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: