no choice but to flee the ethnic cleansing. With Muslim citizens being executed all over Bosnia, Milan disguises Kenan as his bride-to-be, allowing them to escape to the relative safety of the countryside where Milan’s father Ljubo lives until they can obtain the necessary papers promising passage to the Netherlands. However, maintaining the deception becomes harder and harder: Milan’s best friend Lunjo quickly learns the truth and Ljubo is especially keen to marry the happy couple. Worse still, Milan is suddenly drafted into the army, leaving Kenan alone to keep up the pretence, made all the more difficult by the sex-starved Ranka, a local waitress who the whole village seems to fear.
My initial impressions of Go West were that it would primarily be a fairly damning commentary on the Yugoslav war – a harsh, but sobering drama that would leave the viewer in no doubt as to the futility of ethnic and religious hatred, and indeed war itself. Which indeed it is, but it is also a condemnation of homophobia, while at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the fleeing couple’s predicament elevates Go West’s discourse into black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina – without one theme compromising the other.
Horror and madness must come before absurdity of course, and there is definitely nothing to laugh at during the opening sequences, where the two protagonists carry on with their lives in Sarajevo before they are overwhelmed by the turmoil. Director Imamovic weaves genuine newsreel footage of the conflict into his specially-shot sequences of Serbian militia terrorising the locals and gunning down the Muslim population (with soldiers forcing men’s pants down in search of tell-tale circumcisions). As Milan and Kenan’s lives are quickly overturned, forcing them into flight, the audience is given a street-level snapshot of how the conflict might have been experienced firsthand.
Fuelled by such life-or-death desperation, I found myself wondering if indeed the real-life Muslim homosexuals might too have disguised themselves as married women in order to escape execution. As Kenan himself states at the beginning, “On the Balkans, it’s easier to bear if someone in the family is a murderer rather than a faggot [sic].” Under pressure from all sides, much of the tension in Go West therefore derives from we the audience wondering just how long he will be able to maintain his disguise while besieged by threats on all sides (some not necessarily malicious) to expose the truth. Actor Mario Drmac plays the would-be transvestite with great skill, giving Kenan a quiet strength, though portraying him on a knife-edge as the drama escalates. Go West is ultimately his story, showing the lengths the natives must go through in order to survive the war: humiliation, desperation, and above all, loss, leaving only courage or madness to dictate how one lives their remaining life.
“[Go West is a] black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The writers are also keen to point out the ridiculousness of the predicament, not only through Kenan’s constant struggle to ensure his ‘breasts’ appear convincing or the stubble from his face, but in the whole cast of villagers whose world ranges from witchcraft and superstition to the local priest more concerned with political rhetoric than the salvation of the soul. Some of the characters are obvious comic relief, while in other cases, the humour creeps up on you with the forced jollity of the inhabitants that causes events to spiral further out of control. Ljubo is perhaps the strongest example of this. Wonderfully played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija, the one-time Texan rancher fights daily against resignation and melancholy in the face of so much loss, unable to see that his good intentions are making things harder. His son Milan, played by Tarik Filipovic, sits somewhere between the two people he cares about most: warm and all-embracing, yet feeling as though only he truly understands the sacrifices that must be made. In contrast, Ranka, in a strong performance by Mirjana Karanovic, has far baser desires, which threaten to unravel the entire social fabric. Tragically, only the viewer is ultimately able to see the lighter side of their predicament.
While I think the blend of drama and black humour hold together well, there are some aspects of the script that don’t entirely work as well as they could. The witchcraft element, for example, seems to be there simply to build up the potential threat of certain characters, yet ultimately doesn’t seem to have any other meaning beyond this. Elsewhere, the murder of certain antagonists seems out-of-character for those enacting them, and done simply to pull the writers out of a hole during the all-important climax. This may sound a little odd in a film where senseless killing would be considered inevitable, but perhaps readers will know what I mean when they watch for themselves.
Ultimately however, these elements do not cause serious damage to the film’s central premise, nor fear and madness of one of the 20th Century’s most brutal civil wars. It does not try to be universal commentary on the fall of the republic, but instead ‘zoom in’ to a snapshot of the personal tragedy and persecution of those perceived to be socially abhorrent, which of course, they were not – merely ordinary people trying to survive. It reminds me of similarly-themed Albanian film, Slogans, also a drama/black comedy exploring the absurdity borne of a society descending into madness and painting itself into a corner. In Go West however, there is a much higher body count.
This, and the many twists and turns of the plot, may cause the viewer to wonder if anyone will ultimately get out alive. In the end, Go West delivers a bittersweet conclusion and a very poignant message. Hope survives, though many will have to die first – a not incongruous ending for film with war as its subject. Definitely recommended.
British Virgin Islands
This Caribbean British outpost has yet to dazzle the world with its film-making prowess, hampered at present by the complete non-existence of a film industry and hampered still further by being far too small for such things – not even a travel documentary explaining why the late 1960s is the ideal time to visit. It has occasionally however been used as a location, and located as it is in the heart of ‘stereotypical pirate’ territory, its exotic appearance speaks of old-world adventure, though today, it is just as associated with drug trafficking and Richard Branson.
In more recent times, it was an island rich in cannibals destined to ingest a group of New York tourists in the uncelebrated 2008 horror film Holocaust Holocaust, the destination for a Geek Cruise in 2007, and in 2003, just one of the many remote hideouts chosen by Dream Chasers, people who had given up the rat race in search of a new life away from the concrete jungle. A decade ago, it was on three occasions a popular filming location for the Boob Cruise series, the focus of which would suggest the islands are today ‘virgin’ in name only.
Most fans of celluloid however will have seen something of the BVI via the 1977 blockbuster horror/thriller, The Deep, in which the sunken packet ship RMS Rhone doubles for the morphine-rich home of tiger sharks, the Goliath. Today, the Rhone, sunk two centuries earlier by a hurricane, is a popular diving site, though as far as I know, has yet to yield any treasure. I prefer Jaws myself.
Western civilization quite literally strikes the natives of the Kalahari in Botswana, causing chaos, misery and misunderstanding. The continent of Africa’s most famous film to date goes under the spotlight when World On Film examines the slapstick comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. To view a trailer, click below:
If you were asked to pin down the one fundamental instinct that drives all human relationships and indeed the shape of every society, what would you say? Travel with me to Bolivia this week as World On Film explores the ugly, but brutally honest truth of:
(2003) Written & Directed by Rodrigo Bellot
(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of the previous entry.)
In Sexual Dependency, writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears. Society is reduced to the hunters and their prey, the aggressive dominators and the submissive victims. Sexuality, both the need and fear of it dictate the daily lives of all, wittingly or unwittingly. Viewed through the lens of the animal, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.
So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn’t dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work. However, the change of location also serves another crucial purpose, of which more a little later.
Another function of the loose anthology of story segments (minor characters in one become major characters in another) is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl. 15, we are told, is the time when one comes of age in Bolivia (more strictly-speaking, the age of consent is when puberty has been reached), and when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout Sexual Dependency, the young girl’s unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment: the message ultimately being that consent is either way irrelevant, since the weak and submissive will simply be directed by the dominant forces of the group. By the end of the film, the male victims of this natural law are no less numerous.
The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the many acts of dominance they must perform on a regular basis to remain at the centre of their world, and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.
In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of Sexual Dependency goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence. The sex in Sexual Dependency bears no relation to the fantasy of the expectant imagination: this is the physical act borne of instinct, aggression, and indeed, dependency.
“[Sexual Dependency is] a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears.”
Full credit must go to Bellot to choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. In depicting the real rather than ideal normally featured in cinema, this was central to making Sexual Dependency work, and I can’t think of a single actor present who didn’t deliver. Equally important to this was the subtitles for the Bolivian sections. For my copy at least, they were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn’t distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way it was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen. There is so much happening on so many different levels both in the stories themselves and the post-production later that the overall result is a rich and layered experience.
The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself has been shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of ‘echoing’ effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama’s chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary. It does certainly provide a visual cue to the overall theme of perceptions shifting depending upon not only how one perceives the world, but what role one plays in a social group and how it changes according to circumstance.
Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, Sexual Dependency is a title both of and within the film. It doesn’t dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally ‘exploited’, although perhaps I simply didn’t see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.
The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. This of course is the point, though 2 hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can’t escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn’t always work for me, Sexual Dependency is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.
Civil war threatens to tear them apart, but they’ll do whatever it takes to stay together. However, if there’s one thing the Bosnians and the Serbs hate more than each other, it’s homosexuals. The compelling black comedy Go West when World On Film returns.
A slightly shorter entry this time, due to my having to spend much of the day battling spyware – or more accurately, letting the computer battle spyware while I sat there being irritated. This week, a Belgian thriller going by the name of:
(2008) Directed by Erik Van Looy; Written by Bart de Pauw
(You can find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post.)
“Don’t worry, I’m your friend – your best friend. I’ll keep quiet. I always keep quiet.”
Late one evening in a quiet corner of a Brussels suburb, a body suddenly plummets from the top of a residential tower block onto the roof of a parked car below. Earlier that same day, five friends sharing a loft apartment for their extramarital conquests discover the bloodstained body of a woman sprawled across the bed where the affairs take place. Is one of them responsible or are they being framed by a jealous lover?
So begins Loft, an exploration into the uglier side of sex and the psyche. It is as much a commentary on male attitudes to infidelity as it is a murder mystery, where the joys of conquest reign over reason and consideration for anything other than animal lust. While the championed phrase ‘It didn’t mean anything’ is employed as the clichéd band aid over the wound of trust, the five protagonists who cling to it are not equal in their desires for inconstancy. When architect Vincent Stevens hands his four friends the keys to the sky parlor through which they may indulge themselves in secret, it is here that the unraveling truly begins and we discover whose declarations end at posturing bravado and who truly believes that adultery is an honest acceptance of male desires.
All of which give Loft its light and shade. With the story told out of sequence, we flit back and forth across the lives of the five men, the choices they made leading to their current predicament, and the way in which they deluded themselves so as to justify their actions. The placing of the murder inquiry in the pre-credits teaser makes it clear that the slaves of lustful extracurricular activity cannot escape their fate, but the real intrigue lies in precisely how the drama plays out and whether or not the man sitting in the interrogation room really deserves to be there. The out-of-sequence intersections spanning several months add layers of deceit – both within the group, not as tightly-knit as they try to believe, and to all who come within their orbit. The grotesque parody of civilization held together by expensive suits and champagne cannot disguise the descent into carnal imprisonment.
