Monsoon (UK, 2019) – LFF2

Seeking identity

I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.

Like LiltingMonsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.

Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.

Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.

Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.

Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.

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The Levelling (UK, 2016)

It’s grim in the countryside

During the British New Wave of the late-fifties and early-sixties, ‘it’s grim up north’ was something of a trope; three recent fiction films suggest tough lives are now in the countryside. The Levelling follows God’s Own Country and Dark River (both UK, 2017) in representing traumatic lives on farms. The latter two are set ‘up north’, in Yorkshire; whilst the film under discussion is on the Somerset ‘levels’. I enjoyed the three films all of which deal with repression of some kind: sexuality, sexual abuse and male stoicism. It is the latter in The Levelling.

Ellie Kendrick (above) plays Clover, a trainee vet, who returns home after the suicide of her brother. Her blustering dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), matter-of-factly tries to deal with what’s happening whilst ‘in denial’. Slowly, Clover’s doggedness uncovers the events that led to her brother’s death. Both actors are superb.

The film is writer-director Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature and superbly done it is. She cites the Darndennes brothers as an influence and early on the handheld camera follows Clover through the farm; my heart sank at this, my least favourite shot, though one the Dardennes have used effectively, but it doesn’t overstay its ‘welcome’. Leach captures the grimness, and the lack of sentimentality, of life on an economically challenged farm well. Dark River highlighted more the difficulties of making farming pay other than through ‘industrialisation’. However, all three films are melodrama so any politics is worked through the personal rather than looking at the macro issues of society. That said, God’s Own Country does include a scene in a local pub emphasising the hostility of some toward migrants.

Another recent film also dealt with the countryside, though in documentary form, was Paul Wright’s Arcadia (UK, 2017). Wright used ‘found footage’ to create a poetic montage of the changing attitudes towards nature in Britain. There’s some striking footage: a single black child in a school; a ’60s vox pop where the speaker claims he doesn’t care if birds disappear; a trippy hippy who says he loves ‘everyone’. As is the way of the form, it’s difficult to isolate the film’s ‘preferred reading’ (what it’s trying to say) but the impression I got was the countryside is a place where urban inhibitions can be shed (that’s probably a townie’s reading).

God’s Own Country achieved respectable box office in the UK for a low budget film, but most of the film-watching population will not have seen any of the four. Hence although all four films interrogate our relationship with nature they are unlikely to affect the zeitgeist. With global warming, looming Brexit and increasing urbanisation, it is important we (specifically in the UK but everywhere is affected) understand the natural world in 2019, so congratulations to all the filmmakers for speaking about our place and time.

On Dangerous Ground (US, 1951)

The dark soul of noir

Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a brilliant hybrid noir-melodrama where the join between the genres is obvious. The first part of the film takes place in the darkness of the city as Robert Ryan’s troubled cop, Jim Wilson, beats the shit out of ‘pond life’ is followed by a snowy landscape and the blind Mary (Ida Lupino) who may redeem him. Ryan is his usual volcanic self; even when he’s calm an explosion is in the offing. Lupino’s role is a difficult one to pull off; trying to be not sympathetic just because she is blind. Ward Bond,  a right-winger is perfectly cast by left-winger Ray, is the gun-toting vigilante seeking vengeance for his daughter’s death. They are all excellent.

George E Diskant’s cinematography is brilliant: capturing the ink black darkness of the city streets and the almost white-out of snow covered landscape. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, in his biography of Ray, some of the camerawork is handheld. It certainly looked like that in one scene of a beating being meted out by Wilson’s fractured psyche; that must have taken some doing with the heavy cameras. The score is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best so no superlatives need to be used in describing it.

I first saw the film, under the late Victor Perkins’ tutelage, at Warwick University in 1980 and remember thinking the ending ‘corny’. Apparently Lupino and Ryan improvised the final scene, not finding the scripted (by Ray and AI Bezzerides) return of Jim to the city satisfactory. Although it seems to reconcile the two, Ray’s final shot is of a snowbound landscape suggesting that all may not be well.

