No Fathers in Kashmir (UK-India, 2019)

A story that needs telling

The cover up of the OPCW investigation into the alleged Syrian government’s gas attack in Douma is slowly being revealed (that is the attack never happened and the report into the attack was doctored) though I doubt that anyone, in the UK at least, who relies upon MSM knows this. Moreover I suspect most people wouldn’t care: for them it’s simply an example of scary things happening in far away places. The same could be said of the bombing of civilians in Yemen (in which the RAF is complicit) and the India government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status last year. The latter is why Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir (he wrote, directed, produced, starred and took other roles) is an important film. As Kumar said, in a post-screening Q & A (he’s doing a promotional tour in support of the film the producers are distributing themselves), the disputed territory is on the border between two nuclear powers: we should be interested! Such pieces as this on the BBC website show how important films can be in raising the profile of usually ‘forgotten’ issues.

Kumar leads us into the fraught state of Kashmir through the eyes Noor (newcomer Zara La Peta Webb), a British girl visiting her grandparents, and Majid (Shivam Raina, also new), a local lad who takes a fancy to her. It’s a good device but there are challenges in linking the personal to the political and too often the narrative strains credulity: the youngsters’ foolish walk into the hills for instance. It’s not that people in their position wouldn’t do such a thing, just that the motivation of the characters is not convincing enough.

Like Argentina in the 1970s, Kashmir is plagued by the ‘disappeared’: tens of thousands of people who are arrested by the Indian army and are never seen again leaving behind half-orphans and half-widows. Kumar plays Arshid, a devotee of Wahabism (I’m assuming as such due to the references to Saudi Arabia’s oil money), an extremist form of Islam which, according to the director, is on the increase in the region. This seems an example of the typical ‘blowback’ that occurs in such as situation: extremism increases as a reaction against the oppression leading to increased conflict.

The film is probably at its most effective with the way it emphasises the photographs Noor obsessively and unthinkingly takes, for social media, which lead to complications for Majid. Ashvin dramatises these with a rapid montage and a soundtrack full of electronic clicks. Again the film doesn’t quite convince because the although the Indian army insist on having Noor’s phone, and thus the photographs, they would likely already be in the ‘cloud’.

Directors’ Q & A in Bradford

Ashvin described how he managed to shoot such a ‘subversive’ film in Modi’s authoritarian India and how it was yanked from distribution after four weeks in his home country despite doing decent business. It took nine months to get it through the censors and only then after cuts; this screening was uncut. The world’s biggest democracy’s swing to the right is mirrored in a number of countries; including the UK whose government just voted not to reunite children with their refugee parents. It’s admirable that Kumar, and filmmakers like him, strive to give voice to those without power. Hence I’d recommend seeing the film, the cinematography by Jean-Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme shows how beautiful the former tourist attraction Kashmir is.

Savage (Les fauves, France, 2018)

Savage? Really?

My second instalment of Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 fared no better than my first, however Savage is more coherant than Jessica Forever. Lilly-Rose Depp (celebrity royalty but she performs well) plays Laura who, it transpires, is a troubled teen spending time at a camping site with her cousins and aunt. I say ‘transpires’ as the ‘set-up’ doesn’t make it clear she is the protagonist; her cousin Anne (Aloïse Sauvage) seems to be equally important at first. This isn’t an issue but in a conventional (would-be) thriller, narrative economy is to be expected and the rather diffuse opeing suggests the script (written by director Vincent Mariette and Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq) isn’t quite up to the task.

It appears the campsite is being plagued by leopard attacks (police presence is pretty minimal for some reason) but Laura discovers through casual burglary (which Anne joins in) the truth. It’s not clear why the cousins like breaking in to their neighbours on the site and it seems more of a plot device (leading to Laura’s discovery) rather than a psychological insight into character. This lack of clarity infects the film as a whole and shows how difficult it is to write scripts that nail the plot devices to a film’s theme in a convincing way. It’s a film with possibilities but they never coalesce into a convincing whole.

