This is what my film watching looks like pretty much – one in six films is from the US. That’s not one in six is Anglophone, as the Israeli film is mostly in English, and One Way was entirely in English as it was set in the US. But there are two excellent Chinese films.
Zhou Yu’s Train, Sun Zhou (2002, China). A woman is on a train between Chongyang and Sanming. She is carrying a vase. A man asks her about it and she admits she made it. He insists on buying it, but she refuses. He introduces himself, he is a vet (a man collapsed earlier on the train and he denied being a doctor because a doctor of human medicine would have been preferable). The woman is on her way to visit her lover in Sanming, a poet. The film follows the woman, and her encounters with the vet and the poet, and that of another woman, played by the same actress, Gong Li. But the narrative is cut up and presented non-chronologically, which means it’s often a bit of a puzzle trying to figure out what’s going on, especially when the same actress plays the two female leads. It all looks great, and the cast are excellent. I’m reminded of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, especially In the Mood for Love and 2046, although without the arthouse cinematography, just the unadorned faux-documentary style used by Sixth Generation directors. I liked this film, but it really needed a rewatch. I’ll have to try and arrange one.
One Way, Jorge Darnell (1973, Mexico). The blurb for this film on Amazon Prime explains it is about an illegal immigrant in the US and declares it is still relevant today. In other words, the US is just as racist as it was in 1973. Probably more so. Although not as bad as the 1960s, when it practiced segregation and lynching. We’re no paragons of virtue here in the UK, but when it comes to racism the US is definitely a world-leader. And this forty-five year old film is ample proof. A farmer from Mexico moves to New York, illegally it must be said, but when someone gives me a good logical reason for secure borders then I’ll start believing “illegal immigration” is a thing. He finds himself subject to racism, but he can’t do anything because he’s there illegally. In one scene, he’s beaten up by drunk Americans at the bowling alley where he works restacking pins. In order to stay in the US, the farmer gets in deeper with criminals, as situation not helped by his desire – reciprocated – for the gangster’s girlfriend (I think she was his girlfriend). Unsurprisingly, it’s all about hiding from the authorities and so being driven into the arms of criminals, which only feeds into the myths surrounding illegal immigration in the first place. It’s like junkie culture – decriminalise drugs and there’s no reason for junkie culture to exist. Welcome immigrants, streamline them into becoming members of society and there’s nothing there for criminals. But then, there’s always the racism. That’ll remain as long as the establishment condones, and practices, it, and until there are real consequences for being a racist arsehole.
Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer*, Thorold Dickinson (1955, Israel). According to the Wikipedia page, the plot of this film “revolves around the personal stories of a number of soldiers who are on their way to defend a strategic hill overlooking the road to Jerusalem”, which is true but completely misses the point of the film. It is also Israel’s first home-produced feature film. Edward Mulhare plays an Irishman in the British occupying forces, who returns after Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence (the film says it was “sanctioned” by the UN, but that word has two meanings and the film is clearly hoping one will prevail). Anyway, Mulhare fancies a Jewish settler, and returns to help her in the fight for Israel. The problem with any film about the early days of Israel is framing their enemy. Who were they fighting? The Palestinians they had displaced? The British who had already left? That there was fighting is beyond doubt. Parts of Palestine were mandated to the Jews by the UN, the rest was won by blood. And what they were mandated was defended with blood. Let’s be fair here – the Israeli state has a right to exist, but so does the Palestinian one. And when you have two nations sharing the same territory, what do you do? China Miéville’s solution in The City & the City is obviously untenable, but neither can you privilege one group over the other as both have legitimate claims – after the fact, if not before. Making Jerusalem an international city is a step in the right direction, but hardliners will block that, and have. Wars are not going to resolve anything, especially when one side is funded by the US. But I’m not about to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem as it requires someone with bigger guns than me. As early Israeli film culture goes, this isn’t too bad – the Arabs are mostly treated fairly, as are surprisingly the British. The latter are the architect of Israel’s woes, that much is made clear, through their repressive control of the region after WWII. But they’re not demonised. The main focus seems to be on the burgeoning romance between Mulhare and Israeli lead Margalit Oved. It’s a film that deserves to be better known, even if it doesn’t fit the current narrative about Israel. It’s home-grown, it makes a good fist of its story, and any challenges it might make to the current narrative are welcome.