Indeed, if grotesquerie is ultimately the point of the film, then Loft succeeds with flying colours, for I found myself struggling to sympathise, let alone care about any of the poor fools and the fact that their clandestine infidelity had at last come to haunt them. I certainly can’t fault a single character on the grounds that he is depicted unrealistically, for the overconfident Lotharios before the camera will easily remind any viewer of the expert seducers we’ve all met at some point whose undisputed skill at drawing women to them like moths to a flame is matched only by their deep vainglorious neglect of empathy. If redemption is on the cards, Loft is not concerned with winning the audience over to their side and in the end, this is my biggest problem with it – not a desire for some tired, shoehorned play for morality before the end credits as Hollywood typically insists so as to keep the audience’s fantasy of human virtue intact, but simply the fact that in human drama, a cast of unlikable characters is the true act of murder for the audience, their empathy dead and buried for the duration of a film that demands two hours of attention.
“If grotesquerie is ultimately the point of the film, then Loft succeeds with flying colours.”
Doubtless, there are many fans of the modern crime thriller who revel in the self-destructive anti-hero, seeing him or her as the truly honest figure driven to be nothing more than earnestly human in an uncompromising world. The fun lies in watching their raw emotion explode onto the screen in a celebration of chaos and drama. Perhaps Loft has simply failed to bring out the best of this premise. I admit to not being a devotee of crime fiction and my Tarantino is rusty.
There is still the mystery element, however, and in that arena, Loft is compelling. As we peel the layers from our five anti-heroes, so the plot shifts and twists as expertly as the men themselves wriggle through their double-lives. Revelation follows revelation, and the final sequence is almost amusingly that last desperate attempt to redeem those still battling their consciences. Remorse sails in like a charging cavalry whose alarm clocks failed to sound on time. It feels tacked on as a last desperate twist, yet given what carnal descent into hell writer Bart de Pauw has presented beforehand, better to let the film remain in that melancholy storm of Dante’s second circle where it can at least stand with its own self-prescribed dignity.
Of director Erik Van Looy, I would praise his creation of a suitably dark and forebodingly-lit story. The cold light of day has no place here and Looy confines his characters to the shadowy realms in which they belong, and yet one of the stand-out scenes takes place at a daytime wedding where the men’s egos are in full flight. He also chooses a fine cast, from the confident presence of Filip Peeters as suave seducer Vincent Stevens to Bruno Vanden Broucke as the nervous Luc Seynaeve – Broucke creating within him a man whose face tells far more than his lips will. Wolfram de Marco’s tense soundtrack reminded me in places of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Ring, punctuated by earnest strings and softened by echoing piano, never overused but doing much to set the tone.
This then is Loft, a shadowy discourse on what happens when one succumbs to their desires and the way in which one lie compounds another. In such a tale all bright lights are diffuse leaving only shades of grey, misery clawing desperately at excuses and no real victors. In amidst this gallery of the fallen stands the film itself, aiming high in terms of plot twist and drama, but sinking slowly through the ground for failing to engage the viewer on the most fundamental level: empathy.
For me at least, Barbadian cinema has long proved to be elusive…and still is. Going beyond the film projector however, two programs have presented themselves and cobbled together, form the very dubious entry that will appear next week. One looks at the Barbados Landship Association (produced by that very organization), while the other sheds light on the Redlegs, the island’s poorest and most maligned inhabitants. Laying down the train tracks at the last minute Wallace & Gromit-style when World On Film returns.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Pusan International Film Festival for the very first time – PIFF being South Korea’s largest cinematic celebration, now in its 15th year. I say ‘attend’, though it was more of a whirlwind 24 hour flirtation, given that Busan, as it’s now spelled, is in the south-east of the country, and I live in the north-west. As such, I saw no celebrities, attended no special screenings, nor partook in any seminars. At the end of the day though, it’s all about films, and I did manage to catch three fairly decent efforts – one of which saw its world premier here – and generally soak in at least some of the atmosphere that any cinephile would enjoy, as well as walk away with a souvenir or two.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about films”
The action was spread across several cinemas and venues in downtown Busan, most notably Haeundae, the nation’s most popular beach. With time pressing heavily however, I confined myself to one area, that being Nampo-dong, a district famous for film and fish, with raw piscines unwittingly sacrificing themselves to provide the evening’s dinner. With the visit crossing over Friday and Saturday, it was a chance to experience both the weekend throng and the quieter weekday crowd of dedicated flicker-fans. It was little more than a snapshot, a cross-section of the full experience, but it was highly enjoyable when it wasn’t utterly exhausting and hopefully this won’t be my last time there.
As such, I don’t feel qualified to launch into a full account of PIFF 2010, so I’ll concentrate on the films I caught instead.
(2010) Directed by Jang Hun
Click below to view the trailer, which contains English subtitles.
Even if one’s knowledge of film is similar in depth to Boris Johnson’s expertise on lucid discourse, everyone is aware of the concept of ‘national character’ – the cultural zeitgeist of a people that is easy money in cinematic terms. Films portraying the ‘Aussie battler’ champion the loveable struggles of the Australian working class in stereotyped but well-crafted epics such as Gallipoli, however also guarantee bums on seats even with the most formulaic of efforts, such as the more recent Charlie & Boots.
Elsewhere, the British self image of tolerance, restraint and humility has given rise to another genre of guaranteed money-spinners, typically infested with Hugh Grant’s bumbling, self-effacing celebration of failure in the face of eventual triumph. Whether or not anyone in either country actually identifies closely with these social ciphers, they clearly appeal to the collective national psyche.
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. The human ties that bind define one’s entire outlook in Korean society, with friendship an optional extra. Yet Koreans are powerfully sentimental, and no true brotherhood can last without genuine love.
The last decade alone has produced a glut of films mining the genre all the way to the Earth’s core safe in the knowledge that it will sell like cheap reality tv aspirations. Stand-outs include Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides of Korea’s demilitarized zone find friendship easy once duty and politics are pushed aside, and Shiri, a 2000 drama-thriller produced during the time former Korean president Kim Dae-jung actively pursued his Sunshine Policy with the North. In this film, a group of North Korean sleeper agents are pursued by South Korean special agents as they attempt to set off a series of explosives around Seoul so as to weaken the ‘puppet’ American stronghold for reunification DPRK-style.
“In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood”
2010’s Secret Reunion sits somewhere between the two in terms of plot, dealing as it does with North Koreans infiltrating the South and men of both countries forming a close bond when the seemingly-impenetrable clash of two incompatible ideologies are put aside. In the film, Shadow, a North Korean assassin has been dispatched to the South to obliterate a defected countryman, however Jiwon, his young partner and protege, a product of the North Korean military elite, is not so cold-blooded, needing reasoning deeper than simple political revenge to justify death. When Hangyu, a local National Intelligence agent fails to capture them after a bloody massacre in a residential area, he is forced into civilian life. Six years later however, he inadvertently runs into Jiwon and realizes he once again has a chance to bag the elusive assassin – still somewhere at large in South Korea. As he comes to know his new acquaintance, Hangyu finds a man of depth and compassion, and so turning him in becomes ever more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, PIFF hails this latest Korean effort as a sea change in local cinema. I however found it highly derivative, a local version of a typical Odd Couple outing, with a very standard and formulaic Hollywood happy ending little different from that one would expect from Midnight Run or 48 Hours. However, the film’s unoriginality and cornball moments are offset to a fair degree by some excellent direction from Jang Hun alongside a very competent cast. Jeon Guk-hwan plays the North Korean assassin Shadow with merciless revolutionary zeal. Jeon is more familiar to locals for his stage work, and the elder statesman’s theatrical experience is on full display here – there is absolutely nothing pantomime in his villain and he really comes across as a credible threat. Song Kang-ho is one of Korea’s biggest film stars and indeed my personal favourite. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character he inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages, with the highly-talented Kang able to elevate even the most pedestrian of scripts. Equally capable is Kang Dong-won as Jiwon, the inwardly-anguished North Korean soldier. Where Song is all wonderful bluster, Kang is a study in tightly-controlled conflict and unsurprisingly, the foundations for the odd-couple pairing.
With this new chance to re-explore the brotherhood leitmotif as though it were for the very first time in cinema, writers Kim Ju-ho and Jang Min-seok go to great pains to build up this seemingly incompatible relationship, and of course, they’re onto a winner. Secret Reunion delivers the typical mix of two-hander conflict and humour we would expect from such a venture and away from the occasional ventures into Saccharine Alley, succeeds. Punctuated moments of high drama are the really memorable moments however, and the first venture into graphic violence is a surprise to the viewer. It’s even more effective when one learns that the script derives from a true story, with a Shadow-like killer penetrating the border and engaging in urban executions for the glorious Democratic Republic. In a way, it’s a shame that the producers felt they had to dumb down reality to the level of a tired buddy film, taking much of the wind out of history’s sails.
“There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character [Song Kang-ho] inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages”
Jang Hun nonetheless can be praised for being capable of bringing both elements to the screen with equal directorial affinity, clearly understanding the pacing required to bring out both comedy and thriller. The multitalented relative newcomer will hopefully attach himself to genuine innovation in the future and give himself a chance to show what he’s really capable of.
Those new to Korean cinema will be blissfully unaware of Secret Reunion’s recycled nature. Even Song Kang-ho must surely be feeling the déjà-vu, starring as he did in the similarly-themed JSA. For the most part though, it’s a well-produced adventure put together by a skilled production team. If only I hadn’t seen it all before.
Voice Over (International Premiere)
(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov
(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)
Official program description: The story of a persecuted man who loses his son. Anton Krustev is a famous cinematographer. He makes a film about his own life. But those who now direct the film are the very same people who once persecuted him.
A while ago, I reviewed the Albanian feature film Slogans, which demonstrated the way in which that society, now free of the rigidly-controlled Soviet-style paranoia that once powered it 30 years ago, was finally able to laugh at the insanity of its past. Voice Over is a new Bulgarian entry in very much the same vein, though whereas Slogans showed the way in which people had become more concerned with parroting revolutionary Communist slogans than actually understanding and implementing the ideology behind them, Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies. The film uses black humour to similar effect and similar in theme, the human tragedy of a wasted generation is just as poignant.
As with Secret Reunion, Voice Over is a true story, and to make matters even more intertextual with lead character Anton Krustev attempting to make a film of his own life – of a time in the late 1970s when he became separated from his wife and son by the Iron Curtain, they having fled to West Germany ostensibly for health reasons, but equally because they know which way the wind is blowing. This flashback is the film’s principal tale, and the way in which the State Security Services kept Krustev and his German-born wife under surveillance convinced that one or both were traitors attempting to defect to the decadent West. Innocent phone calls and mail are re-interpreted by the authorities as subversive while the wife herself, entreating Krustev to join her in Berlin, is seen as a malign influence trying to undermine one of Bulgaria’s then-most celebrated directors of photography. Krustev, meanwhile, must deal with the separation and loss of his family all the while succumbing to the influence of national ideologies: he is a patriot torn between personal feelings and national sentiment. If there is a happy ending, it can only be found by future generations free of the irrational forces pinning these unfortunates to the sacrificial altars of their country’s Communist past.
