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Movie roundup 2020, #21

I found season 18 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on Amazon Prime… and had forgotten how grim and depressing it was. And how its dialogue was written so explicitly to make a specific point. True, it made many important points – for example, New York apparently doesn’t consider “sex under false pretences” as rape, unlike civilised countries, or at least it didn’t in 2016. But forcing characters to say or do things that appear out of character purely in service to a point gets really annoying after a while.

I did try watching Welcome to Sweden, a sitcom by and starring Greg Poehler, brother of Amy Poehler (no idea who the fuck she is), based partly on his own personal experiences. Basically, accountant to celebs in US jacks in job and moves to Sweden to be with Swedish girlfriend. Before the first episode had even finished, it had hit all the major clichés. It was sort of interesting watching a bi-lingual series and following both languages, but the comedy was so bad and the treatment of Swedish culture so cack-handed, it was embarrassing. Avoid.

Films…

Portrait of a Soldier, Marianna Bukowski (2015, UK). A documentary about female soldiers in Warsaw during WWII. It’s mostly an interview with one of those soldiers, interspersed with actual footage from the Warsaw Uprising. The stories are grim and brutal, but this was WWII and the Nazis, and nothing is going to change as long as popular culture valourises the dangerous values used by sociopaths to motivate angry, and not very bright, young men who define their existence using toxic masculinity criteria. I sympathise with the Poles, and this film is an important historical document. But, given current world events, you sometimes wonder if making bad history disappear from the record might not be a bad strategy after all.

Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China). I don’t know the name Bi Gan, and this film was, until I’d watched it, completely unknown to me, but I’m pretty sure Bi is a Sixth Generation film-maker. Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks. But I can’t find anything to suggest Bi has any link to the Sixth Generation, but then I can’t find much about Bi. At least not on the English-language internet. I like Chinese films, both the commercial ones and the art house stuff, but little information about them makes it west, unless the director is a film festival darling, like Jia Zhangke. Kaili Blues is notable for one third of it being a single take. Apparently, they blew the entire budget on that shot, and then had to scrabble for cash to complete the film. The whole single-take thing has caused a bit of a fuss recently. 1917 garnered much praise for being (apparently) a single-, or double-take movie, but the take(s) was put together in post-production. There are actual single-take films out here, the first of which was Sokurov’s Russian Ark, but also Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, so why celebrate a fake single-take film when real ones exist? Oh wait, 1917 is a Hollywood film… Anyway, Kaili Blues contains a 41-minute long take, out of 113 minutes, and it’s hugely effective. All the more so because the story is so small scale. An excellent film. Worth seeing.

Battalion, Dmitry Meskhiev (2015, Russia). The battalion in question is the First Battalion of Death, which is not my first choice of a name for a battalion, but is notable for being the first female-only battalion in the Red Army. The film opens with it being formed and women from numerous walks of life volunteering to serve it. It’s clear it’s not taken seriously, but it proves its worth. But it’s not until the battalion reaches the front that things get really, well, scary. There’s already a battalion of (male) soldiers there, but they’ve decided not to fight anymore. They’re sitting it out, and they resent the women soldiers actually fighting. Which all comes to a head when the Germans attack. The women’s battalion suffers great losses but manages to beat back the German advance. The men sit it out. Like most Russian historical films, the story takes liberties with history – the founder of the First Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva, has not always been a Soviet hero, and her profile has risen and fallen depending who was in power. She strikes me as a genuine female hero, even if her politics were not always in line with the regime. (Which is not to say than indefensible politics are, well, defensible.)  A good film, slickly-made, if not an entirely accurate depiction of the events it, er, depicts, but still much closer than any Hollywood would likely get.

Chinese Zodiac, Jackie Chan (2012, China). I wrote in an earlier blog post that Bleeding Steel was the worst Jackie Chan film I’d seen, but this one must come a close second. It’s actually a sequel to Armour of God II, but only loosely. Chan plays a treasure hunter who works with a team to recover stolen Chinese artefacts. Several group of people are after bronze heads depicting various Chinese years – this bit wasn’t entirely clear as Hong Kong films are never good at exposition. Anyway, Chan leads an expedition to a remote island where a pirate disappeared centuries before, allegedly in possession of several of the heads. The expedition runs into a bunch of pirates, and thugs from an antiquity counterfeiting ring – who are behind the entire plot, it seems – and it’s at their secret factory where the countdown place. The film is an odd mix of its prequels and James Bond, without being as good as either of them. There are some entertaining fight scenes, but the plot all feels a bit well-oiled and reliant more on cliché than anything else. Watchable, but this is from the bottom end of Chan’s oeuvre.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith*, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia). A difficult film to find, and then it suddenly appears on Amazon Prime. That happens sometimes. It’s a shame it took so long for this one. The title character is an Indigenous Australian, and abused by white people as he tries to make a living. He puts up fences but is not paid for his work. This is in late nineteenth-century Australia. When they were actually more racist than they are now. If that is possible. Jimmy marries a white woman, and they have a baby. But then their employers encourage the wife to leave him and seek a distant service position. When he learns of this, he complains and his attempt at retribution goes badly wrong and he murders all the white women. So he goes on the run. With a half-borther and a mate. The film covers the pursuit. It’s an excellent film, and makes an excellent fist of its premise. Not that it changed anything. Forty years later and indigenous Australians are probably no better off, at least in terms of popular perception. Recommended.

