Zama, (Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Dominican Republic-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Switzerland-USA-Portugal-Lebanon, 2017)

Wishing he weren’t there

Coincidentally just after Monos I’ve found myself landed with another Latin American-set ‘hallucinatory’ film. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a corregidor (colonial administrator), is desperate to get back to his family; I assumed they were in Spain but reviews suggest they are in Buenos Aires. I think I can’t be blamed for my uncertainty because the film presents its narrative information tangentially; details aren’t clearly explained. Although he appears to be of European stock (he could be mixed race), he was born in the Americas and doesn’t feel he belongs in the outpost he’s duty-bound to look after. He petitions the Governor to write a letter to the King (of Spain) on his behalf but as the latter points out, the King always ignores the first and a second will be required… in two years time. Writer-director Lucretia Martel (based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel), in her first fiction film since The Headless Womandoesn’t spell out detail; like Zama we have to negotiate our way through the world of the film. In one scene, when Zama is pleading with the Governor, a lama appears, unnoticed by him, at his side; it’s a surreal touch suggesting it is a place that neither he nor we can comprehend. As Lola Dueñas’ character tells Cacho, ‘Europe is best remembered by people who have never been there’; place is as much myth as reality.

Surreal reality

Martel used a similar technique in The Headless Woman, where the uncertainty was narratively motivated by the bang on the head the protagonist receives at the start. In Zama the incomprehension is stimulated by the setting: whilst colonists can subjugate peoples and land, they cannot control the place that they don’t really know. The natives are barely characters in the film, they go about their work in the background, tolerating the  invaders. At the start, Zama is caught spying on naked native women covering themselves with mud; one protests and he beats her for her troubles. In a nutshell, the colonial power relationship is portrayed. This marginalisation, which in, say, the colonial set films of classical Hollywood was racist, here is a portrayal of the realpolitik.

The pursuit of the legendary-mythical bandit that fills the final third of the film reminded me of Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha’s similarly hallucinatory film set in Brazil’s sertão. When the bandit, Vicuña Porto, is found there’s no certainty that he is actually who he says he is. As Porto says, ‘it is only a name’. It’s striking that the actor I thought was playing the character who might be Porto is different to the one, Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele, who’s listed in the imdb credits as possibly being him. The gang’s desperation to find the jewel-filled coconuts reminded me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre… maybe there is something about Latin America…

Martel gets great performances from the cast; Cacho and Lola Dueñas, as the flirt he longs for, are particularly good. And Martel is one of the most interesting directors around; there’s nothing wrong with being made to work for your pleasure.

Monos (Colombia-Argentina-Netherlands-Germany-Sweden-Uruguay-USA-Switzerland-Denmark, 2019)

On the edge

Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.

Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.

Hearts of darkness

The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.

It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.

Loveless (Nelyubov (Russia-France-Germany-Belgium, 2017)

Haunting absence

I found Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first film, The Return, absolutely gripping but, despite the critical plaudits, Leviathan (Leviafan, Russia, 2014) left me cold (I probably need to see it again). It also failed to impress the Russian Minster for Culture as it wasn’t patriotic enough so Loveless turned to European money to be made. Whilst Loveless doesn’t match The Return, it is a gripping and beautiful film; the beauty is rather austere deriving from its compositions and bleak winter landscapes. It concerns a divorcing couple whose 12-year-old son is seen to be an impediment to the new lives they plan to pursue.

Some critics (for example, the Sight & Sound review) complained about what they saw as heavy-handed symbolism; and even Jonathan Romney, who is sympathetic to the film, argued that the use of mobile phones and laptops as signifiers of modern alienation is clichéd (both March 2018). While Zvyagintsev is not a realist filmmaker he does situate his films in particular times and places (most of the action takes place in a Moscow suburb in 2012) and so if his characters are umbilically linked to their computer technology it is difficult not to show it. The sugar-rush of notifications and messages have addicted a fair proportion of humanity it seems and a film about alienation would struggle not include this technology.

I liked the film but it rarely seemed to transcend the characters’ banality (not a criticism). There are a few virtuoso moments when we see altruistic volunteers (who actually exist, they help people find missing persons as the police are able to do little) seek the missing son: an abandoned and decrepit Soviet-era swimming pool and a massive military satellite dish loom out of the woods. Misinformation features in news reports, about the end of the world and the war in Ukraine, showing Russia suffers similar news problems to our own.

The performances, particularly Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin as the rotting couple, are excellent; Rozin also appeared in Zvyagintsev’s Elena (Russia, 2011), which I enjoyed. Loveless features more explicit sex than I’ve seen in any Russian film (maybe I’ve not been watching the right ones!) and it not shot voyeuristically but as another signifier of decadence (in the sense that the result of sex, the son, is neglected).