Slogans would also demonstrate how, in times of a Cultural Revolution, the family unit and love itself could be destroyed by the demands of the state, though Voice Over, with genuine humour, suggests that those on the ‘right’ side could be exempt from such disruption. Great rewards are promised to those in the service of their country, and if the misguided are talented, they are not beyond redemption with a certain amount of encouragement.
“Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies”
Writer/director Ovtcharov goes right to the heart of the madness of Soviet paranoia in Voice Over, with even those not well-versed in Eastern European culture or history having no trouble whatsoever in understanding the message being delivered. His story is filled with realistically-drawn characters struggling to cast their voices into an arena interested only in the party line. Chief among them is Ivan Barnev as beleaguered film maker Anton Krustev, who conveys the ever-evolving emotions of love, loneliness, anger and hatred across a rapidly-stretching long-distance relationship with believability. Knowing as we do that the film deals with a dark chapter of Bulgarian history bookended by hopelessness, it is the journey, not the ending that really resonates. However, as much as Voice Over is a story of tragedy and a warning from the past about the dangers of extremism, it is not ultimately about hopelessness, but rather the struggle against insurmountable odds.
Where the viewer may struggle with it however is the slightly-protracted final edit. Perhaps reveling a little too much in the unfolding story, Ovtcharov neglects the pacing of the narrative as well as providing the film with several possible endings that fail to signal the finale. The overall effect renders dry what should be more emotionally-wrenching than it actually is: impatience in a viewer is never a good sign.
Those who can stomach the slower pacing however will be rewarded by Voice Over’s aims and be privy to the very human struggle for normality in extremism’s shadow. The last decade shows that with the parting of Iron Curtain, many Eastern Europeans have interesting stories to tell that they now do in film, finally gaining a voice of freedom away from state-sponsored cinema.
(2010) Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu
Click to watch the trailer below:
Official program description: Yusuf’s father is a beekeeper whose father hangs his beehives at the top of tall trees. One day, his father travels to a faraway forest on a risky mission, and later Yusuf must enter the forest alone in search of him.
Writer/director Semih Kaplanoglu delivers the third and final entry in the ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, this time focusing on the principal character’s childhood. Admittedly, I was entirely unaware until afterward that I’d just seen the final installment, though since they are told in reverse chronological order, one can enter Yusuf’s world through Honey knowing even less. Quick research revealed that the minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Indeed, I was reminded very much of the equally simple but beautiful Korean epic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East? of a decade earlier. In both instances, the deep, impenetrable and imposing natural world is deliberately silent and overpowering so as to show the true place of nature in the human narrative.
Nothing could be more suited to the character of Yusuf, the deeply sensitive young boy who is himself so chronically-shy that speech for him is rare. Deep within the Turkish forests, he is heard to speak only with two characters throughout: his father, whom he idolizes, and even then can only communicate in whispers, and his schoolteacher, with whom he is desperate to impress with his reading comprehension skills. Yet in silence, he is fascinated by the world around him while at the same time almost too afraid to touch it. That he will grow into a poet (as seen in the two prequels) is in no way hard to believe.
“The minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema.”
Obviously, much of the success of Honey therefore hangs on the child actor selected to play the lead role, but in Bora Atlas, Kaplanoglu has struck gold. Whether or not the young star intrinsically understood what was being asked of him, he imbues Yusuf with wonderful naivete and innocence enshrouded by his fear and awe of the world so well that one can’t imagine anyone else playing the part better. In the absence of dialogue for the most part, Atlas must convey his character entirely through his facial expressions and body language, which he does with the conviction of a young boy who very probably didn’t really know what was going on and for Yusuf, this is in character.
It’s easy to criticise the so-called ADHD generation for having the attention span of a bee and therefore unlikely to find Honey ideal viewing. However, given the director’s Philip Glass-like approach to film-making and the paucity of dialogue, the film is a challenge to even fans of art house cinema at 103 minutes in length. While the point is to really capture the unshakeable silence of Yusuf’s world, it could easily lose at least 20 minutes and still deliver the same message without feeling at all rushed. Yet I also feel compelled somewhere down the line to watch predecessors Milk and Egg to see if this is a shortcoming of the Kaplanglu approach or whether this time around, those self-same elements don’t hold together. It is nonetheless the mark of a confident director not compelled to hide a multitude of sins through post-production.
Ultimately, Honey is a fine piece of cinema that just falls short of greatness perhaps for being too one-note in its approach. I still find plenty in it to recommend however and its refreshing simplicity is the perfect antidote to formulaic claptrap.
Coming Up Next
It’s Iceland, 1973, and the inhabitants of a small, sleepy island find their lives disrupted by the very ground beneath their feet. The true story of Eldfell captured on camera for all to see when World On Film returns.
World On Film goes all-Azerbaijan, all the time this week with a double feature. First up is the uncomplicated but lighthearted enjoyable fluff of Bu da belə, followed by the full-length ‘straight-to-video’ terribleness that is Şeytanın Tələsi. Just what do these two untranslated titles mean? Read on…
Bu da belə
(2009) (Director unknown)
Bu da belə, or ‘That’s It’, as it translates into English, is a lightly amusing short film, running just over 3 minutes, about a man struggling to bring his girlfriend a new television for her birthday up the stairs of her rather dilapidated urban apartment in the absence of a functioning elevator. With the many obstacles he encounters on the way up, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong. The film’s title is taken from the last line of dialogue, which neatly sums up his ordeal. I once had to spend a day helping relatives move furniture in and out of their 3rd-floor apartment that was equally devoid of elevators, so I know exactly how he feels. The short runs at just about the right length given the premise and star performer Qurban Ismayilov has a good, expressive face for what is essentially a visual comedy. Nəsibə Eldarova plays the girlfriend. The film was made in 2009 and is actually quite easy to find online if you look in the obvious places. You’d be ill-advised to bother doing so with the next feature, however.
“I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong.”
(2006) Directed by Tanriverdi Allahverdiyev
“I warned you many times not to play with the balls of other people.”
I am not a major fan of martial arts films, so when I do watch one, I expect it to have charismatic actors, decent production values and of course spectacular fight scenes. Şeytanın Tələsi, however, 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. Given the many entries in the Azerbaijani film repertoire, I feel sure I simply picked the Middle Eastern equivalent of a Steven Seagal and that there are far better offerings from the Caspian nation waiting for me. In case you’re wondering why I therefore picked this one, it was the only Azeri-language film I could get hold of with English subtitles (The 40th Door has been screened at film festivals, but a copy wasn’t available). Of course I say ‘English’…
Whoever translated Şeytanın Tələsi clearly felt that anything more than a basic understanding of the dialogue would be a great extravagance. For all I know, the film could have had a script written by the Azerbaijani equivalent of Francis Bacon and the washboard-flat performances therein are the result of exquisitely subtle delivery. Not that I believe this for a second, but at the very least, I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen. This did not always occur when it was supposed to – there were several occasions when lines of dialogue simply weren’t translated – most unbelievably of all during the inevitable climactic fight sequence. “What will be the end of this story?” one character asks with more stiltedness than a man with two artificial legs. ‘No idea,’ I replied from the other side of the glass, rapidly losing the will to live, ‘just so long as it comes soon.’
“I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen.”
It may therefore come as no surprise that I didn’t fully pin down every nuance of the plot, although not being a cinematic adaptation of Wittgenstein, it wasn’t a total mystery either. Major Vagif Asadov (or Assadov – we are presumably offered two spellings as part of some sort of lexically-symbolic attempt at character depth) is a member of the nation’s equivalent of Special Branch, the FBI, or, given his passing resemblance to Zippy, the Rainbow House. Asadov oversees a sting operation intercepting a drug shipment supplied by Devil Barasa, an underground kingpin. Knowing Barasa will target his family in an act of revenge, Asadov sends his young son Yusif into the care of Azerbaijani karate master Tanrivaldi, who agrees to take his new young protégé into the forest to train him. Unfortunately, Team Barasa gets wind of this and set about the task of retrieving their ‘bargaining chip’. I could elaborate further, but I will avoid spoiling things on the off-chance that someone is mad enough to watch the film for themselves. Suffice to say, some rather dubious karate is involved. And just in case the audience isn’t convinced that Barasa and his henchmen are the villains of the piece, the actors helpfully elicit evil pantomime laughs when events are swinging their way.
One thing about Şeytanın Tələsi that seems abundantly clear to me is the lack of budget. This surely explains the hideous post-production work, to name one of the film’s many crimes. Like many a martial arts feature, sound effects are dubbed over the fight scenes to give them a more visceral feel. Unfortunately, the film’s audio geniuses don’t seem too keen to make them at least halfway-realistic. Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand. Even more mystifying are the entirely misplaced sounds, such as the sudden swell of running streams and birdsong during a scene where two characters are traversing the busy streets of Baku.
“Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand.”
Then there’s the musical portion of the soundtrack. Anyone who’s seen an episode of the original Star Trek will know that part of what makes its score so memorable is the repetition of its musical motifs. Typically, a number of cues would be recorded for the season and then repeatedly used throughout according to the action on screen. There were just enough pieces in the tank to cover all the major emotions. However for Şeytanın Tələsi, possibly in a clever attempt at Phillip Glass minimalism, the producers decide to follow the same approach with only two musical cues – one for ‘touching’ scenes, another covering ‘action’ sequences. For 90 minutes. There may have been a third, but since my neighbour was playing a cd at the time, I can’t be too certain. Assuming the viewer isn’t completely sick to death of this musical torture after the first half-hour, they may afterward feel an alarming urge to play something from the Commodore 64 collection. If your film budget can’t stretch to more than a couple of tunes, I’d consider silence as a viable alternative.
Not that silence doesn’t play a part in the story. The film is peppered with long sequences where characters seem to be engaged in discussion, but rather than make the audience privy to their dialogue, we are instead forced to lip-read a muted scene while ‘Music #1’ helpfully reminds us that we are watching two people speak. Halfway through, the dialogue cuts in, the content of which suggesting that whatever the speakers were discussing earlier, it can’t have been anything more than the football scores, as we soon hear their reason for meeting verbalized in full. Still it’s not the first time the director attempts to help the viewer understand what they’re watching, given that he felt the need to have someone state the film’s title while the title card was on screen. A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes – something I strongly suspect given that the film concludes with a completely unrelated music video in which, via the magic of chroma key, the actor playing Yousef, for no discernible reason, stands against a very fake projected background practicing karate moves while simultaneously performing what I presume is a traditional Azerbaijani dance. How this relates to the drama that preceded it I would imagine can only be determined by transcending to a higher level of consciousness.