Comédie Française’s Laurent Lafitte, seen in School’s Out, adds a brooding presence but his motivation is unclear. It’s apparently about him wanted people to reconnect with wild myths but this is undercooked. This is potentially a very interesting thread for a thriller; the attraction of the genre may be about feeling a primitive fear that cosseted folk of today miss. But the potential is never articulated, it’s one idea that’s mixed with genre tropes in the hope that a palatable result follows.

Camille Cottin brings charisma to the role of Inspector Camus (a name laden with philosophical potential completely missing from the script) but I wasn’t even convinced she was actually a flic until Anne refers to her as such. There seems to be a point about gender being made through her character but…

Enough moaning. I’m not saying I’m worrying about my €7.99 investment in the festival (yet) but I’m hoping for more of a buzz from my next screening. The picture quality, incidentally, is excellent and apparently you can access the festival through YouTube but I haven’t worked out how so I’ve been streaming the films on television through my phone.

Weathering With You (Tenki no ko, Japan, 2019)

Dazzling imagery

I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan, 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.

The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.

Like Your NameWeathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.

Wallowing in the sky

In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!

Jessica Forever (France, 2018)

Sort of super hero

Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

I saw it as my first screening of Myfrenchfilmfestival which runs online for a month from 16 January and includes 31 films (19 shorts available for free) for a nominal €7.99. Although Jessica Forever hasn’t been a good start the festival is certainly worth a punt and hopefully other national cinemas follow suit and sponsor cheap online distribution as most/all of these films won’t be seen outside festivals in the UK.

Little Women (US, 2019)

Anything but little

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (US, 2017) didn’t impress me but Little Women is a brilliant adaptation and is likely to be one of the best films I see this year. I’ve been trying to read Louisa M Alcott’s novel for a few months but find it a struggle as it is too treacly. Gerwig’s decision to put chop the narrative’s chronology pays off for me because it enables us to directly compare the young adults with their childish selves. Indeed, the degree to which Gerwig has sliced the narrative is extremely impressive as she usually offers parallels between the events happening to the younger and elder versions. The scenes where Jo (Saorise Ronan – brilliant as always) awakes in bed and goes downstairs to find out something significant is shot in exactly the same way (apart from the lighting) and this adds immense power to already emotive events. I have little interest in the Oscars, they are fetishised as being the ‘be all and end all’ of cinematic art, but the absence of Gerwig from the ‘best director’ list simply reinforces my belief that the awards are useless and even celebrate ineptitude (take a bow Tarantino). The only false note I noticed, in the direction, was an unnecessary close-up of Jo’s fidgeting fingers to convey her nervousness in the opening scene; Ronan doesn’t need such help.

I’m struggling to understand the original novel’s classic status as it is particularly anodyne. For example, the scene where Beth falls into the ice covered pond has zero drama in the novel, unlike the film. Presumably its classic status is due to the fact that it is a relatively rare example of a ‘coming of age’ narrative for females hence I don’t get it.

The editing (Nick Houy) is exceptionally good as it seamlessly (to the extent you’re not always clear what ‘time’ we are in) splices the flashbacks/forwards; though, again, much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s script.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier versions of the novel but there’s no doubt that this is one that is about 2020; I’m not sure it has much to say about post-Civil War America but that could be my ignorance. There is a fleeting reference to slavery but even here Laura Dern, playing the ‘little women’s’ mum (Marmee), the reference is contemporary: when saying, to a black woman, she was ashamed of her country, the reply is, “You should still be.” Marmee then agrees she still is; a clear reference to Trump’s America. The decision to use the same actors in both the young and older roles, unlike the other versions, partly explains the occasional confusion of ‘when’ we are but benefits as it gives us a greater continuity of character; it’s easier to understand how they change when we can see they are the same person. Despite their excellent, the actors can’t quite carry off being children but it’s a small loss.

Part of the modernity of the film comes from Gerwig grafting a metafiction narrative onto the original suggesting that Jo wrote Little Women. Gerwig said that the conversation that Jo has with the publisher about women in fiction, that they must get married by the end or the story has no appeal, was the same conversation that she had with producers when trying to get the film made (interview in Sight & Sound, February).

