Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, S.Korea-Japan-France-China, 2002)

"There's no fuckin' future"

“There’s no fuckin’ future”

Unknown Pleasures is the final part of Jia Zhangke’s ‘Hometown trilogy’ (after Xiao Wu and Platform) and it’s probably the grimmest of the three. If the eponymous character of Xiao Wu is one person being left behind by economic development in China, the teenage protagonists of Unknown Pleasures represent a whole (post-Mao) generation whose lives are being destroyed by wholesale changes in society.

The title, as in Platform, is a reference to a pop song (and, also, tangentially, to Joy Division) and western, and westernised, popular culture infuses the film from the ‘bob’ wig worn by would-be singer Qiao Qiao to the attempted bank robbery – both inspired by Pulp Fiction (1994). Qiao, though, is in the hands of local gangster and her performances are purely commercial; adverts for King Mongolian beer. It’s the logical progression from Platform, where the theatrical troupe start as state-run and end up as a business. In Unknown Pleasures selling is all that matters.

Jia portrays capitalism as soulless; or rather, it eats away at our souls as all we want is money. In China, of course, everything is magnified because of its size, so there are a lot of soulless people ‘growing’ in China. Jia focuses on the losers, but no doubt the winners will also be spiritually empty.

Platform (Zhantai, Hong Kong-China-Japan-France, 2000)

Looking to the future

Looking to the future

Whilst Xiao Wu focused on one individual experiencing the transition to capitalism in China, Platform follows a theatrical troupe during the 1980s, a period of vast change as Deng Xiaoping instituted economic changes. Jia Zhangke’s second feature is stylistically very different from the handheld realism of Xiao Wu; often the motionless camera observes the action in long takes. Micheal Berry, in his excellent BFI Film Classic book on the ‘Hometown trilogy’, compares the style to Ozu; I was reminded of Miklos Jansco where action often wonders offscreen.

Despite the stylisation the film still feels realist; location shooting and non-professional actors and the ordinary lives of the protagonists suggest we’re seeing an authentic vision of a Chinese backwater. Berry mentions that the DVD cut is an hour shorter than the original, it is Jia’s preferred version, and a lot of explicatory material has been excised. That might be one of the reasons I was occasionally confused as to what was going on. Similarly, I didn’t pick up on all the cultural references; however, that’s part of the point of watching ‘world’ cinema: to learn.

Although there are realist aspects, the film also has almost-surreal moments. For example when Zhong Ping goes to a meeting with a new perm, a signifier of modernity, she’s the butt of jokes; ‘you look like a flamenco dancer’. Cut to the same setting, a run down hall, with Zhong dancing in a resplendent red flamenco dress. Similarly, another scene is interrupted by a ‘one child parade’; however that wasn’t contrived but were an occurence during the late ’70s.

Jia also swamps the mise en scene in blue (all trucks in China seem to be blue!), red and green also predominate. This stylisation aesthetises the film suggesting the film is more than reflecting people’s lives but a statement about ’80s China.

Fundraising to go to Venezuela

I hope readers will forgive a personal post as my daughter’s fundraising for a trip to Venezuela. The trip’s purpose is to both explore the country, often demonised by the conservative press because of its socialist leader Hugo Perez, but also contribute something in the form of helping local communities.

It’s not cheap and she’s working like a Stakhanovite to raise money. She’s blogging here and if anyone has ideas for fund raising please leave a comment.

Endgame (UK, 2009)

Talking to the end

Talking to the end

I hesitate to suggest that this film, premiered in the UK on Channel 4 last month, reveals the hidden story behind the dismantlement of apartheid as it my just be new to me. But this dramadoc (Chiwetel Ejiofor, above, is playing Thabo Mbeki) focuses on the ‘behind the scenes’ meetings between the ANC and representatives of the racist government hosted by Consolidated Gold(!); the company recognising that it could only continue to make money in a stable S.Africa, which meant black majority rule.

This has a great cast: William Hurt, Mark Strong and Johnny Lee Miller, like Ejiofor, are all potent in their roles. Sympathies to the script writer and director, in that it is difficult to make drama out of table-bound discussion, but they do a pretty good job.

Who’s the audience? It’s always important to tell political tales, otherwise we’re swamped in consumerist pap. For those of us who remember apartheid, this is a fascinating insight into how it all ended. I’m not sure, however, how much sense young people will be able to make of the events.

Diary of the Dead (US, 2008)

This is for real

This is for real

As the most influential zombie-film maker George Romero might be accused of being behind the times by introducing self-reflexive postmodernism into his movies over 10 years after Wes Craven’s success. However, his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) included a scene where Barbara’s brother states, in his best Vincent Price voice, that ‘they are going to get you’ just before they actually d0. In addition, Romero’s updating zombie movies for Web 2.0 so the filmmaker above, about to bite (er be bitten) the dust), is shooting the end of civilisation and uploading it to the web.