“A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes.”
Mercifully, those 86 minutes do finally come to an end – the fact that they felt more like 586 minutes will scar me for life. Interestingly, when attempting to translate the film’s title, Şeytanın Tələsi would come to read ‘Telecine Of Evil’, or even ‘Satan’s Telecine’. No doubt the overwhelmingly-diligent subtitler would have been more than happy with that (would anyone care to enlighten me as to the actual translation?). If indeed demonic influence was involved, it was entirely successful, though for the wrong reasons.
Instead Of This
And with that, World On Film comes to the end of this first analytical foray into flickering foreign projections. I’ll be taking time off for about a month to recharge my batteries and catch up on other things strongly neglected. Several film reviews for countries beginning with ‘B’ have already been written, so the tracks are already being laid for the next ‘series’, as it were, which will begin in the warm, watery climes of the Bahamas. This does not however mean the onset of tumbleweeds bouncing with reckless abandon across the blog. I will continue to abuse this sector of cyberspace in the interim with my rambling waffle on matters dubiously connected with the World On Film raison d’etre.
Coming next time therefore, I delve into the world of alternative film soundtracks, or more accurately, one in particular. If you can guess the relationship between a dark, spectral figure haunting a French music hall and a famous English prog rocker, you’ll be halfway there. Plans are also afoot to try and visit the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival next week and if they come to fruition, the blog will be here to provide an autopsy of the journey’s dead and rotting corpse. Don’t quite know where I’m going with this analogy, so I will simply sign off…until next time.
You may be familiar with the genealogy tv program, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the show’s researchers help celebrities trace their lineage and taking them to ancestral home towns and/or other relevant sites of interest. I recently caught the Jason Donovan episode, and though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting. The product of a British father and an Australian mother, he seems well-versed in his British heritage, but his estranged mother’s family was an almost blank canvas. Along the way, he would discover that his maternal great-grandmother was a star of the music hall in Melbourne, while an even more illustrious ancestor and wealthy landowner in Sydney’s Hawkesbury district during the early days of White Australian settlement was once tasked with constructing the first road through the Blue Mountains at the behest of then-governor Lachlan Macquarie. Even today, road building in these enormous jagged, natural rocky leviathans is no easy task. 200 years ago, it would have been sheer lunacy, but that’s precisely what William Cox, 30 convict labourers and 8 guards set out to do in 1814, with little more than shovels and unrealistic dreams. Yet there was method in the madness: the young settlement was suffering from a major drought and recent explorations to the other side of the range had revealed the arable land the colonists desperately needed to produce sufficient crops. 27 weeks later, the work was completed and Sydney’s future seemed assured.
“Though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting.”
However, Australia’s convict history was far from rose-tinted and the means by which the fledgling colony would be made to survive of far greater ruthlessness than is typically taught in schools. The British government of the late 18th and early 19th Century, unable to entice enough willing settlers from the United Kingdom to Australian shores, resorted to enforcement. Suddenly, petty crimes that might have resulted in a small fine or even a simple caution were rewarded with a life sentence. The poverty-stricken were the obvious scapegoats, who quickly found that stealing loaves of bread suddenly meant geographic relocation and a decade of hard labour on the other side of the globe. The official line at the time was that this was simply a means of easing overcrowded prisons – a thinly-veiled deception that more than anything shows the lack of recourse victims had with the judicial system of the time: so desperate was the government to establish a colony there (other imperial powers of the time had also set their sights on the island continent) that they were perfectly content for the law to fall silent.
So it was that thousands of Britons were forcibly relocated to Australia and punished for having done so in labour camps. The more ‘serious’ criminals were shipped off to Tasmania, a rugged, isolated and inhospitable wilderness that even today has only been partially tamed. The infamous convict prison at Port Arthur, along the coast from Hobart, the capital, saw so much brutality and anguish that it is today considered one of the most haunted places in the country. It was here that Donovan discovered traces of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Lyons, who, two centuries earlier, had spent 10 years shackled in the service of his new colonial masters. Lyons, however, was a fortunate case. Not only did he survive his ordeal, but through a network of friends, was reunited with his wife and family and relocated to the Australian mainland a free man. For a great many others, Port Arthur was their descent into oblivion.
And yet even Port Arthur was not the remotest prison Tasmania had to offer. Repeat offenders found themselves sent to an even remoter facility on Sarah Island in the long and winding waters of Macquarie Harbour, in the west of Tasmania. Such was the fate of one Alexander Pearce, the subject of this week’s film:
Van Diemen’s Land
(2009) Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)
“The end of the world. A fine prison.”
Conditions on Sarah Island were so extreme that in 1822, the Irish-born malcontent Pearce and seven others, tasked with felling the surrounding forests to provide shipbuilders with high-quality wood, attempted to escape their exile. When plans to steal a moored whaling vessel fell through, the escapees, without much aforethought, plunged into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness intending to travel east to Hobart, some 225km away. Although Robert Greenhill, one of the convicts, could draw upon his many years as a sailor to provide navigational expertise, none present knew how to survive in bushland so inhospitable even the indigenous Australians largely avoided it, and when food supplies ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Few of the ill-fated expedition would survive to tell the tale. In Van Diemen’s Land, we join the convicts on the day of their escape attempt and follow the grizzly events that ensue.
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 inspired me to fire up my browser and learn more, with the realisation that in movie terms, I was watching the middle part of a trilogy. Part 1 would have dealt with Pearce’s repeated offences condemning him to slave labour on Sarah Island. There, he would continue to prove unruly for the authorities, practicing his talent for theft and disruption, ultimately finding himself on work detail felling trees in Macquarie Harbour and seeing an opportunity for escape. Part 3 would have dealt with the consequences of his actions, including one final adventure, which the last sequence of Van Diemen’s Land briefly covers. Director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, however, appears to be fixated upon the middle part of the story, and while the moment when Pearce acquired a taste for human flesh strikes an undeniable discord with all but perhaps the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea, I can’t help feeling that it’s a little like telling the tale of Ned Kelly focusing only on the killings at Stringybark Creek. Only a few captions either side of the film quickly fill in the blanks, hinting that there is more to the story. Nonetheless, ‘Part 2’ is well-crafted for what it is and sheds a memorable, yet gloomy light on this hitherto forgotten saga.
“The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia”
auf der Heide wisely chooses a cast of unknowns to inhabit the fateful eight, which ensures the audience will accept their alter egos at face value. Oscar Redding, perhaps the best-known, creates an Alexander Pearce just possibly capable of redemption, up until the moment he agrees to sacrifice a member of the party for food, while Arthur Angel portrays a Robert Greenhill you wouldn’t want to be within twenty miles of when it came time to sleep. The rest of the cast fill out the remainder of the ill-fated group with similarly creditable performances, with the Scottish characters delivering their lines in Gallic alongside the 18th Century English dialect to underscore Australia’s role as a dumping ground for convicts all across the British Isles. The string-powered score, often more sound than symphony, meshes well with the bleak, washed-out picture to strongly evoke the dark mood of the piece. There are no archetypal heroes, only desperate human animals hastening the decay of civilisation’s thin veneer. Filmed on location in south-central Tasmania, the authentic natural backdrop does much on its own to sell the concept that the escapees are not only at the end of the earth as they themselves suggest, but that the land is cold and unforgiving – just as much today as it was in 1822. If I have issues with the film, therefore, it’s the storyline.
By focusing purely upon the escape attempt and the descent into cannibalism, the tale feels reduced somewhat into a B-grade exploitation horror. It doesn’t provide suitable build-up to properly explore the choices certain characters make throughout, though the documentation for this does exist. In consequence, I felt the leap to ‘the other meat’ was a little rushed, reminding me of an early South Park episode where cannibalism is the first rather than last resort. In addition, the full story would be more satisfying than some of the edited highlights ‘cannibalised’ for the purposes of a thriller. There is far more to the Alexander Drake story than we are witness to in Van Diemen’s Land. Undeniably, the issue of runtime comes into play here, however as I suggested earlier, there is enough scope for more than one feature. However, auf der Heide is the first to explore it cinematically, and perhaps this will spark interest in genuine Australian Gothic from here on. It certainly captures the tone and feel of that bleak world, taking strides towards tapping into a rarely explored period of Australian history that perhaps may now be brought to light free of the nationalist veil. Certainly any proud Australian and film fan should see Van Diemen’s Land for this purpose, and genre fans everywhere will appreciate what it does achieve. Let’s hope it’s a taster of things to come.
Paul Collins of Australian newspaper The Age provided a good overview of Alexander Pearce’s life in A Journey Through Hell’s Gate.
If you’re going to see the film, I recommend reading only up to the point of the gang’s escape from Macquarie Harbour and saving the rest for later.
You can also visit Sarah Island, site of the convict facility where Pearce and his contemporaries were imprisoned by popping these coordinates into Google Earth: 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E. You’ll even be able to see the facility itself, courtesy of numerous user-contributed photos. Explore around the area for photos of Macquarie Harbour itself and some shots of the dense inland wilderness the escapees would have traversed.
Do You Wanna
A cursory search for films made in Aruba might lead one to think they are spoiled for choice. On further examination, however, this abundance proves to be chimerical, with almost every mirage listed bearing the unhelpful name ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme’. Yes, Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years. Who among us could forget the heart-warming wondrousness of Knock Out, the incredible and touching insight of Mercenary, or the mind-bending philosophical depth of Out For A Kill?
“Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years.”
Quite. Thus I was left with slim pickings for genuine Aruban cinema and indeed only one film came staggering anywhere near the criteria of a proper local effort – and I’m still not sure it actually is – in the form of Marry Me. The premise of this – as it would turn out – nauseating short has to do with Jim, a man who might possibly be Fate’s punching bag, attempting to propose to his girlfriend on a beach somewhere. Oh yes – with ‘hilarious’ consequences. Well, at least it was shot in Aruba – as indeed I wanted to be by the end credits. You can watch this 5-minute fluff for free directly on IMDB here.
Revenge makes perfect sense when you’re angry. The anguish gives you purpose. The pain gives you clarity. You’ll take the one who gave you that pain into that black abyss inside you – the void that threatens to swallow you up, the space where peace once reigned. A complete stranger just killed the person you love. They can’t be allowed to live.
