And another eclectic – or should that be catholic?- half-dozen films, albeit not so geographically varied as half of them are from China…
Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón (2001, Mexico). I’ve known of this film for years, and that it was highly regarded, but until I came to watch it I hadn’t realised it was by Cuarón, or that he made it after some of his better-known films. Or indeed that Cuarón was Mexican. I had thought he was Spanish. Anyway, Y Tu Mamá También is one of those back-to-basics film projects successful directors make every now and again, and which occasionally end up as the best film in their oeuvre. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true of Cuarón, although this is certainly one of his better pieces of work. Two teenagers agree to take a young woman to a beach they invented… a day or two drive south of Mexico City. Each have their reasons for making the road trip– and that’s what this is, a road trip movie. The young woman has just left her husband after learning he is having an affair. The two teenagers have the hots for her… and it turns out there is more at stake than initially seems. Surprisingly, it turns out the made-up beach actually exists, and the three spend an idyllic few days camping there. But the woman has cancer and not long to live, and when they decide to return to the city, she remains behind with a local family. I was under the impression this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but it’s not, or at least not the 2013 version, which is the one I’m using. It probably deserves to be on the list. I think it was this film which made Gael García Bernal an international star.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Henry King (1952, USA). The story from which this was adapted is generally considered to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best. I am not, I must admit, much of a Hemingway fan – or much of a fan of the many film adaptations made of his fiction. Even so, he was ill-served by this one. Gregory Peck plays a writer who is dying of a gangrenous wound while on safari. There are a couple of flashbacks explaining how he injured himself, but much of the story is in the extended flashbacks which detail the writer’s career. How he started out feeling sorry for himself, lived off his wife – Ava Gardner – in a poor quarter of Paris, became successful but then Gardner becomes an alcoholic after a miscarriage and leaves him. He takes up with a countess, but she dumps him when she realises he still loves Gardner. So he heads off to Spain to find her, gets embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, finds Gardner driving an ambulance on the front mere moments before she’s killed by an enemy shell… Back in Paris, he meets the woman he’s on safari with. Apparently, in the story he dies, but Hollywood went for the happy ending and he’s rescued in time. I can understand why people consider this one of Hemingway’s best stories – it has all his favourite things in it, well, except for bull-fighting, I don’t remember any bull-fighting but Peck spends time in Spain so maybe there was. Missable.
Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari (2016, UK). A horror film made by an Iranian director with an Iranian cast who speak Farsi and which is set in Tehran… but turns out to be a UK production filmed in Jordan? Such is the nature of twenty-first century film financing. None of which should be taken as a criticism of Under the Shadow as a film qua film. It is enormously effective. I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema and happy to slot this one in it, for all that it didn’t even get within shouting distance of the country. The story is relatively simple – a married couple with a young daughter find their flat haunted by a djinn, but the husband, who is sent away to serve on the front, is sceptical of his wife’s complaints. Once he’s away things gets worse, and it’s a battle between the woman and the evil spirit that seems to have occupied their building. For much of its length, Under the Shadow is like a domestic Iranian drama by Kiarostami or Farhadi, which is high praise indeed. But then it shifts into a horror register, and while the scares are relatively tame by current standards they’re effective – and I for one appreciate scares that are just that, scares, not gruesome dismemberings or something. Definitely worth seeing.
To My Wife, Wang Xiaolie (2012, China). So, for a variety of reasons, mainly involving an upgrade that actually made an app almost entirely useless, but such is the way of techbros and their reading too much into bad science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s (seriously, as fans of the genre we have a lot to fucking answer for), but anyway the film I’d planned to watch was unavailable. And I found myself unwilling to watch another episode of one of the many box sets my mother has lent me, so I went hunting on Amazon Prime. And found this. A solid Chinese drama that doesn’t even have a complete IMDB entry. It opens with two men about to be executed on, er, the seashore. It’s all to do with a woman and the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. The scene cuts to a young woman in a sports car on an empty road, she turns a corner out of sight, and we hear her crash. Now she’s in the past, in the years leading up to 1912, with a patron who supports the Qing dynasty and a brother and a fiancé who both support the end of the empire but in different ways. There are scenes of her after the car crash, now in a coma… But the she wakes and is discharged, and her husband is identical to the man who plays the admiral representing imperial forces in the scenes set in the past. And it all seems relatively straightforward, if somewhat confusing, with the past being a coma dream of the woman in the present, based on a testament from the time she had been reading… Except the film ends with the opening scene of the executions, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s for a film being made by the woman’s husband and starring herself. It’s an interesting historical story, but the ham-fisted attempt to make it a time-slip romance – a well-established sub-genre in written romance fiction – actually makes it a more interesting film. As far as I can determine, given it has no real IMDB entry, and there’s almost no information about it available on the English-language internet, this is not a tentpole Chinese release, and either a straight to DVD or streaming-only movie. But I thought it quite good. The cast were good, the historical scenes convincing, and if the time-slip element was a little confusing it can’t be faulted for trying. Better than expected.