The antithesis of noir setting

Bezzerides also scripted Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the grimmest of noirs, and On Dangerous Ground dips into the same territory: the ‘under-age’ prostitute (top pic) ejected from the bar by Wilson is seen to be followed out by a man; utilising the code of dissolve/cigarette smoking, Wilson has sex with an informant who is later beaten up for her troubles. There’s a superb opening sequence of Wilson’s ‘team’ preparing for work: two have loving families whilst he lives alone. Ed Begley has a telling cameo as the police Captain who’s more concerned about the quality of his breakfast than on-going investigations.

Ray struggled in the constraints of Hollywood; his career started as the industry started its slow decline which, arguably, is still going on (not financially) but artistically with its over-reliance of remakes and sequels (although the North American box office is creaking under the heap of banality). Ray’s films crop up on television with some regularity but The Lusty Men (1952) is nowhere to be seen.

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland, 1975)

Capitalists on the make

I saw the 140 minute release of The Promised Land, it was originally three hours but Polish TV broadcast an eight-part version in one hour episodes; a bit like the reworking of the first two Godfather films I imagine. It is certainly a film of epic scope, based on a classic Polish novel by Władysław Stanisław Reymont, detailing the febrile atmosphere in Łódź in the latter years of the 19th century. Karol, Moryc and Maks are, respectively, Polish, Jewish and German friends who are determined to build a cotton factory. Given a number of mills are being burned down for insurance purposes at the time, this is a dicey undertaking.

I must admit to struggling to follow the narrative in some parts. It covers a number of years, but it wasn’t clear how many, and eschews straightforward characterisation; I’m not sure if Moryc was at some points conspiring against his friends and Karol’s infatuation with a married woman is not entirely convincing. However, this is an Andrzej Wadja film and the direction is often stupendous as is the art direction by Andrzej Halinsk; the use of colour is often stunning. As is the setting; Łódź, Wadja discovered when making the film despite having been a student in the city, retained many of its old factories and the scenes in the mill, with the looms, have a documentary quality (see below). Tonally, though, the film is varied and melodrama crops up throughout, particularly toward the end. I’ve nothing against melodrama, but the mix with the sometimes elliptic narrative, and realism of the factory scenes, is somewhat uneasy. Very uneasy is the characterisation of the Jewish money lenders. Apparently the film was accused of anti-semitism in America when it was nominated for an Oscar though the accusation was articulated, at a press conference, by someone who hadn’t seen the film. I doubt Wadja was anti-semitic as the money-grubbing isn’t limited to Jews in the film; indeed it is Karol, a son of a Polish aristocrat, who is seen as the most corrupt in the devastating ending of the film.

Looming disaster

The comparison to The Godfather is also relevant given the three are characterised as gangsters on some occasions. The scene where Moryc faces down the money lender emphasises this as we watch him prepare for the meeting by choosing carefully his clothes; particularly his hat. At the end of the scene he winks at the camera.

A lot is packed into the film, maybe the three hour version would make the narrative clearer, and it would no doubt reward a second viewing.

Phoenix (Germany-Poland, 2014)

Doppelgänger?

I’m sorry I missed this in cinemas as, after (for me) the disappointing Barbara (Germany, 2012), it was a return to the brilliance of Yella. In addition, the ghost of Fassbinder haunts the mise en scene and performance style, which can only be a good thing. The ‘phoenix’ is Nelly/Esther (Nina Hoss) who returns to a highly-stylised, rubble-strewn Berlin after World War II, and tries to pick up the pieces of her life. While the plot strains credulity, she’s no longer recognized after surgery, that matters not at all as the symbolic nature of the narrative is carried with great dexterity.

The ‘phoenix’ is also a nightclub shot in a lurid red that Fassbinder would have celebrated. Shades on pre-Nazi cabaret Berlin are also haunting the time and place. Hans Fromm’s cinematography emphasises the noir mood and The Third Man also looms in the shadows amongst the bombed-out sites.

Hoss isn’t a performer I warm too but she is absolutely perfect in this role. Hoss’ ‘not quite thereness’ suits Nelly/Esther’s character whose trauma, that of concentration camp victims, fundamentally altered her psyche. If her motivation, in seeking her lost husband, seems a tad unconvincing at the start, as we learn more about her (and his) circumstance the narrative makes perfect sense. It also has an absolutely brilliant ending.

It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde, Canada-France, 2016)

Boiling point melodrama

I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.

He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.

If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

Unkind loving?

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

‘…there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies–but she should know by now, without needing duendes to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person–not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person–whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.’

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women a ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.