Category Archives: IB

The Way We Are

While Song of the Exile is probably Ann Hui’s best known film, there is a growing consensus that her more recent work is her best. The Way We Are, made in 2008, is set in Hong Kong’s ‘City of Sorrow’, Tin Shui Wai, a public housing estate known for its high levels of unemployment and associated problems (see here for an SCMP report on the area’s high suicide rates as an example.) As we’d expect from someone who emerged from Hong Kong’s New Wave, Hui’s social conscience and concern for the dispossessed strongly inform her film; but her stories tend to eschew outright despair, and in this case we see a wholly charming evocation of the strength of a family’s love and unity despite less than ideal living circumstances. More, we see how that love extends out into a whole community. It’s a totally successful , satisfying film; when Huang Yaoshi, reviewing this film, calls Hui ‘the most gifted storyteller in Hong Kong’, it’s hard to disagree. Certainly, in her refusal to churn out genre pieces or to compromise the pace or subject matter she prefers, she’s one of the most independently-minded filmmakers currently working in Hong Kong.

The story centres around Mrs Cheung and her teenage son, On, who live together in a tiny, and very typically Hong Kong, apartment. Mrs Cheung cuts and packs durian at the local supermarket; On is spending the summer lounging at home while he waits for the results of his school exams to see whether he will be continuing with his education or not. The opening shots put us inside this apartment, looking out at Tin Shui Wai. The image is polysemic; the buildings look grim, partly because of the apparent lack of deliberate composition. However, the light and colour (typically of Hui) is beautiful. This ambiguity continues throughout the film and, eventually, becomes the point of the film. While we may pity these people for their poverty and their apparently tedious lives, they are not feeling sorry for themselves; they are just living their lives. To them, Tin Shui Wai is not ‘the city of sorrow’, but simply the place where they live.

city

The film is basically in the realist tradition. Perhaps inspired by the Italian neo-realists – certainly, the subject matter and the ideologies are similar – we have real sets, little in the way of artificial light or sound and what looks and sounds like ad-libbed acting. Likewise, the narrative echoes real life in that there is no strong sense of narrative causation. As movie-goers, we’re used to the feeling of watching a story being set up and constructed; we know that nothing happens in a movie’s narrative unless it advances the main plot in some way. When that causation is removed (as it is in life,where stuff happens all the time for no particular reason) it can leave the story feeling unplanned and directionless. The Way We Are needs to be approached in this light, as something that is seeking to shine a light on an aspect of life rather than to entertain an audience with a clever narrative. Yaoshi explains this, showing it as both a strength and a possible weakness, saying, ‘the films of Ann Hui are those who directly go to the core of what Hong Kong is about – but this core is as most of our lives perhaps unspectacular, mundane, and banal.’

The most obvious result of this is that nothing happens as we expect it, because our previous movie-watching experience comes between us and the film. For example, when On finally ventures out of the flat to go and see some ‘friends’, we expect him to be up to no good, especially when we see the long-haired young men he’s going to see.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 6.46.14 pm

And yet all they do is play mahjong (echoing a scene in which the elder characters did the same – the sense of community and continuity between the generations is very strong in this film.) They have a conversation about religion. Mostly, they ignore each other, as teenage boys do. The point is, of course, that the viewer’s expectations of this ‘type’ of person and of film itself, is wrong.

Likewise, we look for the ‘bad guys’ in the story because it feels wrongly weighted without them. Someone must be to blame for the tedium of these people’s lives! When we realise it’s not going to be On or any of his friends, attention turns to Big Uncle, Mrs Cheung’s brother. On’s cousins, returned to visit from America, bring a little colour and glamour into the film.

colourful rich cousins

We immediately start constructing oppositions in our minds; they are rich and On is poor, so they are bad and On is good. Particularly when we find out about how Mrs Cheung worked to put her brothers through University, we seem to have our bad guys. But of course, it doesn’t work out like that. There are no bad guys in this world; everyone is nice, in an undemonstrative everyday sort of way.

Which is not to say there is no narrative. An older lady meets Mrs Cheung but seems determined to refuse any offers of kindness or friendship. The story’s interest comes in part from the way she changes and opens up to others, as well as revealing something about her own past. But really, it’s an observational piece about the absolutely normal lives of these very normal people, and it’s a quietly celebratory film about family and community, as well as a film which subtly changes audience attitudes. While we watch them proceed with their lives, we make judgements about their surroundings or lives; but they are free of self pity and just continue with life. We’re at fault, not them.high angle lady oblivious to her own poverty. Perry Lam wrote that it’s ‘a great film in a small way and, in its tribute to the resilience of life, serves as an apt, shining metaphor for the filmmaking career of Hui herself.’ It is perhaps Ann Hui’s best film, which is saying a lot.