Detective Chinatown, Chen Sicheng (2015, China). And after watching the above, I stumbled on this – which at least has a Wikipedia entry – and since I was in the mood for Chinese cinema, and coincidentally eating Chinese food – although that later proved less than successful but we won’t go into that – and the thing about Chinese films is not so much that they’re Chinese but that they can have a Chinese approach to well-established film genres… And so their take on them can be just as entertaining as the film’s actual story. Here we have the “reluctant buddies” movie, with an incompetent cop teamed up with a brilliant assistant to solve a crime and, for added shits and giggles, the detective is trying to solve the crime of which he has himself been accused. It’s hardly a new story, it’s pretty much a universal one in fact. In this instance, failed police academy candidate and nerd Qin Feng has been sent to visit his successful uncle Tang Ren, a top detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Except Tang is nothing of the sort, but a low-life who works for a corrupt police sergeant. Except now he’s number one suspect for the murder of a member of a gold robbery gang. And the gold is still missing. So while Tang’s incompetent police sergeant is competing with a go-getter rival to solve the crime, Tang needs to clear his name and only geeky nephew Qin can do it. The film doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a thriller, which means the thriller elements are quite good but the comedy aspects feel forced. Which is a shame because Tang, played by Wang Biaoqang, is a good comedic character – so much so, the film often feels like a vehicle for him, which it isn’t. The final twist is unexpected but doesn’t substantially alter what’s gone before. If Detective Chinatown had been made in Hollywood, it would probably be typical Hollywood product, but the fact it’s Chinese and set in Bangkok, and its plot plays on elements of Chinese culture and society, makes it much more interesting than typical Hollywood product. There was a sequel titled, obviously, Detective Chinatown 2, this time set in New York.
Blind Mountain, Li Yang (1999, China). And yet another Chinese film, but a much more serious movie than the one above. Li is often lumped in with the Sixth Generation directors, but he doesn’t include himself in the group. Certainly, the topic, and approach to filming, of Blind Mountain has elements in common with some Sixth Generation directors’ movies. It covers a serious problem in China: the kidnap of women and their sale to remote villages as wives for single men. Huang Lu is offered a job in the north of China, which she accepts as her family has debts. But when she reaches a small village in the Qin Mountains, she is held captive and told by a man she is now married to his son. When she tries to run away, they beat her and then chain her leg to the bed. Her “husband” rapes her. She tries to escape several times, but each time is caught and beaten. One time, she even makes it as far as the nearest town, but is dragged off the bus to the city by her “husband” and no one intervenes, not even the police – because it is domestic. Eventually, she gets a message out and the police arrive. But even they prove mostly powerless against the ranked villagers… With the exception of Huang, the cast are non-professionals, in fact many are villagers from the villages in the area where the film was made. There are also two version to the movie – the international release, and the Chinese government-approved version which has a much “happier” ending. (I saw the former.) There is a great deal of astonishing scenery in China – including urban scenery – and Fifth and Sixth Generation directors make excellent use of it. As does Li here. The copy I saw wasn’t a great transfer, but the landscape cinematography was stunningly beautiful in places. The performances, despite being a mostly amateur cast, are strong, and the story is certainly one that needs to be told. Blind Mountain is the second in a loose trilogy. I’ve not seen the first, Blind Shaft, but I now plan to. And the third film, Blind Way, was supposed to be released last year but doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through or streaming yet. Li Yang is definitely a director whose career is worth following.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933