2036 Origin Unknown, Hasraf Dulull (2018, USA). Sometimes you can find hidden gems among independent sf films, and with the sophistication of present-day CGI they can look every bit as good as big studio sf films. But without the zillion-dollar budgets, something has to give… and it’s usually either location or cast. This film takes place almost entirely in a single room, so that it’s not that one. And while Katee Sackhoff is a good actress and reasonably well-known, I should think her price-tag is pretty modest. Plus, the entire cast of 2036 Origin Unknown is single figures. A mission to Mars crashes mysteriously on landing. Years later, Sackhoff, on her own, is running an AI-controlled follow-up robot mission to investigate that crash. They discover a huge cube covered in alien carvings. It vanishes. And reappears in Antarctica. They trick it into returning to Mars. It is apparently some sort of instantaneous interplanetary or interstellar vessel. Some point during all this, the AI – which was put in charge over Sackhoff’s objections – decides to exterminate all life on Earth. Oh, and Sackhoff’s father died in that original Mars mission, so she has an emotional stake in the investigation. Sackhoff tries gamely to carry the film, but the plot has too many ludicrous moments and slowly unravels under the weight of ambitions it can’t meet. It’s a sight more original than many other independent sf films I’ve seen, but even original ideas need to be rigorously worked through. Meh.
Part-Time Spy, Kim Deok-su (2017, South Korea). Gang Ye-Won is 35 and has spent most of her adult life trying to get a job with the Korean civil service, occupying a wide range of positions before she finally lands a job. In a state intelligence department. But then her boss is phished for $500,000 and he tasks her, secretly, with recovering the money. But the company responsible for the fraud – a call-centre that runs a number of phishing scams – has also been infiltrated by an undercover police agent. So this is basically a buddy movie, where the buddies came together through circumstance rather than choice, and the drama comes out of their interactions. Because neither has much time for the other. Gang is an accident-prone nerd but proves to have a gift for talking punters out of their hard-earned cash, and so gets in with the senior management. The undercover police officer, Han Chae-Ah, is skilled at unarmed combat, a maverick and arrogant. But, of course, they learn to like each other and work together to bring down the evil mastermind behind the phishing scam, not to mention Gang’s inept boss who lost the money in the first place. The comedy is broad, and the fight scenes aren’t that good… but then it would be churlish complain about a female buddy movie that actually has fight scenes. Entertaining. And it makes a good point about the human cost of phishing too.
Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China). I seem to remembering stumbling across this one on Cinema Paradiso’s website. Certainly the director is not a name I knew, and I’ve been exploring the oeuvres of both Fifth and Sixth Generation Chinese directors. But I like modern Chinese cinema – both the commercial films and the film festival ones, although the latter much more than the former. Here, Then, Mao’s debut feature, not only does the things I like about Sixth Generation films, but also the things I like about cinema from other countries. It tells a story about a group of twentysomethings in a provincial town, using the sort of faux-documentary style, with minimal dialogue, used by Sixth Generation directors. But it also uses long, often static, takes, and equally often pulled back so that the action takes place only in a small area at the centre of the screen. There are other tricks in there too – in one scene, two young women waiting for a bus dance to music, and the camera zooms in toward one until she is staring out of the screen, suggesting she is breaking the fourth wall. Characters move in and out of focus as the dynamic changes in other scenes. It’s a polished debut, displaying a facility with cinematic language unusual in a first film. I’d like to see it again, so I guess I’m going to have to pick up a copy. I suspect it might make my top five by the end of the year, although it has stiff competition. Highly recommended.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 922