But what if you then met the object of your revenge? What if you came to know them – their pain, their fears? Would you still have that clarity? Would you still be ready to kill? Discover the thought-provoking Austrian film, Revanche. I bet you can translate that without my help. See a subtitled trailer here:
I normally start a post by relating some of the other things I’ve watched during the week. On this occasion, however, it’s quite a long story, dealing as it does with my attending the closing night of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. I’ve therefore placed that section below and instead will jump straight into this week’s entry. Representing Armenia therefore is the Armenia-Canada-Germany co-production:
(1993) Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Calendar is a slightly unusual film offering, written, filmed, directed, performed and possibly even fixed together with Scotch tape by Atom Egoyan, with this being my first trip into his cinematic world. It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort, which reaches its crescendo as their true nature unfolds, all the while within some wonderful Armenian landscapes.
“It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort”
The plot concerns a Canadian-Armenian photographer returned to the land of his ancestors with the job of photographing his homeland’s most picturesque churches for a forthcoming calendar. He is accompanied by his Armenian wife, acting as translator for the local driver and guide they have hired to provide them with background information on all the sites visited. The unassuming beginning suggests that this is more or less the sum-total of the film, but with every new location, we slowly learn of the deeply fragmented relationship present between the married couple and the cause of the ensuing distance between them. The way in which the film is shot helps to underscore this gulf, with the photographer never seen with his wife in the same place at the same time. Indeed, we only see him some time after the calendar has been printed, while we only see her during the photoshoot, very tellingly only in the company of the driver.
In some ways, Calendar is rather difficult to watch, with the characters becoming more and more grotesque as the narrative progresses, especially that of the photographer, whose mounting jealousy (which could itself be described as a grotesque emotion) is exacerbated further by his unpleasant personality, particularly evident throughout scenes occurring in the present where, still emotionally in orbit around his estranged wife, he ‘auditions’ a long line of potential replacements (something that is not explicitly stated, so other viewers may have a different interpretation). Yet the film is shot in a very simple and effective way, which captures the claustrophobic mood of the piece while highlighting the wonderful natural backdrop. The camera is locked off in every scene, perhaps to mimic the still photography of the calendar itself, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to the tense and unspoken decay of the relationship. The still frame, accompanied by the subjects frequently in mid to long shot, further symbolize the distance felt by the man behind the camera and only serve to heighten his sense of isolation. These sequences are intercut with handicam footage of the characters’ journey through Armenia, and yet despite providing the opportunity for motion, it is no more comforting, with the bluish tint and frequent lack of sound simply another form of isolation.
Egoyan is clearly a skilled photographer, and he lovingly captures the churches with the warmth and texture you would expect to see on a professional calendar. This only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves, which Egoyan as the photographer and Arsinee Khanjian as the wife expertly create. 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. Unfortunately, drawn as he is, it is well-nigh impossible to sympathize with the protagonist’s predicament, though his wife is by no means a victim.
“[The wonderful back drop] only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves “
The deeply personal discomfort, while real, does perhaps ensure Calendar is probably not something I could sit through too often, but the effective minimalist approach on the production side and the jarring juxtaposition of cold, reserved knife-edge drama against the ultimately inconsequential polychromatic background has imbued a strong sense of the Atom Egoyan style. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but a director guaranteed to provoke thought. I’m certainly curious enough to explore some of his back catalogue some day.
Last Friday evening, I managed to catch the tail end of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. The largest such event in Korea is hands down the Pusan International Film Festival, but CHIFFS is undoubtedly the second-largest, having run this year from September 2-11. Chungmuro was the seat of the local film industry as far back as the early 1960s, and although the major studios have since expanded and relocated to the now wealthier southern district of Gangnam (herein one finds the headquarters of the nation’s conglomerates and the city’s major convention centres), it still symbolizes all things cinema to many. Running since 2007, CHIFFS has been an attempt to keep its legacy alive by screening the festival’s large selection of features at venues in and around the area.
Rain-soaked skies bookended the finale, but the crowd assembled were of a respectable size. Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed. The aged venue was a far cry from the modern, cookie-cutter multiplex behemoths, with absolutely no neon lighting or overpriced snack bar (although having skipped dinner to reach Seoul, this would have been a welcome sight). A high stage that could easily double for the other definition of theatre held the large screen on which we would see the final hurrah for CHIFFS 2010. I had travelled a long way to see this film and was eager to see it begin.
“Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.”
When the dithering crowd made little effort to actually sit down, a helpful announcer reminded them that everyone was keen to get the evening’s entertainment underway. This seemed to prompt people into action, and they at last managed to settle into their high-backed cushioned wooden seats – volunteers would excitedly relocate anyone who had unhelpfully chosen the side aisles to the centre, so as to help maintain the illusion of a full house. At last, the lights dimmed and a video retrospective hurriedly skimmed through the highlights of the last week-and-a-half. The helpful alacrity was then halted, as the house once again lit up and a glittering woman took the stage –our host for the evening.
One of the criticisms of many Korean events that purport to be international is the lazy lack of proper bilingualism. Even as I write, the English version of the CHIFFS website (http://www.chiffs.kr/eng/main.asp) is still yet to be finished and contains only about 10% of the information found on the Korean site – much of that information crucial, such as a schedule of events and explanations as to precisely how one can buy tickets. This half-hearted approach was in evidence that final evening, as the host would very helpfully give a cursory translation of her far more animated Korean pronouncements, as though having to relate her words in another language was an unnecessary evil. She would then, in English, introduce one of the aforementioned dignitaries to the stage, who would then proceed to give what could have been a brief history of the Sydney Mardis Gras, for it was not translated. This continued through several speech-makers: introduction in English, speech in Korean. I dutifully clapped at the appropriate moment, beginning to wonder if the film had actually been subtitled as advertised.
The film of course, was not in any danger of starting anytime soon. Next to appear on stage, director Tony Chan, who, in muted tones, explained the thinking behind his brand new epic, Hot Summer Days – a U.S-China-Hong Kong extravaganza. In the story, Hong Kong, thanks to global warming, is experiencing its hottest summer ever, with citizens regularly collapsing to the ground in exhaustion and ice-cream available only to the highest bidder. Anyone familiar with interviews conducted on local television with someone who only speaks English would have recognised the odd spectacle now before us: the host confidently asked her questions in Korean, an interpreter would quickly whisper a translation into Chan’s ear, he would then address the crowd in English, followed by the host providing a summary in Korean. It was difficult not to think of the Sooty Show during the exchange. “What’s that, Sooty? Why did I make a film about the hottest summer ever? Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy?”
Chan’s answer to this question, meanwhile, seemed to sum up the amount of intellectualising he had put into the script. “Well, uh, I wrote the film in the middle of Winter, and it was really cold. So I didn’t want to write a film about Winter and it just came to me. Of course, we didn’t actually have 100 days of Summer to shoot, and that was the most difficult part.” 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.
“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.”
Although I couldn’t see any obvious connection to the festival with Josh Groban’s motivational ‘You Raise Me Up’, the opera-capable male quartet who brought it to life certainly delivered a very capable rendition. It was upbeat, after all, and that at least was the intended spirit of the event. Which doesn’t explain the next two barbershop quartet showtunes, mercifully sang in Korean, thus obscuring their saccharine lyrics. Finally, the mystifying musical entertainment was over and an intermission was called – presumably to give people time to check that they’d come to the right place. A resigned 10 minutes passed and then, mercifully, Hot Summer Days finally rolled.
And it was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure. A romance-comedy, it featured the courtship and mishaps of a series of couples across Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Romance comedies typically rely on a string of improbable coincidences to ensure both conflict and happy endings, but Tony Chan clearly felt that these alone were enough to construct a film – that and the presence of the usual HK film stars, such as Nicholas Tse and Jacky Cheung. I won’t even bother to relate the involvement of the talking goldfish. It was like the worst excesses of the genre, only super-concentrated, and I was not the only viewer present to writhe in my seat as, with every passing minute, Chan blew raspberries at improbability, laying down track after track of cliché and cornball nonsense until the credits rolled – 90 minutes after the debacle had begun. If you weren’t diabetic going in, you certainly were going out.
Several minutes later, one of my companions was heard to wonder in hushed tones how something like this had ever been selected for the closing ceremony. The indifferent rain continued to hurl itself at the ground as he puffed away thoughtfully on a cigarette. Nonetheless, we all agreed that it had been worth coming. Exploration is what film festivals are all about. Hopefully the next adventure will be a little more savoury. And without a barbershop quartet.
“It was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure.”
Hell on earth: imprisoned in the wilds of 19th Century Tasmania, a group of repeat-offenders make a desperate bid for escape across one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes – a realm where even the Aboriginal natives can’t survive. A true story from Australia’s dark convict past unfolds in the uncompromising 2009 epic, Van Diemen’s Land. The official trailer appears below:
When the crew of a research submarine searching for new bio fuels in the Arctic Circle mysteriously disappears, another is sent to continue with the work. However, a black box recording compels the crew to discover what happened to the other vessel, especially when that same threat descends upon them – something large and silent that slices through the icy waters like a prehistoric leviathan.
The Deep, starring James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver is a miniseries rather than a film, and one that looked extremely good before I was silly enough to watch it, expecting something along the lines of The Abyss, which episode 1 very tantalisingly suggests. However, it soon strays into Hunt For Red October territory and which point my interest sank through to the mantle. There is also the running theme of scientific triumph overcoming common sense in the name of riches, but explored with the care and consideration of a Sci Fi Channel script, the quality of which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the equivalent of having Russell Brand perform comedy. The Deep should therefore be consigned to the self-same Arctic seabed the program explores and best forgotten.
Happily, this is easily done as this week’s entry in World On Film is the excellent Argentinean romance murder-mystery…
The Secret In Their Eyes
(2009) Directed by Juan Campanella
A trailer can be found at the bottom of last week’s entry.
“A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.”
The Secret In Their Eyes builds upon the very essence of life: a sequence of key moments that can completely change our destinies if we recognise them for what they are, held together by the long ordinary days in between where we don’t feel remarkable enough to act. Yet its ultimate message is one of hope, while also challenging us to decide whether or not in certain situations revenge is justified. I am not normally a big fan of crime fiction, let alone romance, yet if The Secret In Their Eyes was indicative of the way in which crime-romance cinema normally entertains, I’d have to jump the tracks and nail my colours to the mast. However, The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, written and directed with confident maturity, populated with engaging characters expertly realized, and one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.
“The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.”
As the 20th Century draws to a close, retired federal justice agent Benjamin Esposito decides to fictionalise an especially memorable case from his younger days – one that changed his life forever. However, as the memories come flooding back, the unsolved 1974 crime refuses to fade away, and Esposito finds himself compelled to solve it once and for all, in the process rediscovering his undying love for a woman he once let slip through his fingers. Along the way, he learns what truly makes humans tick and that true passion may be the strongest force in existence, although it may manifest itself in ways too hard to accept.
