Look at that! Another group of films without a single one from the US. And not a bad film in the lot, either. I’m getting better at this.
Au revoir les enfants*, Louis Malle (1987, France). The Malle films I’ve watched so far – all of which were a result of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – I’ve not found that impressive. Which is not to say I’d totally written him off – after all, I might well have said the same of Claude Chabrol, but then I watched A Story of Women and Le boucher, and revised my opinion – but let’s just say my expectations were not especially high when I put Au revoir les enfants into the player. Malle appears three times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there was always a possiblity one of his films might strike my fancy, and… Au revoir les enfants did: I thought it a well-shot and well-played French movie. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical. Set at a boys’ boarding-school in 1943 in occupied France, a class tough, who wets his bed at night, wakes up and discovers one of the school’s three new pupils praying in Hebrew. The priest who runs the school is hiding Jewish children from the Germans. The two boys become friends, but then the Gestapo raid the school and take away the three boys and the priest. They were denounced by the kitchen hand, who had been fired for selling school food supplies on the black market. There’s nothing in particular about Au revoir les enfants that stands out, it’s just a well-made drama, its cast are good, and it tells a story that – in these times more than ever – needs to be told. It’s not a film that deserves to be forgotten or ignored. Recommended.
Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan (2014, China). Streaming is apparently not a total dead loss. I was looking for something to watch one night and spotted this on Amazon Prime: a recent Chinese thriller. So I gave it a go. It was excellent. When I lived in the UAE, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action films, especially Jackie Chan ones, on VCD (who remembers VCD?), but I watched very little, if anything, from mainland China. And then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made wu xia commercially successful internationally, and it was followed by a raft of historical Chinese epics / wu xia movies, the bulk of which looked absolutely gorgeous. But, of course, China’s film industry produces more than just historical epics and wu xia, and in the last couple of years I’ve seen several such films – for example, I thought Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin so good, I stuck all his other films on my rental list. Black Coal, Thin Ice reminded me a little Zhangke’s film, but it also reminded me a little of a French thriller from 2000, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers). Black Coal, Thin Ice opens with the discovery of a dismembered body at a coal plant. ID found nearby identifies the body as that of Liang, a coal worker. While apprehending a suspect, there’s a shootout and only detective Zhang and his partner Wang survive. The case is closed. The film skips ahead five years. Zhang is now a drunk, and working as a security guard. He bumps into Wang, who is still a detective, and learns that two further murders have occurred since that first one, both with the bodies dismembered. All three victims were linked to Liang’s widow Wu. Serial killer movies are nothing new, of course, and in recent years many have moved from focusing on the drama of the chase, and eventual arrest, onto the psychological effects of the investigation on those hunting the serial killer. Black Ice, Thin Ice falls firmly into the latter category, but it scores by not sensationalising its story, and by characterising Zhang as a failure from the start – it’s not the investigation which traumatises him, it was the shoot-out before they even knew they had a serial killer, when they thought they had closed the case. The cinematography is lovely, although the settings are wholly urban or industrial, and the performances low-key. Recommended.
Tokyo Story*, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan). Watching Ozu’s films is a bit like watching a long-running family drama series, except the actors play different parts, although in broad outline their characters are the same. And it’s all set within the same generation, over a fifteen year period beginning in the early 1950s. So, in Tokyo Story, Chishu Ryu, who also plays the lead in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, plays one half of a retired couple, with Chieko Higashiyama, who plays the mother in Early Summer (and in which Chishu Ryu plays, er, her oldest son), visit Tokyo to stay with their adult children. One of whom is a widow (she’s actually a daughter-in-law). Single women seem to feature heavily in Ozu’s films. It’s the daughter-in-law who spends the most time with the old couple. On their return to their home in Onomichi, they stop off to see another of their children in Osaka, where Higashiyama takes ill. When the two get back to Onomichi, Higashiyama’s illness worsens and she dies. The family gather for the funeral, but again it’s the widowed daughter-in-law who provides the most support. She points out she is less busy than the others as she has no family of her own, and so Ryu tells her she should remarry as soon as possible. If it’s not a familiar plot, it’s a familiar refrain. I’ve remarked before that Ozu’s films are very domestic, very inside, and the fact they’re chiefly family dramas is a reflection of this. And at the time Ozu was making films, it seems one of the issues which exercised family patriarchs was making good marriages for their daughters. True, this is a Japanese film, but it’s also more than sixty years old, and I suspect “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is more of an explanation of its concerns than any differences in Japanese and British culture. It also possesses bags of charm, but not because – he says, trying desperately hard to think of UK and US examples – it presents a charming lifestyle, as in, say, All That Heaven Allows (extra points for shoe-horning my favourite film into the post), or any random Rock Hudson rom com from the fifties, or The Man Who Loved Redheads, or Josephine and Men… in which the lifestyle defines the characters. In Ozu’s films, the lifestyle remains essentially unchanged from film to film, and the characters are defined by their relationships (which is good, given Ozu’s penchant for using the same actors in different roles). I first watched Tokyo Story back in 2009, long before I started using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I likely did so after seeing it praised somewhere, perhaps in Sight & Sound… At the time, I enjoyed it, but didn’t bother furhter exploring Ozu’s films. Now, however, I’m getting quite hooked on them. I don’t think I’d count Tokyo Story among my favourites by him, but it is, of course, recommended.
