Ilo Ilo (Singapore-Taiwan-Japan-France, 2013)

Unhappy family

Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home”) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the 2007-08 economic crisis. Coincidentally, as in my previous post The Olive Tree, economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.

In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).

The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens -Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.

I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.

The contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany, 2016)

Past and future

The filmmaking team (and spouses) of director Icíar Bollaín and scriptwriter Paul Laverty (who wrote I, Daniel Blake amongst others of Ken Loach’s films) made the brilliant Even the Rain and if The Olive Tree isn’t quite that good it’s still a film to relish.

I moaned a few posts back at being bored of man-centred storied so having a young woman, Alma (Anna Castillo), was a good start, particularly one who was fighting patriarchal bullshit that appears to be particularly influential in Spain. The narrative centres around the relationship with her grandfather, who’s declining into dementia, and the olive tree which represents past values. If that suggests a reactionary film, which would be typical of the politics of melodrama, then that would be wrong because the film has the present to rail against. The 2007-08 financial crash, municipal corruption and patriarchal values are shown for their destructive qualities against which tradition family values, represented by the 2000 year-old olive tree, are clearly superior.

I felt slightly anxious throughout that the film would veer to much toward the feel-good. I’m not against feeling good but that, through catharsis, is the political project of mainstream cinema so we momentarily forget our ills. A political film should enrage the audience to action. As noted, melodrama is not ideal for this, because it focuses on individuals rather than people acting together, however it is an excellent vehicle for raising awareness if not stimulating change. That is especially true for a well-told tale that, with sympathetic performances, the The Olive Tree offers.

High-Rise (UK-Belguim, 2015)

The depths of civilization

Director Ben Wheatley has a big reputation but I’ve never warmed to his work; however this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is quite brilliant. I am a fan of Ballard, though I did most of my reading of him during my teenage years. At that time even though I found it difficult to make sense of, what has come to be known as the Ballardian, the strangeness of his worlds obviously attracted me. I read High-Rise recently and, as far as I can remember, the film makes the themes of the book more obvious. It may be the nature of the filmic image that necessitates pulling what’s on the novel’s page more into focus. This could also be a consequence of Amy Jump’s adept adaptation. If this sounds like I’m playing the book against the film then that’s not the intention; the film is a great interpretation of the book.

Central to the film’s success is setting it in the time in which it was written. The high-rise flat itself, in Ballard’s particular design, did not exist in the ’70s however it was typical of his novels to take familiar bourgeois tropes and intensify them to show their destructive nature. Mark Tildesley’s production design ensures the mise en scene reeks of the decade, as does the costume design, replete with killer sideburns; the latter most befitting Luke Evans’ character, Wilder.

Wild thing

Ballard’s names are melodramatic. Wilder is, as his name suggests, a wild card that rails against restraint, not for political reasons but for the macho fun of it. Tom Hiddleston’s protagonist is Robert Laing, which references psychiatrist R.D. Laing who gained some fame in the 1960s with his suggestion that the (bourgoise) nuclear family created mental illness. The film’s Laing is a physiologist but the parallel is clear. Jeremy Irons plays the high-rise’s architect and lives on the top floor: he’s named Royal. His swept back, greying hair, and hobbling gait (except when he plays squash) give him the ghoulish look of Boris Karloff; a suitable monster to oversee the descent into chaos the building causes. It was during the 1960s that the failure of high-rise flats, as a cheap form of accommodation for the working classes, became apparent: they were soulless, lacking in community and often unsafe. Ballard’s high-rise, however, is home to the bourgeoisie: on the upper floors the posh reside (Laing attends a fancy dress party where everyone, except him, is dressed as 18th century aristocrats); lower down the aspiring middle classes try to buy their way into perceived sophistication through consumer culture.

Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, gives the film’s colour palette the look of a polaroid photograph (a ‘must-have’ gadget of the time) its shot in impressive 2.39:1 widescreen. The roving steadicam (not of its time) is reminiscent of Kubrick’s pioneering work in The Shining (UK-US, 1980) adding to the surreal spookiness of the atmosphere.

It’s an excellent cast also including Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes. The women are somewhat marginalised; but that was the ’70s. I particularly liked the line, delivered by Moss when she’s having sex with Laing, that he is a good utility; not sure that was in the original but well done to Jump to putting it in. Miller’s very good at conveying the slightly vacant beauty that the patriarchal 1960s expected of its attractive women.

