The Mummy (UK, 1959)

'Mise en scene' as lurid as the subject matter

‘Mise en scene’ as lurid as the subject matter

I’m planning to watch both the Universal-Boris Karloff The Mummy as well as the recent remake, directed by Stephen Sommers in 1999, alongside this Hammer classic. I’m interested in how visual style (particularly camera movement and editing) has changed. The most impressive aspect of this British version is the gorgeous sets created for Terence Fisher’s direction; certainly studio bound but hysterically Gothic in a melodramatic sense.

The most striking aspect was Peter Cushing’s performance as the protagonist. Cushing was a fine actor so I’m sure the lack of emotion he displayed was exactly what was required. This absence of feeling is striking because the mummy kills his dad (sorry, ‘father’), uncle and then mortally threatens his wife. After his dad has pegged it uncle opines, ‘You were close to your father weren’t you?’ Despite the affirmative reply not only was not a tear shed but not an iota of  grief was displayed! It’s as if it’s all in a day’s work (not that he does any work). After he is almost strangled, he wears a scarf.

The setting, late 19th century upper class England, probably contributed to this overdose of the ‘stiff upper lip’ but the tropes of late 1950s would no doubt also be influential. Did the stoic portrayal of war heroes, so popular in the 1950s, mean that even men in horror films could, also, display no emotion? From the 21st century, Cushing’s performance is undoubtedly distancing; Christopher Lee’s eyes, (it’s all we can see of him as the mummy beneath the bandages) convey more feeling.

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, 2012)

Females in the wasteland

Females in the wasteland

This is an extraordinary film, less for its content, which is good, but for the fact that it’s directed by a woman in a society that treats women, almost, as non citizens in the public sphere. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature, she’d already made a documentary, follows the feisty Wadjda as she determines to get and ride a bike. This, of course, is such a basic desire for most children, but for a girl in Saudi it’s more like pie in the sky.

A simple narrative offering a slice of life, and concerning a bike, inevitably recalls Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) but Al-Mansour cites Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) and Offside (Iran, 2006). The former follows the titular, determined young woman; the latter, young women trying to watch a football match in Tehran. The Day I Became a Woman (Iran, 2000) also springs to mind in its portrayal of women in a repressive society. Wadjda stands up well in comparison with all the contemporary films; few films, if any, can match De Sica’s classic. I live in Bradford and have been alarmed to see women increasingly wearing the niqab in recent years which, to my feminist western eyes, reeks of repression. There’s little doubt that the west’s ‘war on terror’ (i.e. Islamic fundamentalist) has stimulated a reactionary reaction. As Al-Mansour makes clear, in a Sight & Sound interview (August 2013), there’s nothing in the Koran that states women should wear the full veil, it’s an invention of the Wahabi sect that has medieval ideas of how women should be treated.

The film itself portrays this absurdity with wit: for example, the girls have to stop playing because they are in the eyeline of men working on a roof some distance away. Wadjda refuses to be put down by social mores and ploughs her own furrow, no doubt just as Al-Mansour has; she stated, in the same interview, that Saudi society will change. The fact this film was made is evidence of that, though there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia for it to be screened. The ruling class there clearly like to keep the populace in ignorance.

And just in case anyone thinks I believe the west treats women properly: we are a long way from a true equality. And just in case anyone thinks I believe we are fully informed by our governments: we aren’t.

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!, Sweden, 2013)

They are!

They are!

Swede Moodysson’s last two films, Container (2005) and Mammoth (2009), both passed me by but I was mightily impressed by three of his first for directorial efforts. I was out of synch with most critics’ reaction to Together (2000), but loved his debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Amal, 1998). His next films explored sex trafficking Lila 4-Ever (2002) and pornography, A Hole in My Heart (2004); both were suitably gruelling. He’s back on his debut’s territory with We Are the Best!, showing what a brilliant director of children he is, in this ‘coming of age’ pic about young girls in the early ’80s.

I’m struggling to think of the last film where I felt I was smiling for much of the running time. It’s not a comedy but the portrayal of the three friends is so affecting, and the characters’ rebellion so attractive, that there’s is just loads to like. The three debutants excel in their misfit roles and the narrative meanders nicely through several months when they attempt to form a punk band. They do this to annoy annoying lads and, of course, they cannot play any instruments (at least until the third, Hedvig, joins them).

The  ‘meandering’ of the narrative is perfect for it allows the gentle portrayal to unfold at a perfect pace. Even the narrative drive, to form a band, is fairly inconsequential. It is a snapshot of these girls lives in 1982 and is based on Coco Moodysson’s (wife of Lukas) graphic novel and this is no doubt where the film’s authenticity lies.

The film’s opening weekend box office was disappointing in the UK. Why?! Treat yourself to something different, and rewarding, before it disappears.

