Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…
Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).
Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.
Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.
Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.
A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.
Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906