I’ve mentioned that the film’s relatively straightforward to follow but there are some fabulous montages of the decadent chaos the high-rise descends into. I liked the final touch where we hear Margaret Thatcher espousing that only with private sector capitalism can we have true freedom. She probably believed it but Ballard didn’t.

A final plaudit must go to producer Jeremy Thomas, who was also responsible for Crash (Canada-UK, 1996), the only other film that has managed to come close to staging Ballard’s SF brilliance.

The Salesman (Forushande, Iran-France, 2016)

Not quite in the frame

Another film where Asghar Farhadi ‘places’ the spectator in shifting sands in terms of what might have happened offscreen, at a crucial moment, and challenges us as to how we should respond to the developing narrative. All his last four films use this device of withholding vital information from the audience however he’s less interested in created an enigma for a thriller, though it does this, as using the ellipsis as a space where the viewer is offered to opportunity to think through various possibilities.

As in the previous films (I’ve blogged about The Past and A Separation) Farhadi obliquely (to avoid censorship?) critiques Iranian society; primarily its patronising patriarchy. In a dramatic opening, the central characters’ home is shaking as if being hit by an earthquake; it transpires its foundations are being undermined by badly regulated builders. It’s a bravura sequence, much of it is shot in one take. This metaphor extends from the shaky foundations of Iranian society to the wobbling marriage of the protagonists Rana and Emad, played superbly by Farhadi regulars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini (who won an award at Cannes).

The couple are also playing in an am-dram production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; the initially confusing mise en scene of the title sequence is found to be the construction of the set for the play. Miller’s play about the disillusionment, of an average Joe, with the American dream is intended to cast light on Emad in particular, a teacher who is playing the salesman. Some have found this heavy handed (see The Guardian’s Bradshaw); I wonder about the insistence on the importance of subtlety. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting the audience thinking but it isn’t a necessary signifier of ‘great art’. Farhadi is a melodramatist and over-determination is an essential tool of the genre. Maybe Bradshaw, and his ilk, are mainly interested in art for what it says about their ability to ‘read’ difficult texts. If it’s too easy then they can’t shine.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ by outlining what the narrative ‘hole’ motivates but an unravelling proceeds. There is more than enough subtlety in the changing vectors of the relationships between the characters to satisfy, I think, anyone who likes thought-provoking cinema. Farhadi is a melodramatist but that doesn’t mean he’s making EastEnders (a UK soap opera).

It’s a film, I suspect, that will reward a second viewing. I’d particularly like to experience the beautiful use of colour of the set of Miller’s work, to emphasise the artifice of the play, which is combined with unsettling moments when it isn’t clear whether the characters were in character or not.

Farhadi’s a top director; something the Academy Awards have celebrated for the second time as he was the guy who wouldn’t have been able to attend the Oscar ceremony because of Trump’s ban. Farhadi’s humanism transcends Iranian culture which is why he’s an arthouse favourite in the west (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t do culture).

Hidden Figures (US, 2016)

Amazing women

I mentioned in the posting about Moonlight that the Academy’s guilt about last year’s blatant disrespect toward films focusing on African Americans has been addressed this year. Hidden Figures, and that must be the best pun in any film title from last year, uncovers (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book) the role of African American women in NASA’s 1960s space programme. When I heard of the film I was gobsmacked that black, females had such an important role and I hadn’t heard of it. Then I woke up and remembered how discriminatory the ‘60s were.

The film’s to be celebrated in telling a great story, in a similar way to United Kingdom, uncovering historic challenges to racism that had been erased from mainstream history. The women’s fight is superbly told, easing much detail fluidly into a dynamic narrative; very Hollywood. Also Hollywood is its ‘based on a true story’ looseness with the facts. For example, the first black NASA supervisor attained the position in 1948 not the early ‘60s of the film. The ‘based on a true story’ statement during the credits is, as always, a warning we are not watching history. I’m relaxed about such ‘distortions’ as they don’t obscure an essential truth about the dual-struggle, as women and as part of an ethnic minority, these women experienced. However, although wonderfully dramatic, (spoiler ahead) the scene were the Al Harrison, essentially in charge of space travel calculations, smashes a ‘coloreds only’ toilet sign in disgust is apparently fictional. So what’s the purpose of that scene?