It will therefore hardly be surprising that I consider one of the film’s prime strengths to be its study of the human condition. On one level, the commentary is nothing new: love, longing, missed opportunities, regret, fallibility, weakness, malice; yet this is humanity in a nutshell, with every generation enacting the same drama as before.
Secret is not intended to turn this all-encompassing portrait on its side and offer a new interpretation. Its characters are straightforward, easily-identifiable and found all around us – they may even be us. The aim is to show them in all their glory and misery and break them down into the raw emotions that make us all tick. 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. It’s not a new paradigm of the genre, rather a very open and honest one that relies very much on the viewer’s own life experience for it to make impact. Others may be put off by the analysis of revenge, especially as it invites introspection on one’s own character by film’s end. Yet this is surely the point.
“If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché.”
Another of Secret’s key strengths is the choice of actors and the characters themselves. Ricardo Darin’s Esposito is at turns very subdued, worn down by the realities of life, yet elsewhere a fiery champion of justice – perhaps not unsurprising given his vocation, but Darin has the feel of the character just right. In opposition, Soledad Villamil’s Irene is a woman in conflict: career-driven, struggling to walk the right path, and torn by her feelings. If anyone embodied the film’s title, it would have to be Pablo Rago’s portrayal of Ricardo Morales, the husband of a rape victim. Rago’s wide eyes says so much, yet hide even more. Perhaps especially memorable however is Esposito’s friend, Pablo Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. It may again be unoriginal that the film’s comic relief turns out to have the greatest insight (and espouse the film’s central message), but the oft-ignored yet wise fool is a long-enduring character simply for what he offers the viewer. There is also something earthy and endearing about Francella’s performance that keeps your eyes trained upon him. The humour also provides a welcome release amidst the darker themes of the film.
This is helped further by the touching, at times hauntingly-beautiful score provided by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, proving an excellent match for the often sombre mood director Juan Campanella aims to create. Although ‘sepia’ would be too strong a word, there is a definite yellowish tint awash over the flashback sequences that give the film its art-house feel and atmosphere. Running at just over two hours, Campanella has managed to set the pace just right – anything slower would lose the audience, yet to speed things up would be to destroy the important character moments, often carried by lingering expressions that say more than dialogue ever would. Yet dialogue is very much the centrepiece of the film – none of the themes are left unexplored and Campanella isn’t interested in letting the visuals do all the talking. Again, I felt the balance between the visual discourse and the verbal was just right.
As my first entry into Argentinian film, I was very impressed with The Secret In Their Eyes. However, to dwell on its country of its origin would be to do it a disservice, for it is simply good cinema. While its commentary on its universal themes may not work for everyone, I think many will enjoy the very touching and human tale that unfolds. If it ultimately leaves you a little unsettled and undecided as to the choices taken within the narrative, it has achieved its goal.
A freelance photographer, sent to Armenia with his wife to snap the local churches for a forthcoming calendar, encounters the eternal triangle in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film, Calendar. No trailer I’m afraid, although this youtube video does provide a kind of background teaser:
In the early 1980s, a number of Stephen King short stories were filmed on a low budget and subsequently released on VHS as Stephen King’s Nightshift Collection. Timewise, they fall in between two of the master of horror’s two big screen successes, The Shining and Cujo, though it’s more interesting to note that this is the time of Creepshow, the more celebrated anthology of King short stories that would go on to see two big-screen outings. I happened to catch two Nightshifts this week, namely The Woman In The Room and The Boogeyman. They are very much of their time in terms of pacing and characterization, and certainly not in any way lavished with financial beneficence.
At the same time, however, they are uncomplicated character studies requiring little window dressing beyond a basic set. Some King fans may be put off by the fact that they are more psychological thriller than horror, but they lack nothing of his familiar style. In The Woman In The Room, a young man watching his hospital-bound mother must come to terms with the harshest reality a filial son can face, while in The Boogeyman (directed by a certain Frank Darabont), a father has to battle the demons plaguing his family – but are they the product of a malevolent underworld or something far closer to home? Ultimately, the Nightshift Collection is no Creepshow (‘The Raft’ being probably one of my favourite of the stories), but it is still an enjoyable diversion.
“They are more psychological thriller than horror, but they lack nothing of his [King’s] familiar style”
This week, World On Film heads to the twin-island nation and former British colony of Antigua & Barbuda – St. John’s, Antigua, to be precise, for the independent film:
(2009) Directed by Nigel Trellis
You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s entry. In addition to that, you can watch this film freely on the company’s website: http://www.tropicalfilmsantigua.com/ (go to the ‘Showcase’ section).
Hooked is the first quasi-cinematic offering from Tropical Films (Antigua), an independent group of film-makers keen to redress the imbalance caused by the vast wealth of Hollywood offerings compared to the trickle of Caribbean cinema. Indeed, IMDB lists only 5 films for the country of Antigua & Barbuda, where the group is based, and 2 of those are documentaries. In the words of TF(A), ‘Few Hollywood movies portray people that look like us or tell stories with which we feel a real connection.’
Certainly no argument there, which is why I found it rather odd that the unrequited love story that unfolded across the 40 minutes of Hooked was tremendously easy to connect with, despite my not being remotely of Caribbean ancestry, never having ever set foot in that part of the world, and the fact that it tells a very universal story. The plot essentially underpins Woody Allen’s response to media critics panning his relationship with Soon-Yi – ‘The heart wants what it wants’. This is indeed true for Penny Burns, whose heart is manacled uncompromisingly to former lover Damian, her rather violent ex set to be released from prison. The day of his release is her cue to end her subsequent relationship with replacement beau Benjamin, except that after devoting two years of his life and energy to her, not to mention being head over heels in love, he isn’t willing to let her go so easily. However, he soon finds himself engaging in a fight only he wants to win, the realization for which comes with swift and unmerciful punishment. I’m pretty sure people the world over will find ‘a real connection’ with this, one of the most basic of romance tragedies. After all that hype, I was expecting a penetrating study of the uniqueness of Caribbean culture and the way in which it differs from post-equatorial climes, not a glorified episode of ‘Neighbours.’ Perhaps the whole ‘people that look like us’ really means ‘people who are us’.
“After all that hype, I was expecting a penetrating study of the uniqueness of Caribbean culture and the way in which it differs from post-equatorial climes, not a glorified episode of ‘Neighbours.'”
The second of TF(A)’s bold claims for their film-making is that they aim ‘To create stories that are exciting and that capture the imagination. Nothing will be produced by us unless it is based on a well written, absorbing screenplay.’ Yet Hooked suffers from some truly horrendous, clichéd dialogue (‘This is not over yet, jailbird. I promise you – this is not over!) that even dialogue disaster master Dan Brown wouldn’t touch. This might almost be mitigated with the presence of creative acting talent, however Hooked is not at any time populated with anyone skilled in the craft – simply enthusiastic amateurs either desperately over-the-top (Dennis Hunt), or so wooden, they could start a new forest (Monique Fairclough), with the cast never reacting to each other, but simply standing there blankly until the time comes to deliver their next line. In one scene, an actor playing a prison warden has so much trouble delivering his lines that there seemed a very real possibility of him passing out halfway through. All of which presents a major challenge for the audience if they are to find Hooked ‘absorbing’.
The production values, meanwhile, are a separate matter. While the location budget is virtually non-existent, the camera-work is accomplished and the picture treatment provides the ‘film look’ anyone in the industry knows is good for hiding a multitude of sins. It should do after all, since the producers make the point that they purchased top-of-the-range equipment for their projects. Yet their talents do extend beyond their pocketbooks. Nigel Trellis may not know how to write an original script with realistic dialogue, but he does know what he wants from a technical point of view – scenes are well-paced and only seem to drag because of the bad acting. Editing is competent and the soundtrack fits the melodrama. He fails to understand however that having even the technical budget of James Cameron cannot compensate for the lack of performance. As he says himself, his goal is to ‘portray people’ and with this the weakest element of the whole production, Hooked can do little but implode in upon itself – not the most desirable means of attracting television distribution within the region – the company’s ultimate aim.
“[Director] Nigel Trellis may not know how to write an original script with realistic dialogue, but he does know what he wants from a technical point of view – scenes are well-paced and only seem to drag because of the bad acting.”
What makes this truly disappointing is that I am 100% behind their goals – to bring a greater Caribbean presence to the cinema, which is indisputably lacking. It was precisely because I wanted to see a film from Antigua & Barbuda (and having failed to get my hands on the efforts of Howard Allen – Antigua’s celebrated professional film director) that I was so pleased to discover that somebody wanted to do something about it (not to mention that their efforts were available to all for free via their site, not to mention Facebook and youtube). I’m on board – I want ‘stories that are exciting and capture the imagination’ from the Caribbean and hope its rich and varied culture will find new audiences. Hooked, however, isn’t going to be the conduit through which it happens. Tropical Films (Antigua) is a great idea, but if they want to tell stories about people, the people they use must be capable of telling those stories. Hopefully this is a reality they are willing to face.
From the terrible to the terrific. Genuine relationships, heartbreak, intrigue, murder and mystery in the excellent 2008 Argentinean film The Secret In Their Eyes. A subtitled trailer can be viewed below:
“The dead have highways, running through the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They can be heard in the broken places of our world, through cracks made out of cruelty, violence, and depravity. They have sign posts, these highways, and crossroads and intersections. And it is at these intersections where the dead mingle, and sometimes spill over into our world.”
Aside from Sophie Ward’s bizarre American accent and the somewhat slow pacing, Clive Barker’s Book Of Blood is a different spin on the haunted house genre, and certainly ‘blood’ is not a word thrown in for abstract symbolism. Although it’s adapted from the novel of the same name, only segments of the original have been translated to screen. I’m still not quite sure why it took so long to get through those 90 minutes with such an intriguing storyline: a man on the run, his entire body covered with strange writing literally carved into his flesh supposedly by the spirits of the dead. And that’s only the beginning, in a tale where Clive Barker takes pains to avoid the stereotypes one might expect, and the confluence between the afterlife and the land of the living leaves an indelible (pun intended) effect on the psyche.
This week, World On Film reaches the country of Angola with the short film:
Momentos de Gloria, aka ‘Moments Of Glory’
(2008) Directed by Antonio Duarted
“I believe the government should invest more in good quality cellulite.”