The Spy Gone North, Yoon Jong-bin (2018, South Korea). This is apparently based on a true story, although given the details it’s a little hard to believe. A military officer is persuaded to go undercover in North Korea. But first he has to torpedo his career, because who would believe a serving military officer had suddenly turned into a sleazy salesman for a cross-border trading company? Er, not me? He does this by becoming an alcoholic, and borrowing money from his friends and family and not paying it back. And then he manages to worm his way into the confidences of an official high up in the North Korean government. I hadn’t realised how much each Korea depended on trade from the other. I had, foolishly perhaps, imagined their trade links were greater with their allies. But, of course, Brexit. People assume the UK can simply trade with nations independent of the EU, when more than half of the UK’s trade is with the EU. But then Brexiteers are stupid. Or venal. Or both. Probably the last. The food, medicine and service shortages resulting from Brexit will entirely be on them. Anyone brags about supporting Brexit, it’s okay to punch them. They’re probably racists and Nazis, anyway. The Spy Gone North, however, is a good Korean thriller, and sheds surprising light on the relationship between the two countries. Noirth Korea may well be what post-Brexit UK will look like. After the famines, that is.

The Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher (1961, UK). Another classic Hammer film. Despite their low budgets, Hammer really did produce some good stuff. Apparently, the story was originally set in Paris, but a Spanish-set film planned by Hammer was dropped when the BBFC objected to the script, so they decided to re-use the sets and re-wrote The Curse of the Werewolf and set it in Spain. Oliver Reed, in his first starring role, plays a young man who turns into a werewolf every full moon and kills people. And, er, that’s it. Other than his adoptive father having to kill him using a silver bullet. The setting may be a bit odd, but the story hits all the usual tropes. Reed over-acts, as usual, but he’s supported by a solid cast, including Warren Mitchell and Peter Sallis, and an uncredited appearance by Desmond Llewelyn. Hammer made good films. They’re very much historical documents – but for the time they were made, even with their low budgets, they were still good stuff. Respect them.

Cannonball, Paul Bartel (1976, USA). The title may be a clue to this film’s story. I think this was the first to be based on the illegal across-America road race, and it was, of course, a Roger Corman movie. David Carradine plays a race-car driver out on bail who decides his best route to a new career is to compete in the Trans-America Gran Prix, despite the fact the race is illegal and it would break his parole. But never mind: he’s the good guy. And there are several bad guys. Who each get their just deserts. This is cheap but slightly prescient film-making, inasmuch as it was the first of a series of films, which arguably became a genre (ie, Fast and Furious). It’s New World Pictures in all the ways that name implies. Cheap. Borderline original. Semi-convincing action sequences. Slightly subversive in small ways. But, overall, what feels like a cheap copy of a much slicker film… which actually was made later. New World Pictures did a lot of good stuff. Respect them, too.

The Other Side of Sunday, Berit Nesheim (1996, Norway). This was described as a “black comedy”, but even for a black comedy there wasn’t much in the way of laughs. The teenage daughter of a village priest, in 1950s Norway, does not subscribe to her father’s strict religious worldview, which manifests as arguments and a cynical voice-over. Coming-of-age films like this are ten-a-penny, and this one is only notable for not being some weird variety of fringe American Christianity. The copy I watched looked like it had been transferred from a VHS tape, with subtitles burned in. Can’t recommend it, but I’m glad I watched it.

Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden). The Sami are the people who live in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland and, like most indigenous people, have been mistreated throughout their history. This film, based partly on the life of the director’s grandmother, makes explicit the racism directed at the Sami by the Swedes. The film opens in the present day with an old woman driven north by her son for the funeral of her younger sister, who, it is revealed, was Sami. But the old woman refuses to admit she speaks Sami. The film then flashes back to the 1930s, and the two sisters are sent to a  school for Sami children. Elle-Marja is drawn to the Swedes in the area, especially after sneaking into a dance given by the local Swedes for some visiting young soldiers, where she lies and gives her name as Christina (her teacher’s name). She meets a boy who lives in Uppsala, but is told she can’t go there to study because Sami can’t handle education. So she runs away. The film makes explicit the treatment of the Sami – the systemic racism, the treatment of them as “protected aborigines”, almost a subspecies to some, their exclusion from mainstream Swedish culture, the ambivalence of young Swedes to them, a combination of tolerance and Othering… An excellent movie, about an important topic. Racism is, any shape or form, intolerable – and I use that word deliberately. Being tolerant does not mean tolerating intolerance.

L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties, Guo Jingming (2016, China). This was fun. Annoyingly, it was the first in what appears to be, at least, a two-part series, and the second part wasn’t available. So I’ve no idea how the story concludes. To tell the truth, I didn’t have much idea what the story actually was as I watched the film, but then the last ten minutes are basically the characters explaining to each other what just went down. Which is helpful. Although not an especially good narrative technique. Anyway, there’s a fantasy land, which Wikipedia calls the “Aslan Empire”, even though that name has already been taken, and I don’t recall seeing it in the subtitles of the version of the film I saw. And it has “dukes” (subtitles) or “noble lords” (Wikipedia), who each have unique magical abilities. They were given these by some sort of gods. The young barman at an inn narrowly escapes death when one of the dukes attacks, and is subsequently conscripted as apprentice by another duke. And it’s all to do with a duke who turned himself into an island in order to imprison the most powerful duke… but it turns out the gods are actually criminals from another world… I think… But there’s lots of weird fight scenes, some real uncanny valley CGI, and two hours of world-building that makes no sense until all is explained in the final act. Fun. But not a well-constructed film.