Faraw! (une mère de sable), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (1997, Mali). Somewhere or other I’d come across mention of ArtMattan Productions’ DVD series Great African Films, in four volumes so far, and I immediately wanted copies. But their website design seems stuck in the 1990s, and when I emailed them to ask if they’d sell copies to a buyer in the UK I never received a reply. So I ended up purchasing a copy of their first volume – which includes Faraw! (une mère de sable), from Mali, and Harumbaya, from Burkina Faso – off someone on eBay. Annoyingly, it proved to be ex-rental, but I went back and checked the seller’s description and, yes, they did mention that, I’d just missed it. Oh well. The two discs played fine, anyway. Faraw! is set in north east Mali, a desert region, where the twentieth century has made few inroads. A mother, apparently based on Ascofaré’s mother, has trouble making ends meet – her husband is an invalid and his pension is all the income they have, her daughter is rebellious, and the two young sons are more likely to cause trouble than help. In desperation, she approaches the handful of Europeans living in the village, offering the services of herself and her daughter as cleaners. But the Europeans want more from the daughter than just washing and sweeping, so the mother turns them down in disgust. She visits an ex-suitor, and he gives her a donkey. She uses this to fetch water from a spring, and then sells the water to women in and around the village, so earning enough to feed her family. The film ends with a bizarre dream sequence, in which the title character makes a triumphant entry to the village. There’s a freshness and honesty to Faraw! you no longer see in Anglophone movies. While it was obviously made on the cheap, the cast are entirely convincing in their roles (except, perhaps, the Europeans), and Aminata Ousmane – this is apparently her only film appearance – fills the screen with a fierce maternal determination that pretty much defines the movie. It was totally worth hunting down this DVD. Recommended.
12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania). I mentioned to a Romanian friend I’d been watching lots of films from various countries, so he said, of course you’ve watched some Romanian films… and I was a little bit embarrassed to realise I hadn’t. I immediately added a bunch to my rental list and this was the first one to arrive. I’ve certainly watched a film made in Romanian – East Germany’s Im Staub der Sterne was filmed partly in the country – but never an actual Romanian film. And the fact it proved to be 12:08 East of Bucharest was pure chance. It starts out a bit grim, following the life a drunk in the town of Vaslui, who can barely remember what he gets up to each night, and spends the following morning begging for a drink from his regular bar. Then he makes his way to a television studio to appear in a programme about the day 16 years before when a revolution overthrew Ceauşescu’s brutal regime. He was a teacher at the time, and he claims to have been present in the square when Ceauşescu fled the town hall. Except not everyone remembers it like that. And during the live celebration, people ring in and disagree with the teacher, and the other two panel members, over their claims to involvement in the revolution. So what starts out as grim turns blackly comic before becoming a weird sort of farce in which the three on the TV panel argue back against those who call into the television studio, insisting that the role they played during that year is true. The end result is a black comedy that is really quite funny, makes pointed commentary on Romania’s history, and remains very Romanian (I was unaccountably amused by the many mentions of Timişoreana beer). Recommended.
A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand). And yet another gem found on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what possessed me to start watching it, but I’m glad I did. It documents the attempt to rescue the Afghan Film Archives in Kabul after the depradations of the Taliban. The films are in poor condition, and not all have survived – but there are some historically important documents in there. A Flickering Truth is ambivalent toward its protagonist, Ibrehim Arif, who had been imprisoned by the Mujahideen but had fled Afghanistan to settle in Germany – and there’s a suggestion throughout the film that his projects are as much selfish as they are altruistic. It’s true that he does a great deal to rescue the archive, but he also has his critics – although whether they are motivated by the fact he fled to Germany is left to the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fascinating stuff, and the footage shown from the archives is even more fascinating. I’ve seen Osama, which gives a good indication of what life was like under the Taliban; but many people seem to have forgotten what life was like in that part of the world before Islamism rose in response to Western interference. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… these were all secular states. – until the Cold War ended and the USA decided to try its hand at foreign affairs in the Middle East. (Which is not to ignore their previous meddling, and how successful it was…) (Nor am I absolving the UK of blame, although it tended not to fuck things up as badly as the US.) (Not that that is anything to boast about…). A Flickering Truth was excellent stuff and reminded me a little of both Kandahar and the aforementioned Osama. Recommended.
1001 Films You Must See Before you Die count: 823