Moments Of Glory is 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. However, the subjects are handled with a degree of humour and irony, the brief 10-minute anthology itself presented within a comic-book framework, introduced by transitional animation, a la Stephen King’s ‘Creepshow’, and driven along by a jaunty soundtrack. The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications, and with a running time of only 10 minutes, is probably a good way of creating something memorable. Each subject is deserving of dramatic commentary, but when you live with such fear and uncertainty every day, finding the humorous side is not only healthy, it’s essential.
“The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications”
This I also found desirable, since Moments Of Glory is my first Angolan film, and humour is an excellent way into a culture, with the subtle rather than overt approach washing over the end result with a good dose of maturity. Writer and producer Ze Du dos Santos is very much aware of the film’s brevity, paring each script down to its essentials, with director Antonio Duarted overseeing some good camera work and acting to match. I didn’t always see a connection between each segment, nor did I really understand the message of the final part (the Aldous Huxley-informed triumph of superficiality?), but this lack of coherence may well be due to my lack of knowledge on all things Angolan. However, with this sort of talent on display, and with the Angolan film industry fairly spartan at present, I hope the void will be filled before long. Moments Of Glory is certainly a promising entrée.
In This Place I Call Home
Although the scope of this project is to try and cover film from every corner of the globe, inevitably, some autonomous regions simply don’t have a film industry. The Åland Islands, for example, the attractive Finnish archipelago of 6,000 islands and skerries populated by Swedish-speaking natives, are not a repository of cinema. Indeed, the once Westernmost frontier of the former Russian Empire is far more concerned with shipping than anything else, given that seafaring vessels are the lifeblood of its economy.
“The Åland Islands are not a repository of cinema.” [But very nice-looking.]
It would be a shame to ignore them altogether though, so while there’s no film review, I did come across a 30-minute video that serves as a good introduction to the place. Hardly Scorsese in its renderings, the video is a labour of love for one of the locals, and not a bad unsolicited promotion for an enthusiastic amateur more at home making clay animals. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there – anyone in Aland interested in employing a freelance film reviewer? To view the film for yourself, here is the direct link – http://www.aland.ax/filmeng.pbs
Elsewhere in Film (Yet More Compensation)
“Time travel. It’ll turn your brain into spaghetti if you let it. Best not to think about it. Best just to get on with the job in hand. Which is destroying the enemy before they’re even born and have a chance to threaten us.”
Three sci-fi nerds enjoying a drink at their local pub one evening find that time travel is far more entertaining in theory then in practice when the building becomes the focal point of a temporal paradox. But if three decades of watching Doctor Who hasn’t prepared them for the real thing, then nothing will.
Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sounds like one of those hip documentaries attempting to popularise science, a la Iain Stewart, but as the description implies, it’s a British comedy film that came out last year to little fanfare. This however has more to do with the obvious low budget involved (clearly ensnaring any serious attempts at marketing in its low orbit) rather than the quality of the work itself – the 83 minutes of running time being another giveaway. That said, for the script as written, FAQ doesn’t outstay its welcome. Obviously attempting the same tongue-in-cheek approach to its chosen subject as the highly successful Shaun Of The Dead, the film probably doesn’t try quite as hard, and lacks the same dramatic punch and comedic absurdity of that worthy precursor. That said however, writer Jamie Mathieson is careful to weave his temporal paradoxes together, clearly putting the time and effort into it that the mastermind behind Triangle (of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago) decided wasn’t too terribly important.
Add to this the wry British humour of FAQ warmly brought to life through the film’s three leads, Chris O’Dowd, Marc Wootton, and Dean Lennox Kelly, names I didn’t recognise despite having seen Kelly in both Doctor Who and Being Human. Likewise guest star Anna Faris, whom I should have recognised in the excellent study of displacement in a foreign culture that was Lost In Translation.
Ultimately, it is these two factors which make FAQ worth watching. It doesn’t try to reinvent sci-fi or push forward a new discourse on time travel, but rather simply attempts to have fun with it, and for the most part, succeeds. I hesitate to say that there’s a strong Bill & Ted element to the story, but don’t let that put you off- the delivery of this plotline is handled quite differently. I will contradict my earlier point slightly though by saying that as a long-time science fiction fan myself captivated by the idea of exploring different points in history, FAQ did make me realise it wouldn’t be quite as glamorous in reality – especially if you mess things up and try correct the mistake. Although if scientist and writer Stephen Baxter is correct, and the grandfather paradox wouldn’t actually happen due to the weblike structure of time (as opposed to it being a single straight line you can travel up and down like a highway), that’s the least of your problems. If you’re interested, read his 1995 sequel to The Time Machine, entitled The Time Ships, to explore the concept in question – a book I heartily recommend anyway.
And that stretching noise you hear is the tangent I appear to be going off on.
My apologies for the short foreign film reviews over the last couple of weeks. These were written in the distant days before the blog was little more than a passing thought. Next time, however, I have far more to say about Hooked, the rather painful first feature-length offering from independent film-makers Tropical Films (Antigua) – which also tells you where in the world we will be visiting. ‘Painful’, you ask? Just you watch the trailer:
Hello again. In the sultry, summer humid hideousness that is the first week of August (as opposed to the rest of it?), I managed to catch a film from 2009 I’m sure many have never heard of – Triangle, a thriller drawing inspiration from the Bermuda polygon of the same name, although only in a very distant sense. A group of friends go sailing one morning, only to find themselves caught up in a freak storm. Barely surviving their way through the high seas and deluge, the capsized crew suddenly finds an ocean liner in their path. But relief turns to bewilderment when the seemingly empty vessel proves more dangerous than any high seas-thunderstorm. And why does one of the survivors recognise the ship despite never having set foot on its decks? For answers, they must return to the end of the beginning. Triangle, starring former Australian soap star Melissa George, is one of those films that will appeal more to fans of mainstream film than genre aficionados. It explores a number of interesting concepts that many a horror or sci-fi have entertained before it, but despite its shortcomings, Triangle is intriguing and compelling enough for the viewer to want to see their way through to the end.
“Despite its shortcomings, Triangle is intriguing and compelling enough for the viewer to want to see their way through to the end.”
At any rate, last week, I posted the trailer to Amor Idiota, this week’s film up for review. If you missed the trailer, you’ll find it at the bottom of the previous post. The original intention was to descend upon the principality of Andorra, the small country between Eastern Spain and France. IMDB, the ever-helpful companion providing inspiration for every film I select on my global journey, assured me that Amor Idiota was a Spanish-Andorran co-production. However, the film is shot and set in Spain, so whatever connection it has with Andorra remains a mystery – financial, I presume. On the other hand, the Spanish province of Catalonia shares both the same cultural background and indeed language as its neighbour, so much so, that with the growing Catalonian cries for independence, I can’t help wondering if political maps of the not-too-distant future might see very different Western European borders. But enough of that. Let’s move on to the film itself.
(2004) Directed by Ventura Pons
“My life’s been one long, fruitful journey towards idiocy. As a teenager, I realised I was an idiot. Later, I discovered I wasn’t the only one. Now that I’m pushing 35, I see that not only is everyone an idiot, but that we’ll never stop being so.”
Pere-Lluc is a man unsatisfied by ordinary life. In his mid-thirties and drifting through an existence devoid of meaning, he passes his days a slave to his instincts, aware of the consequences reckless abandon brings, but entirely unmotivated by reason or common sense. A chance encounter with the striking and married director of an advertising firm one evening suddenly gives his life purpose, as he pursues her with a desperate licentiousness – aware of the consequences, but a slave to animal instinct. Inevitable misunderstandings ensue, but Pere-Lluc cannot fight his instincts – he must have the object of his desire, even if it means suffering pain and humiliation to get it.
With Amor Idiota, I find myself challenged to pin down the point writer Lluís-Anton Baulenas and director Ventura Pons were trying to make: ‘stalking – you’d pretty much have to’, perhaps? There are certainly strong indicators that the more well-trodden message of love, wandering, and sunsets will lift us through the chaotic waters of emptiness and self-loathing is the principal message. Unfortunately, the characters designed to illustrate this ideal are painted far too shallow to make any of their actions believable, let alone convince the viewer of the ending that results almost in spite of their actions. Their maladjusted behavior and fatalistic philosophies, which form much of the film’s dialogue, are ultimately squandered as a result. It’s interesting in turn how hard the script attempts to apologise for its lead character’s impulses, with Pere-Lluc being highly self-aware of his ‘idiocy’, as though the idea that someone unfulfilled by ordinary life is horribly wrong – clearly they must be social refuse.
“With Amor Idiota, I find myself challenged to pin down the point writer Lluís-Anton Baulenas and director Ventura Pons were trying to make: ‘stalking – you’d pretty much have to’, perhaps?”
‘Idiocy’ here is almost a misused euphemism – acting upon impulse alone suggests a lack of intelligence, yet in human terms this does not make the principal characters stupid, merely self-centred, driven to depression and frustration by the ticking clock and their inability to subscribe to society’s expectations of where they should now be in their thirties. I can easily sympathise with anyone who finds themselves in this position, yet because the dramatis personae in Amor Idiota are drawn in such unsympathetic and antisocial ways, this entire avenue of middle-aged social commentary is bulldozed to rubble within the first few minutes, the remaining debris atomised by the stunning cowardice or perhaps cornball mismatch (I can’t decide which) of the ending.
Yet the whole misadventure did not leave me bored, perhaps because its silliness kept me guessing. Somehow, I felt compelled to find out where Pons was going with all his maltreated philosophy, and would Pere-Lluc have evolved as a person now that stalking had given his life meaning? I wasn’t best pleased with the result. The film’s unpleasant characters and grotesque discourse compelled me despite myself, curious to see how it would all come to a head, but the finale made me feel an idiot for watching.
“The film’s unpleasant characters and grotesque discourse compelled me despite myself, curious to see how it would all come to a head, but the finale made me feel an idiot for watching.”
The unsurprising standouts of the cast itself are Santi Millan, whose portrayal of the bored, intellectual sleaze Pere-Lluc is right on the money, assuming that this was the intent. I probably saw a bit more of his genitals than I would have liked – that they are symbolic of Pere-Lluc’s surrender to his animal instincts is more desirably clear through the several thousand lines of dialogue stating this point. Cayetana Guillén Cuervo provides an interesting contrast, with the character of Sandra slowly revealing the many layers of her troubled personality to the point where she fits right in with the rest of the gang of misfits. With Pere-Lluc baring all that he is from the beginning, this peeling of the onion provides a welcome and necessary contrast given the ultimate similarity of the leads -seemingly doomed to self-destruction from the very outset.
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. Whether Ventura Pons will have been discovered to have been deeply misunderstood is something for future ages to ponder. For now though, Amor Idiota stands as a mish-mash of valid discourse executed badly, causing at least this reviewer to wonder if he’s either missed the point or been punished for thinking too deeply. Then again, the lead characters manage to achieve both without really coming to a satisfactory conclusion. That in the end, is how this Barcelona farce left me.