Little Women is an example of that the realitvely rare mid-budget Hollywood film, reported at $40m, and – despite the fact it would apparently only appeal to women! – has doubled that after three weekends in North America alone; it’s also taken over $10m in UK and Ireland. It was also designed as an ‘awards movie’, its middle brow characteristics, as well as its starry cast, are designed to get at least nominations which would boost the marketing. The best marketing is word-of-mouth and the relatively small weekly drops in the box office, and imdb’s 8.3, show this has been very positive for Little Women.

It is a heart-warming film but that’s despite the commonplace difficulties and tragedies in life the film portrays. Indeed, the meta-fictional ending brilliantly allows audiences to have the happy ending and understand its contrivance. There’s a marvellous ambiguity as to Jo’s marital status and she seems more enamoured with the first printing of her book than any man; apparently Jo is something of a Queer hero.

I’ve mentioned Ronan, but all the women are superb: Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan and Emma Watson. The support is uniformly fabulous: Chris Cooper (behind bristles), Timothée Chalamet, James Norton and Meryl Streep. Credit foremost must go to Gerwig, who hopefully will become a major player in Hollywood as she clearly wants to tell important tales, particularly about women.

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan, 2015)

Bloody patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yusuke Yamada’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.

Wild Rose (UK, 2018)

Walking the line

Films are commercial beasts which are difficult to make profitably and it was hilarious when then PM David Cameron told a meeting of film producers that all they had to do was make films that were popular. The tension between art and commerce, in art generally, has been present at least since the rise of capitalism and film, being a particularly expensive art form, suffers more than most from compromises intended to ensure a return on investment. The fact that compromise is deemed necessary is not meant as a criticism: filmmaking is a job and as such has to pay. Wild Rose received funding from Channel 4 and the BFI, both institutions that have responsibilities for funding culture over commerce, but the producers of WIld Rose still cast names, Sophie Okonedo andJulie Walters, in supporting roles in an attempt to boost box office. It’s not that they, both excellent actors, don’t do the roles well but it’s not exactly supporting Scottish artists – Roy Stafford has useful comments on this in his review. Besides, Okonedo’s role is as a middle class Englishwomen (but she could have been Scottish) so there’s less contention about her casting. Lead, Jessie Buckley, is Irish but there can’t be many actors who sing country so convincingly and she gives a star-making performance, so no quibbles there.

Rose-Lynn (Buckley) is a would-be country singer saddled with two children who have been brought up by her mother (Walters) whilst she was in jail. ‘Saddled’ is the correct term as she resents the wee bairns as much as the electronic tag attached to her leg  that prevents her singing at the Glasgow Opry in the evenings. Working for Okonedo’s Susannah, as a day woman, gives Rose new hope and we’re in the treacherous territory of a middle-class saviour. Thankfully, Nicole Taylor’s script is too savvy for that and it also negotiates the commercial need for a feel-good ending well; after all this is Glasgow and not Hollywood.

There’s a subtlety given to Walters’ role of the long-suffering grandma who berates her daughter for not treating her children correctly but understands the frustrations involved. Rose is not an entirely sympathetic character either, as she regularly forgoes caring for her children for self-centred hedonism. Here the middle-class milieux of Susannah is important as it demonstrates the opportunities not open to working class people. Grandma had wanted to be a pharmacist but had to work from 15-years-old. Too often those in power patronise the working class for not taking opportunities in life apparently not understanding that the opportunities given to middle class children, often in public schools, are not available to everybody. Hence the victim is blamed for their plight.

There are many females in key producing roles in this film though it’s (ably) directed by a man, Tom Harper. A recent report showed how having women directing and/or writing leads to more prominence to female roles (not exactly rocket science that but it’s important to have the statistics). The current BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler has women in all the main creative roles and it shows on the screen as the white middle class men are presented as the scumbags they were. In episode four, Keeler’s (Sophie Cookson) agent asks if she’s a femme fatale; while the noir character may not have been part of popular discourse in the early ’60s, it’s a knowing moment as Keeler glances at herself in the mirror as she shows incomprehension at the question. Scriptwriter Amanda Coe draws our attention to the trope that women are blamed for the fall of men when it’s always the men’s fault anyway.