Romney also suggests that arthouse films no longer appeal to a younger generation that have grown up in the postmodern world of accelerated imagery. Although that is a statement of fogeyism, it may be true. Box office for arthouse films, that is those that are self-consciously portentous, is rapidly diminishing suggesting that bourgeois tastes have migrated to something else; it doesn’t matter what it is, just that it be fashionable.

High Life (UK-France-Germany-Poland-US, 2018)

Life sentence

It’s difficult to write about Claire Denis’ latest film after just one viewing not because it is particularly dense, and so hard work to watch, but its rich allusiveness and elliptical narrative offer more questions than answers. As the Sight & Sound reviewer points out, the first English-language films of arthouse directors can lead to simplification; not in Denis’ case.

Arthouse science fiction immediately brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972) and there’s no doubt that it was in Denis’ mind when making High Life. In the former, an alien sentient ocean learns about humanity by bringing back to life loved ones; in the latter, life sentence prisoners are sent on an interstellar voyage to harness energy from black holes (Silent Running, US 1972, 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK 1968, are other references). The similarity between the films, apart from the standard SF trope of investigating what it means to be human, is in the mise en scene of the spaceship corridors and the flashbacks to wet and wooded Earth. Although not as dense as Tarkovsky’s film, Denis’ refuses to offer easy understanding as we are given little information about characters’ motivations; even though there is an intermittent voiceover from Robert Pattinson’s protagonist, Monte. We probably learn most about Juliette Binoche’s diabolical Dr Dibs who is determined that procreation will happen, in an unorthodox fashion, during the voyage.

Even if you struggle somewhat, as I did, with the narrative there is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous cinematography to revel in and Olafur Eliasson is cited in the production design; he was responsible for the awesome Tate Turbine Hall installation, Weather Project. The manifestation of a black hole is memorable if a little off-putting as the blackness surrounding the cinema screen was darker than the hole itself. However, although Denis consulted scientists when writing the script, it’s clear (in one scene particularly) that the needs of art over-ride the laws of physics (which is as it should be).

Elliasson’s Weather Project

Am I clearer about what it means to be human after seeing the film? I’m not sure because the choice of characters as ‘lifers’, some of whom live on the feral end of the spectrum, skews the sample; though Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny exudes humanity. Monte himself if something of an enigma and as such is superbly played by Pattinson; an actor to be praised for his choice of material when he could have been a ‘matinee idol’. What I am sure about is the haunting quality of the film, in part due to Stuart Staples’ score, because I’m interested to see if I can understand more about the film (and so about life) and to enjoy the startling imagery again.

It’s worth noting that ‘babies in space’ is an unusual representation and the opening of the film focuses on  Monte with a child. They are affecting scenes that emphasise human bonding even when the technological interface is paramount, as it is in a spaceship.

Maborosi (Japan, 1995)

Darkness at noon

Kore-eda Hirokazu has been a very late discovery for me and I feel like a teenager having so many great unseen films available to me. Maborosi, which can be loosely translated at ‘vision’ or ‘illusion’, was his first fiction film but it is the work of a fully fledged genius. The Japanese title, ‘Phantom Light’, is better as it refers to a key idea at the end of the film as well as drawing attention to the cinematography, which is often working in very low light levels. In once scene, the protagonist Yumiko (debutant Esumi Makiko) sits in a bus shelter barely visible; the shot is a metaphor for how she feels when trying to deal with the apparent suicide of her husband.

Despite the gloom, many of the images are painterly whether it’s a weathered postbox or a window opened out onto the sea. Despite its slow pace there is so much to think about. At one point, when Yumiko is painstakingly scrubbing steps, I wondered why Kore-eda was showing the scene in such detail; then she bows her head in existential distress and it’s clear why.

Peter Bradshaw noted the absence of close-ups for the first part of the film; in addition, Kore-eda uses a long lens to force the perspective in many shots which gives an expressionist feel to the mise en scene. So despite the slow pace and portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life the film is weighted with symbolism. For example, the image below is the last shot of the film and its meaning is whatever the audience thinks in the context of what’s gone before. Proper arthouse filmmaking.

Symbolism?

The screenplay’s by Ogita Yoshihisa, based on Miyamoto Teru’s novel, but what became characteristic Kore-eda is present in terms of the visual style, particularly the tatami mat level shots, and his marvellous use of children. Overwhelmingly in his work there is a humanist perspective that delves into what is important in life. As the film reaches a climax we see a funeral procession in extreme long shot, framed against the sea. It is an extraordinary image and scene that has the bleakness of Bergman but Kore-eda is more optimistic.

Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

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.