However, it isn’t the end of World On Film’s Catalan connection. Sometime later, I managed to find a short film actually shot and set this time in Andorra itself and that will be the subject of next week’s post when we discover the Biblically-inspired – and unfortunately trailer-less – sci-fi drama, Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain.
You are reading World On Film, the blog that each week explores the world through cinema. Before I get started on this week’s entry, I thought I’d take a moment to mention a couple of other films I’ve enjoyed this week. First up, Christopher Nolan’s new action thriller, Inception. It unfortunately stars Leonardo di Caprio, but don’t let that put you off Nolan’s take on the power of suggestion and an entertaining rollercoaster ride through the world of dreams. To the sci-fi fan, it explores concepts that are nothing new: controlling people’s minds by implanting ideas, questioning whether life is an elaborate dream or we are yet to wake up from what we perceive is reality, but fans of Nolan’s work shouldn’t be disappointed by the execution, with solid performances all round. If like me you’re into sci-fi, check out Moon, a 2009 low-budget space mystery that combines elements of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to create a truly gut-wrenching and thought-provoking tale, elements of which may come true in the not-too-distant future. After being less than impressed by his performance as Zaphod Beeblebrox in 2005 remake of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, I didn’t think Sam Rockwell had it in him to headline a film, but he does and it’s worth checking out.
All of which is not really within this blog’s remit, so moving closer to home now, as it were, if a film dealing with events leading up to the Bangladesh civil war appeals, The Clay Bird does just that. I’ll be covering it in this very blog when World On Film reaches Bangladesh, which I expect will be…er…I’ll get back to you on that. Right now though, we’re off to Algeria for the excellent 2002 drama, Rachida. Last week, I posted the trailer. If you missed it, you can watch it right here (I can’t get the embed code to work properly for some reason).
Written and directed by Yasmina Bachir.
“It’s post-traumatic psychosis. The whole country suffers from it. Don’t you think I’m afraid?”
Part of World On Film‘s raison d’etre, so to speak, is to explore the world through a medium I enjoy and it’s great when a film inspires me to learn more about its country of origin, shining a light into the many gaps in my global awareness. Prior to watching Rachida, I knew very little about Algeria other than the fact it was a former French colony and one long-suffering from civil conflict. The latter point is something of an understatement, for Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches. If only to better appreciate the story, I quickly found myself googling this dark and recent chapter in the country’s history. Although still ensuing in some parts of Algeria today, the war principally ran between 1991 and 2002 and was sparked by the rising popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front party (FIS). Fearing they would be overthrown, the incumbent National Liberation Front cancelled the nation’s forthcoming elections and declared the opposing party illegal. The country came under military rule and in response to the banning and arrest of many FIS party members, Islamist guerrillas took up arms and engaged in a prolonged battle with the government and all who supported it. Forming into several groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) rampaged through the towns, initially targeting only the authorities, but many soon turned their attention to the civilian population. Over a span of 11 years, upwards of 200 000 lives were lost. It has been alleged that some of the killings were conducted by government agencies, who then publicly blamed the Islamists for the deaths.
This then forms the backdrop of the film, set somewhere within that time frame. Rachida is a young female school teacher in Algiers, for whom life is good: she has a stable and fulfilling job, a happy home life and a steady boyfriend. The peace is shattered one day when she is confronted and subsequently shot by a former pupil, now a member of a GIA splinter group intent on delivering a very explosive message to the government. Sent into a country town with her family in order to recover from her ordeal, Rachida finds that while physical wounds may heal quickly, psychological wounds are ever-lasting. And with the town held captive by continual and random guerrilla attacks, any chance of a true recovery is dashed.
“Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches”
I do think this is the kind of film for which you need a basic historical background in order to truly appreciate the magnitude of the conflict, yet it’s important to note that Rachida’s primary themes are not the political underpinnings of the war, and the film assumes the viewer already knows the details. It is essentially a study in the effects of terrorism, both the life-changing impact of a single incident of terror, and life under the ongoing presence of fear and death. The town becomes Algeria in miniature, with families losing loved ones, abductions and the constant pall of uncertainty over whether ‘they’, as the characters frequently describe the militants, are coming. ‘They’ the oppressors, rather than ‘they’ the religious fundamentalists or political insurgents, with the dialogue often asking of the viewer the root cause of the growing madness.
“Where was all this hate buried? This cruelty, this barbarity? These hearts deserted by all humanity.”
… … … … … … … … … … … … … For the most part, however, the focus is on the impact of terror itself, with Rachida herself an allegory for the national character – an ordinary person trying to live an ordinary life, but being beaten down by fear. However, unlike many of the townspeople for whom fear has cowed into silence, Rachida’s anger gives her a strength even she isn’t aware of: an anger to ask the questions others feel there is little point in debating. 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. Ultimately, the film offers a ray of hope in the encroaching darkness that the human spirit is not always crushed.
“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.“
As the first Algerian film I have seen, I found Rachida to be a very strong offering indeed, generally well-structured and well-paced, with a cast of actors whose performances at no time failed to convince. Ibtissem Djouadi, as the title character, is excellently cast and capable of a great range of emotion – her eyes a window into her alter-ego’s troubled soul. There were times when I felt the narrative wasn’t sure who its subject was: the film often spends time being a character study on its lead, which results in a very effective personal drama depicting the effects of war on the human psyche, but at other times seems to veer off on tangents with the lives of unconnected secondary characters, attempting to be a sort of ‘ensemble narrative’ – a village under siege trying to survive. Both approaches are equally valid and worth exploring, but I felt they were not properly integrated. It suggested the producers felt that their initial approach wasn’t strong enough to sustain a feature-length effort and the scope needed to be widened.
However, this does not mar the principal aims of the film’s discourse and I have no difficulty whatsoever in recommending Rachida. As an insight into the Algerian conflict, it is very human, as a drama, it is very compelling, and as a film, it is quite effectively done.
Next on World On Film: Madness of a different kind. A self-confessed idiot drifts aimlessly through life until he meets the girl of his dreams, for whom he will stop at nothing to obtain. But if this is a Catalonian film, what does it have to do with the principality of Andorra? Find out when I review Amor Idiota. An unsubtitled trailer can be viewed below. Be advised: adult content.
“Communism is like Prohibition – it’s a good idea, but it won’t work.” – Will Rogers
Unbelievably, a week has passed already since ‘Osama’ – a week in which I happened to catch the amusing Australian comedy/drama ‘Kokoda Crescent’, starring Warren Mitchell and a Bahamanian (I think that’s the demonym) short which will very likely be discussed in detail when that country steps into the spotlight. In the meantime, I scoured the internet for a trailer to this week’s entry: the excellent, dark Albanian comedy Slogans, and found absolutely nothing, so we’re stuck with my description of the film instead.
Directed by Gjergj Xhuvani
Slogans is a wry and entertaining commentary on the excesses of Communist Albania in the early 1970s. Andre, a new biology teacher posted to a school in a remote mountain village, soon finds the staff and students there to be far more concerned about the upkeep of the Communist slogans they have depicted on the surrounding hillsides in large white stones than the Three Rs. Failure to devote one’s full time to this endeavour will supposedly earn the wrath of district party officials, although as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the village itself seems far more obsessed with the task than the rarely seen bureaucratic overlords themselves, and failure to uphold the zeal for rearranging the stones becomes ammunition for the true believers to engage in witch hunts against anyone they have personal grievances. Andre and those of the village not fully enraptured with the community’s purposeless raison d’etre find themselves forever treading through a minefield of contradictions, paranoia and party dogma that could explode around them at any moment.
Elevating Futility To A High Art
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. Indeed, Slogans takes many delighted pot shots at the futility of the locals’ single-minded determination to pepper the hills with important-sounding slogans – the meanings of which they are unable to actually explain, such as the declarative ‘American Imperialism Is Only A Paper Tiger’ and ‘Finish Successfully The Campaigns Of Our Harvests And Sowings’. The loss of a generation of children, so tired from spending their days building giant letters for phrases they cannot hope to understand that they have no energy left for actual studies is all the more tragic because of their excited determination and uncomprehending devotion to the task, reminiscent of the first generation of the children who grew up in Mao’s China, becoming the most devout party members of all, yet the most ignorant.
“The film is an excellent study in farce and 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 also shows the way in which the real world continually steps in to foil the Party’s designs and is punished for doing so. The giant letters are continually unearthed by fauna, romances evolve, and children play, all resulting in stiff penalties for the unwitting transgressors. One of the most touching scenes for me features Andre and a dirt-poor, illiterate herdsman, who implores the teacher to help him convince the local government to provide him with better housing. The poor peasant, whose lack of education precludes him from understanding anything of the local politics, is ultimately destined to be condemned for his ignorance, his plight an excellent metaphor for the absurdity and failure of the Communist ideologies, which have been stripped away of every last scrap of meaning and do nothing for the people who actually matter. Ultimately, any such efforts at normality are quashed, and the final message of the film is clearly that the people are slaves to the system they themselves willingly perpetuate, which is ultimately too powerful to resist. Thankfully, history has proved this not to be the case.
Yet it is important to remember that Slogans is as much a comedy as it is a drama, and thankfully, both writers and director have enough faith in their story to let the farce come organically from the events themselves, with the humour often understated and capable of sneaking up on you. There is an almost Pythonesque quality to the absurd situations characters find themselves in (exemplifying the old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction), which will draw laughs of their own accord, and indeed I found myself chuckling away several times at the inherent contradictions, such as a scene in which the school Party leader condemns a child for accidentally referring to China as ‘revisionist’ and then proceeds straight-faced to make a similar mistake himself.
“There is an almost Pythonesque quality to the absurd situations characters find themselves in.”
While some may argue that you have to have lived through a Communist dictatorship such as that under Enver Hoxha to truly appreciate the fear, uncertainty and for Slogans in particular, the sheer madness that occurs when purpose becomes a shell, all societies are powered by these irrational drives to varying degrees and audiences should have no trouble appreciating that absurdity for what it is and seeing the funny side as the film intends. Touching, amusing, sad and hopeless, Slogans runs the gamut of emotions, striking a fair balance between them in its efforts to be lighthearted while not diluting its core message. As to the subject matter itself, perhaps the final word should go to Hungarian writer/journalist Sándor Márai:
“No one is so stubborn and dangerous as the beneficiaries of a fallen idea – they defend not the idea, but their bare life and the loot.”
Coming up next on World On Film: a country in turmoil as terror walks the streets and ordinary citizens fight for normality one day at a time in the moving Algerian drama, Rachida. You can see a trailer here.