Of course the filmmakers start by making a horror movie complete with mummy who is told, when he runs after the damsel, that he can’t run as he’s dead; his ankles would snap off. So Romero rejects 28 Days Later…‘s (UK, 2002) innovation of zombies who can ‘leg it’. The 2nd remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) also included very fast zombies. Personally I like them but Romero sticks to the snail-paced zombies who overwhelm by their immense numbers rather than by being fleet of foot.

However, the tone of the film is not particularly playful as civilisation dissolves all too readily and there’s plenty of effective horror and gore. The film ends with a reference to Night of the Living Dead with ‘good ole boys’ shooting zombies for fun and the narrator wondering if humanity deserves to survive. The original was about the Civil Rights protests that were rocking America in the ’60s; Romero’s film before DiaryLand of the Dead, 2005 – was about Bush’s America. In Dawn he had zombies seek sanctuary in shopping malls; a satire on consumerism. It’s clear that Romero’s zombies are where the zeitgeist is at.

Quatermass and the Pit (UK, 1967)

Digging up the unknown

Digging up the unknown

The image above might suggest a rather tacky, low budget SF-horror movie but this is a terrific example of Hammer horror. It’s not the Gothic remakes, featuring Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, but Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, a character who first (and last in 2005) appeared on TV. Whilst some of the characterisation, the paternal academics, has dated and most of the special effects can’t match contemporary cinema, it still packs a punch; indeed some of the effects are quite brilliant (the swirling plates as an infected man robotically sways through the streets). And the ‘devil over London’ remains a disturbing image.

Shot in colour I suspect that this had more than the usual Hammer low budget; MGM is mentioned in the credits (but not on imdb). Hollywood did invest a lot in ‘Swinging London’ so maybe that’s why the production values are high. I liked the representation of the military and politicians as unimaginative types (‘squares’) and the narrative is spookily built up (alien invaders making things go bump in the night). The video footage gathered by ‘mind reading’ equipment was reminiscent of Ringu (Japan, 1998); I wonder if Nakata Hideo had seen this film.

Eden Lake (UK, 2008)

Modern monsters

Modern monsters

Thrillers are meant to take us to places we don’t want to go in real life; horror movies should take us even further. So the best horror movies are ones that are showing us things we don’t want to see: this can be through ‘gross out’ or through the narrative. Eden Lake does both and it’s a terrific horror movie.

A nice middle class couple are terrorised by feral kids in the middle of the countryside. An unusual mix but it’s convincingly presented; James O’Connell’s psychotic Brett is truly horrendous. The kids as monsters feeds from reporting that (some) youngsters are out of control. They aren’t and they’ve always been subject to negative representations. However there’s more than the ‘them and us’ ‘monsters vs. civilised’ as the terrorised turn monstrous too.

It’s not a film I enjoyed watching but I’m glad I did because I’m not where the characters where.

Xiao Wu (China-Hong Kong, 1997)

Life is passing by

Life is passing by

Director Jia Zhangke dropped beneath my radar, for some reason, until I saw Still Life (2006); that presented me with the enticing prospect of ‘catching up’ on some terrific films. It’s obvious to go chronologically so, surprisingly, I am; Xiao Wu was his first feature. Heavily influenced by Italian neo realists, and Bresson’s Pickpocket (France, 1959), Xiao Wu features location shooting and non actors in a tale of a pickpocket (also an alternative title for the film) who finds life in ‘new’ China is passing him by.

The film’s shot in Fenyang, a ‘middle of nowhere’ place, and one of the fascinating aspects of the film is this rundown setting and the people (who are real) in it. ‘Middle of nowhere’ in the middle of China is a long way away from most places but children play skipping in alleys, just as the do everywhere else in the world.

Although not as surreal as Still Life, the naturalism of the visual style – much of it handheld camera – doesn’t mean the mise en scene isn’t expressive. Greens and  reds are prominent sometimes submerging scenes in colour expressionately reflecting the protagonist’s stagnation. Whilst his boyhood companions make something of their lives, though their ‘success’ is not something that Jia is necessarily celebrating, Xiao Wu drifts through petty theft unable to connect with women or his family: something common in all nations.

The film was initially banned in China and celebrated in the West; we like celebrating what others ban as it shows off our tolerance. Clearly the censors noticed the lack of celebration of China’s growing economic prosperity. As in Still Life we see characters who are living lives in transition, looking for roots where they no longer exist.