Swiri (South Korea, 1999)

More heroic bloodshed

More heroic bloodshed

Directed, like Brotherhood, by Kang Je-kye, Swiri was the first South Korean blockbuster and, as such, a statement of confidence in an industry that was emerging from being a political football for the whole of its history. The plot concerns an attempt by North Korean agents to blow up the Presidents of both North and South in order to force reunification; I’m not sure of the details but the main heavy is played Choi Min-sik so whatever he says is good for me. Choi is probably best known in the west for his role as the titular Oldboy (Oldeuboi, 2003); he also appeared in Brotherhood. The ‘undercover’ spy narrative may be more intense in a divided country like Korea as the different are, essentially, the same. And this is well used in Swiri as the protagonist, convincingly played by Han Suk-kyu, finds his loyalty divided.

Less convincing for me were the action sequences which often lacked credibility. For example, the bad guy’s trapped in a theatre, starts shooting; cut: he’s being chased outside. Hollywood action cinema does the same but maybe not usually quite so blatantly. I was tiring of hearing the rattle of empty bullet cases so I was watching the wrong movie.

Brotherhood (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, South Korea, 2004)

Brothers at war

Brothers at war

Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality. Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence. The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body. Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the west at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.

Samaritan Girl, (Samaria, S.Korea, 2004)

Growing up too quickly

Growing up too quickly

The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang  Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-du, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.

In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.

Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a policeman who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car. 

The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable  thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; so as not Asia extreme.

Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.

Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.

Under the Skin (UK, 2013)

Getting under the skin

Getting under the skin

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scene. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.

A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK, 2013)

A failure of form?

A failure of form?

This first screening of Conrad Clark’s second feature, at the Bradford International Film Festival, had the director in attendance and he explained he was attempting an ethnographic approach to portray the effects of global capitalism. He does this but I thought the film to be poorly made. Others have responded far more positively, see here, and Roy’s view here. Why didn’t I like it?

Narratively it’s obtuse; and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience has to work to fill in the gaps between the ‘slices of life’, about a female Chinese entrepreneur in the UAE. Sang Juan’s Le Fei, the protagonist, is also unlikeable as a character; she often rudely berates her workers; though I acknowledge that’s probably a cultural judgement. Again, I’m not against narratives that don’t offer easily identifiable characters but when, at the end, we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for her – through mise en scene and music – I wondered why we are purposefully alienated from her at the start. So, I didn’t find the narrative convincing; the direction, for me, was also at fault.

Again I’m not against, per se, poorly composed shots and/or non ‘classical’ styles. Indeed the handheld ‘realist’ style, here almost certainly dictated by budgetary constraints, has much to offer. However, when Clark insists on shooting a conversation using whip pans he does risk both nausea in the audience and being asked the question (politely I didn’t stay for the Q&A) ‘what’s wrong with shot/reverse-shot?’. Similarly he insists on using extreme close-ups, both in sound and vision, presumably to bring us closer to Le Fei, but again it risks ‘unpleasure’ when we experience her slurping noodles. Similarly, the camera often follows characters close-up from behind, which reminded me of the Dardenne brothers’ technique in Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999). Whilst in Rosetta I felt the eponymous protagonist’s determination to get on, here I experienced being dragged along on characters’ backs.

As Roy notes, there are a few scenes which are clearly documentary in nature; they look like Clark has asked itinerant workers to talk about their lives to one another. Interesting, yes, but they didn’t fit in with the film. As my recent posts on Kim Ki-duk films suggests, I am very interested in hearing about the downtrodden in our world, but there was too much wrong with the film for me to hear them clearly.

And I’m still uncertain as to why she was ‘fallible’ or why she was a ‘girl’ and not a woman.

Address Unknown (Suchwiin bulmyeong, S Korea, 2001)

The subaltern scream

The subaltern scream

I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.

Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.

There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.

Rage (UK-US, 2009)

Rage against the green screen

Rage against the green screen

90-plus minutes of talking heads anyone? I think the thought of that is why Sally Potter’s Rage is rated a mere 4.7 by imdb users. In reality, of course, it’s – at the least – an engaging film that relies on its excellent script and performances to allay any ‘poverty’ in the image. Riz Ahmed, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law and David Oyelowo are the stand outs in what can actually be called a ‘star studded’ cast. The monologues are ostensibly, we never see him, shot by a student for his school project; though he’s actually posting them on a blog. His subject is a fashion show, which is going ‘pear-shaped’, and Potter’s intention is to skewer the pretensions of the industry.

Not a difficult target, I would suggest, but Potter also goes beyond that focus by implicating western consumerism, and wars, into her film. We are invited to read between the lines of what the self-justifying characters are saying. Inevitably, most of them are as two-dimensional as the green screen; which is almost any colour but green, background. The actors perform the shallowness of the characters to perfection; Bob Balaban talking about his new ‘opportunities’, having being sacked, is particularly good.

But why this form? Potter’s targets are valid but are monologues to camera the best way to offer a subversive look at our capitalist world? I suspect it’s a case of form winning over content. Potter’s purpose was to make a film for mobile phones and chose the best – only? – visible format that would be effective on such small screens. This is not to say it doesn’t look great on the big screen, it makes the performances literally ‘towering’. Rage is worth seeing as Potter, and her performers, have risen to the challenge created by the form’s limitations, but it is more an exercise than a entirely convincing piece of cinema.