Hollywood has a tradition of filtering black emancipation narratives, such as Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), through a white perspective and although this film is resolutely from the women’s points of view, primarily Taraji P Henson’s Katherine G Johnson, the Harrison character offers a point of identity for those in the audience who cannot allow themselves simply to root for the women. The fact that he is charismatically played by Kevin Costner adds heft to white dispensed justice. Kirsten Dunst’s character, unremittingly polite and racist throughout, is also given a redeeming coda; as is the superbly cast Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory). In the latter cases it could be argued that they represent how previously racist individuals, when they come into contact with African-Americans, learn the error of their ways.

The film occupies similar territory to The Help (US-India-UAE, 2011), which was filtered through a white protagonist, though that film was making the point that oppressed minorities need the help of majority members in their fight for justice. I’ve just noticed a viral video of straight men holding hands, in the Netherlands, as a statement against homophobia; a powerful way of marginalising hatred.

Hidden Figures, in the centrality of the black women, and the fact the story is true, is so powerful in its condemnation of racism that I’ll forgive the narrative transgression involving Harrison. It’s interesting that it was distributed via Fox 2000, the Hollywood major studio’s more ‘indie’ distributor. Clearly executives didn’t have a lot of faith in the film’s commercial prospects; I wonder if its $150m plus take in North America alone will alter their thinking about minority stories?

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China, 2013)

Style and substance

I’ll try to ignore the mauling this film has probably been given by Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ (aka Weinstein), in order to make the film commercial, as I’ve only seen the cut version which is 25 minutes shorter than the original. The grandmaster is Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee; I imagine the three Ip Man films (Hong Kong-China, 2008, 2010, 2015) are more straightforward biopics than this Wong Kar Wei production. Wong, as is his wont, focuses on the philosophical, interior lives of his characters which is communicated through an often elliptical voice over. It matters little to Wong whether the protagonist is a cop (Chungking Express, 1994) or a gangster (Fallen Angels, 1995), the almost stream of consciousness commentary we hear is what drives his films. Plus, philosophy and kung fu are ready bedfellows, so although The Grandmaster eschews Confucius (at least I think it does), there’s plenty to think about.

Another link to Wong’s oeuvre is the casting of the great Tony Chui-Wai Leung who, I imagine, is Wong’s alter ego. This is not to say that Wong wanted to be Ip Man.

The great Tony Chui-Wai Leung

Wong’s early indie movies with which he made an impact on the west (to whom he was introduced as ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ – a form of patronising colonialism) make it somewhat surprising that he should delve into action cinema. He had done so with the wuxia Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk, Hong Kong-Taiwan, 1994), given the ‘redux’ (whatever that means) treatment in 2008 but there (I’m talking about the original as I haven’t seen the update) the action was rarefied to sort of appear to happen off screen. What I mean to say is I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

I’m wasn’t sure what was going on all time in The Grandmaster however the action is straightforwardly staged by Yuen Woo-ping (who also coordinated the stunts and fights on Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (US, 1994) with stunning production design by  Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. ‘Straightforward’ doesn’t cover it for the mise en scene and balletic movements are absolutely spectacular; the sequences are on a par with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-Hong Kong, 2002). Hero has Leung in common, as well as the Weinstein’s marketing muscle that helped make that film a worldwide hit. Leung apparently broke his arms three times during shooting of Grandmaster; the man is (nearly) my age! Zhang Ziyi graces both films and her fight scenes are the film’s highlights; once with Leung, which is more of a tango, and in the climactic battle on a station platform with a train barrelling through.

It was an expensive film to make and did reasonable worldwide box office but, unsurprisingly, it’s not simply a commercial film; hence Weinstein’s cutting. This version is presented as ‘Martin Scorsese’ presents and it’s disappointing that the doyen of American indie-art cinema should lend his name to cultural vandalism. At least Tarantino was genuinely trying to find a wider audience for a cinema neglected by many in the west at that time.

I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2008), Wong’s English-language US set melodrama but found 2046 (Hong Kong-China, 2004) too dense; that was the sequel to what’s widely regarded his greatest film, In the Mood for Love (Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong-China, 2004), another beautiful looking film that I found frustrating (I’m sure that’s my fault and not the film’s).

Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.