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.

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).

Girlhood (Bande de filles, France, 2014)

Group therapy

Whilst youth is hardly overlooked in cinema, female protagonists are a minority and if the colour of their skin fails to be white, then western cinema seems barely interested. Hence Girlhood is already a necessary watch given its focus on this double-minority. It’s also important, such is the burden of representation on films that focus on diversity, that they do not misrepresent. Given the writer-director is Céline Sciamma, who’s white and not from the banlieue setting, there might have been a question of authenticity. However, her first feature Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007), was also a (minority-gay) girls’ coming of age tale; her next film Tomboy (France, 2011) – which I haven’t seen – similarly focused on teenagers. The fact the film is more about being poor (financially and in education) and female than about ethnicity is appropriate as class and gender, as categories, can be at least as important than race .

That said, I’m not sure why the film didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It’s superbly done with convincing performances but maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Newcomer Karidja Touré, as Marieme, is particularly engaging as she forges her own identity through friendship under the shadow of patriarchy and an uncaring system. I found it difficult to shake La Haine (France, 1995) out of my head – a very different film from the same milieu – which is unfair to Girlhood as it wasn’t trying to be a ‘female’ version of the earlier classic.

Certainly a film worth seeing.

Ida (Poland-Denmark-France-UK, 2014)

In the bleak midwinter

It’s taken me a while to catch up with this extraordinary film and I have to berate myself for not seeing it in the cinema such is the power of the visual imagery. The image above is misleading as director Paweł Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 Academy ratio. This frame shape emphasises vertical composition and in this interview in Film Comment he suggests that the decision to tilt the camera up for many of shots was whimsical (he was bored). The effect is to leave protagonists ‘drowning’ in the bottom of the frame, oppressed by what’s above them; often the ‘big sky’ seen above.

Ida (debutant Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent by Mother Superior to her remaining family, an estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza brilliant), before taking her vows. Reluctantly Ida finds herself investigating her Jewishness and Polish collaboration with the Nazis; the film is set in 1961. This portentous theme is dealt with fairly matter of factly though when her family are dug up in an unmarked grave the anti-drama mise en scene finds itself ‘compromised’ for a moment. By this I mean, Pawlikowski’s restrained aesthetics, such as little camera movement and non diegetic music, allow the drama to play out with seemingly little comment from himself.

It’s only Pawlikowski’s third feature in 15 years; it’s wrong to think of him as anti-commercial but he is uncompromising in his vision. The fabulous ‘look’ (ironically it’s a drained out black and white) of the film almost makes it appear as if was made in the time it was set although the unconventional framing mentioned above means it avoids pastiche. Polish cinema at this time was awash with brilliance and the young saxophonist that Ida meets reminds me of the great Zbigniew Cybulski (see for example Ashes and Diamonds). So it’s an unusual experience watching Ida which seems at once old and new.

It’s a proper arthouse film that lets the audience think and opens a window on history.

Moonlight (US, 2016)

Moonlight shadow

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason just I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron… I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about… well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I…?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.  

Manchester by the Sea (US, 2016)

Split personalities

It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).

The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scene, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.

About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.

Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.

Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.