Burning (Beoning , South Korea, 2018)

Twilight youth

This is the first Lee Chang-dong (he directed and co-wrote) film I’ve seen so I’ve obviously been missing out. It’s a slow burner that trades in ambiguity on many levels. If your protagonist, Jong-su played by Yoo Ah-in, is a writer (even if he doesn’t know what he wants to write about) the possibilities of a meta-fiction are raised, particularly when it’s based on a Murakami Haruki short story, itself based on William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. Faulkner’s Jong-su’s favourite writer and if it sounds like we may dealing with postmodern stupidity then I’ve misled you. Lee’s film is resolutely political as it deals with the travails and three youngster’s suffering, like many millennials because of globalisation, from ennui well before their time.

One of the characters, Ben played by Steven Yuen known particularly for The Walking Dead (US, 2010-), is rich and runs a Porsche. The source of his riches remains unexplained as does the exact nature of his relationship with Haemi (debutant Jun Jong-seo), the free-spirited young woman who seduces Jong-su at the start of the film. Being ‘free-spirited’ requires, apparently, dancing topless in front of the young men though the way it is shot is certainly more spiritual and sexual. Possibly to mitigate the potential sexism of the scene, there’s a brief conversation with another young woman who bemoans South Korean society’s vilification of females who are always ‘too much one thing and not enough of the other’. However, despite the fact Haemi has more ‘go’ than the men about her as she seeks the Great Hunger (the meaning of life), she is less the focus than Jong-su and Ben; boys’ stories apparently being more important.

The film doesn’t praise men but interrogates tangentially their existential angst: Ben is an empty shell surrounded by affluence; Jong-su has nowhere to go having been effectively abandoned by his parents and unable to parlay his creative writing degree into a career. In one scene he’s being interviewed for a job with six others and they are referred to as numbers; no wonder he walks away.

Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is great: I’ve never seen desiccated plastic look so good (one of Ben’s apparent pass times is burning dilapidated greenhouses) as is the music; it includes Miles Davis’ for Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, France, 1958) when Haemi dances at twilight. I say ‘apparent’ because this may be an example of Ben’s braggadocio; he also claims he has superior DNA so never gets ill. This sounds big headed until we find he’s talking to his mum and so could simply be playfulness.

The 148 minute running time doesn’t drag and although the film’s cerebral it’s not difficult. Despite feeling slightly uncomfortable with the trope of ‘the female as a catalyst that helps men to understand themselves’, that doesn’t compromise the film. Haemi reminded me of the character Meimei/Moudan in Suzhou River (Suzhou he, Germany-China-France, 2000), which was a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo to which the Sight and Sound reviewer compares Burning. The film is allusive as well as elusive. The way these men ‘find themselves’ is not American style ‘self discovery’ but one that’s entirely in keeping with the mess humanity has got itself in by worshiping the god of profit – capitalism.

I always try and avoid spoilers in my posts and so won’t deal with the ambiguity mentioned at the start. There are plenty of what might be half-trues throughout the film and my reading is Lee is emphasising that, in life, if we think we know what we are doing, or what’s going on, then we are, at least in part, deluding ourselves. Like capitalism, bourgeois ideology trades in certainty; hence it cannot deal with the trauma of climate change which repudiates its basic principle of economic expansion. We would all be better off assuming we might not know what we’re doing rather than determinedly charging down a path that might lead to self-destruction. Many on the right accuse millennials of being ‘snowflakes’ to ensure older folk don’t need to feel guilty about the mess we’ve made of the world. They would do better to look in a mirror and consider themselves without certainty.

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The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, West Germany-Austria, 1972)

A particularly German angst

For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.

Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.

Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass , Iran-France, 1997)

Let me out!

The Favourite continues to be a favourite with critics and audiences (in the UK at least) and I thought it was terrible. The winner of Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or should be a guarantor of quality but (for me) Abbas Kiarostami’s joint winner is an unfunny joke of a movie (The Guardian’s Bradshaw places it as his second best winner).

The film’s narrative, a man (Homayoun Ershadi) is on the verge of suicide, is certainly not funny and he trails around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him. The rather interminable driving around asking strangers to help him doesn’t bother me and some of the performances are excellent; particularly the young soldier played by, like most of the cast, an amateur. Apparently when the car’s passengers are being filmed the driver was Kiarostami himself and much of the film is improvised.

A treatise on the meaning of life is fair game for an arthouse film and I’m not necessarily expecting any particularly profound answer but when you find yourself wishing the protagonist would hurry up and do himself in something has gone seriously awry. Possibly my critical faculties have gone wonky; due to illness I’ve already seen 24 films this year including the five-hour plus Happy Hour. However, I’m not alone in thinking this film is a betrayal of the contract between filmmaker and audience – which I believe should be one of ‘good faith’. The ‘betrayal’ here is that Kiarostami seems to me to be trying to conjure a film out of nothing and even though he fails to do so he still takes it to Cannes. His appearance at the festival was in doubt until the last moment because the Iranian authorities were suspicious of his motives and he arrived to a standing ovation. Of course it is right to celebrate filmmakers working in oppressive circumstances but give him a Palme d’Or!?

I may be overstating the case as I was intrigued throughout most of the film but, as is often the case for arthouse cinema, the ‘payoff’ at the ending is key to giving focus to what we’ve seen (and sometimes endured). Here Kiarostami gives us his film crew calling a wrap. I remember as a kid being told not to end stories with ‘it was only a dream’ and for him to tell his audiences ‘it was only a film’…

I’m not anti-Kiarostami, I thought The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1999) was great, but save me from Taste of Cherry. Spoiler: I’ll save you, that is the ‘profound statement’: ‘life is worth living because of the taste of cherry’.

The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci), Turkey-Republic of Macedonia-France-Germany-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Bulgaria-Sweden, 2018)

Wrapped up in yourself

I’m totally out of step with the critical consensus on this one, although I don’t resent the 188 minutes I spent watching it, the overall affect upon me was one of torpor. That wasn’t a result of the film’s slow pace but by the long conversations that pepper the film and the suspicion that Nuri Blige Ceylan thinks the positive outweighs the negative in the self-serving male characters.

There are three ‘set piece’ long conversations that the protagonist, Sinan, has when he returns to a rural backwater after graduation. They are with: a female friend from school; a successful writer who Sinan apparently hopes to emulate; two imams. It’s difficult to make long conversations visually interesting and for the religious discussion (apparently this lasts 20 minutes) Ceylan resorts to a walk down a hill with numerous long shots and I often didn’t know which of the three was speaking. In addition, subtitles are a huge disadvantage in a wordy film as too long is spent looking at the bottom of the screen. The discussions were interesting but maybe they better belong in a novel.

Thematically the film’s similar to, Geoff Andrew tells us in Sight & Sound, Ceylan’s early films; I certainly recognised the protagonist’s alienation from Uzak (Turkey, 2002). Initially I was sympathetic to the student returning home to Çan, a place that has little for him, from Çanakkale, where he studied. It’s clear he hadn’t been home for some time which was somewhat puzzling as the journey time was only 90 minutes; presumably this emphasised how much he hated Çan (I don’t know how long it takes to graduate in Turkey). Solipsism in youth is to be forgiven but not in Sinan’s dad who spends his family’s money gambling. He’s meant to be a ‘loveable rogue’ though he’s merely contemptible. Ceylan states he likes complex characters, who have good and bad points; I could only see the negative in the dad.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, however the director stated he was less interested in beauty and often used a small Osmo camera for portability, sacrificing image quality. There are a fair number of shots were we plod behind the protagonist; this seems to me to be lazy filmmaking. The Dardennes brothers used it throughout (as I remember) Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) where it had cumulative power. Presumably the device is intended to aid identification with the protagonist but looking at his back and glimpsing surroundings is not particularly cinematic.

I loved Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and have yet to see Winter Sleep (Turkey-France-Germany, 2014), so The Wild Pear Tree seems to me to be a step back rather than a development in Ceylan’s filmmaking. It must be hard continuing to make ‘deeply personal’ filmmaking which focuses on the merely autobiographical (the character of the dad is based on co-scriptwriter’s Akin Aksu’s). Occasionally the political inserts its head into the film, a local major’s paean to democracy is clearly a dig at Erdoğan and Sinan chats to a friend who is a riot cop; they are the most interesting scenes.

A plea to cinemas screening extremely long films: reduce the puffs, trailers and adverts. The extra 25 minutes added greatly to the pain in my arse.

The Other Side of the Wind (Iran-France-US, 2018)

What to make of it?

An Orson Welles film over 40 years in the making (he’s been dead for over 30 of them), The Other Side of the Wind is an extraordinary gasp of a great filmmaker from beyond the grave. Of course it’s unclear how much of the film is Welles’, though he’d edited 42 minutes, it fell to Bob Murawski to put it together with the help of many and, crucially, Netflix’s investment. Netflix is a villain (it’s difficult to see Roma in cinemas in the UK and no doubt in most places) but a hero in the case of Welles’ final breath.

I watched the film knowing little about its content and it’s both easy to watch, the visuals and editing are often outstanding, and difficult to follow. I shall have to see it again having now ‘done the reading’. John Huston, in brilliant form, is playing a Welles-like character (though significantly Welles distances himself by not playing the role) of a director returning to Los Angeles, after making movies in Europe, and is trying to get funding to finish his film. What could be a postmodern conceit is elevated by the artistry; there’s no doubting that, even though stylistically the film is very different from his other work, the director is a genius. So we should take it as a Welles film and applaud those who brought it to the screen.

Despite not playing the lead, the film is clearly autobiographical: Susan Strasberg plays a Pauline Kael type of critic allowing Huston’s Jake Hannaford to take verbal pot shots at her (Welles and Kael feuded) and there are some appearances by filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom, as themselves thus mixing up the real and unreal. Added to the mix is the film Hannaford is making, a parody of later Antonioni, featuring Welles’ partner (and co-screenwriter) Oja Kodar as a Native American and usually undressed. This is mixed with documentary-like footage of the party hosted by Hannaford to raise money. Peter Bogdanovich plays an up-and-coming director (as he was after The Last Picture Show, 1971) who previously hero-worshiped the director (again an autobiographical element). Some of the film is in black and white, and the aspect ratios vary, to indicate the different sources of the footage.

As I’ve said, I need to see the film again but the first viewing had enough breathtaking moments to satisfy. For example, a swirl of red dust blows across the screen to reveal Kodar’s ‘The Actress’ and Wellesian ‘cut on movement’ is evident throughout creating dynamic transitions.

As an epitaph it’s a remarkably different film from the expressionism that preceded it and so a testament to Welles’ creative vitality. It was worth the wait. (Netflix)

Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolów (Poland, 1961)

Taking the devil out of horror

Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces (as in the still above).

This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.

Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.

Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scene and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.

Eva doesn’t sleep (Eva no duerme, Argentina-Spain-France, 2015)

No rest for the good

I’m unfamiliar with writer-director Pablo Agüero’s work but shall be seeking out his films as he’s clearly got a brilliant cinematic eye. Nominally this film stars Gael García Bernal but his contribution is probably no more than a day’s work and a boost to the film’s financing. Another well known international actor, Denis Levant, has a meatier role as the Colonel who’s transporting Eva Perón’s corpse after the coup d’état in 1955.

The film investigates, tangentially, the mythic status of Eva Perón in Argentina in a few highly stylised scenes. Iván Gierasinchuk’s brilliant cinematography, often looking almost monochrome, gives a mythic edge to the mise en scene. Agüero’s often static camera observes conversations between: Perón’s embalmer and a cleaner (representative of those Perón championed); the Colonel and a Private (resulting in a stunningly choreographed fight); the kidnappers of the General, who became President after Juan Perón, and their prisoner. The action covers 25 years and is framed by Bernal’s Admiral who represents the military Establishment’s hatred of Eva.

As someone unfamiliar with Argentinean history the film, though certainly not a lesson, was enlightening. However the most striking aspect was the Agüero’s presentation of a fascinating story. It reminded me of Death and the Maiden (UK-France-US, 1994) based on Ariel Dorfman’s play (and directed by Roman Polanksi), though the latter is far less visually stylised. (Netflix)