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Hong Kong #3: Song of the Exile

The advent of the French New Wave directors in the late 1950s marked the beginning of a huge shift in global cinema. They shook the traditions of French cinema to their foundations; either by re-imagining and revising existing genres (the gangster film reborn in Godard’s Breathless, for example) or by ignoring the established rules of editing and composition (again, see the opening of Breathless to see just about every narrative, compositional and editing convention blown to bits.) As filmmakers in other countries saw how film could be as flexible as any other art form, how it could be recreated by and for a new generation, other ‘New Waves’ erupted over the globe; British Naturalism, German New Wave, New Hollywood are among the best known. Asia was affected too; it took longer, but Hong Kong’s new wave kicked off in the late 70s with a determination to change existing genres to address contemporary problems and to use more realist techniques.

One director strongly associated with the New Wave is Ann Hui. Her most famous early film is probably Boat People (1982), a study of the plight of refugees from Vietnam in Hong Kong. More recently she has been making films about poverty and disenfranchisement in the TIn Shui Wai area of Hong Kong(commonly called the ‘City of Sadness.’ Obviously, Hui has a consistent desire to explore Hong Kong’s social issues; in this regard, she has remained true to the political ethos of the New Wave (crudely put, a broadly socialist commitment to social equality.)

There are other elements to New Wave, though. The original crop of French directors, particularly Francois Truffaut, were strongly associated with auteur theory (Truffaut was the first to articulate it, in his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’) and as such they only recognised ‘real’ artists as those who treated film as an opportunity to explore and express individuality. Their films were often very personal and idiosyncratic as they sought to develop a personal style and subject matter.

Hui’s 1990 film, Song of the Exile, certainly manages this in one way since it is, at least in part, autobiographical. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of Hueyin, studying (and having fun) in London when her mother calls her back to Hong Kong for her sister’s wedding.  Arguments ensue as her mother, Aiko,  takes control of her hair and dress and refuses to allow her any independence. The relationship looks irrevocably broken as we see where all this tension came from; Hueyin was raised in Macau, primarily by her grandparents and has always felt resentment towards her apparently distant mother for taking her away from her beloved grandfather to live in Hong Kong. We find out that Aiko is originally Japanese and the relationship between mother and daughter takes on new dimensions when they travel together to Japan and unearth some aspects of Aiko’s past. We come to realise that the ‘exile’ of the title is not primarily Hueyin, but Aiko.

song-of-the-exile

The primary focus of the film is on the family; it is a very recognisable tale of a younger generation seeking to escape the influence of their parents (a theme which could stand as a metaphor for the entire New Wave.) Most obviously, the familial tensions are between Hueyin and Aiko.  Aiko desperately wants her daughter to be ‘good’; we can see this in the way she dresses her for the wedding as a ‘good’ Hong Kong daughter, in a red dress and a perm, exactly the same as her own. She is trying to fit her daughter into a tradition, perhaps, to allow her a sense of belonging, the opposite of ‘exile’ , which she herself was denied. The wedding itself is shown to be noisy and familial; people are packed into the frame and there is a lot of movement, but Hueyin is pictured alone, off by herself; a product, perhaps, of Western individualism.

Wedding

So, the first part of the film shows Aiko destroying what remains of her relationship with her daughter. However, as we learn Aiko’s story through flashback, we see that she had the same sort of dysfunctional experience. She lived with her husband’s parents, and it becomes clear that they habitually dismissed her authority and demeaned her in front of her daughter. She is shot in chiaroscuro in these sections, semiotically indicating her despair, a despair which she seems destined to had on to her daughter (we see her beating her child.) Even the grandfather mentions that he wanted to study Western medicine but was forced to focus on Chinese medicine by his father. The theme is clear, and depressing; familial dysfunction is hereditary.

Mum chiaroscuro in Macau

There is also a more general theme about the effect of political and historical processes and events on individuals. Hueyin’s grandparents are in Macau because they are fleeing from the Cultural revolution. Aiko is living in Manchukuo when it is reclaimed by China after japan’s fall, and there she meets Hueyin’s father; that is how she ends up an ‘exile’, first in Macau, then in Hong Kong. Even Hueyin is strongly associated with liberal and progressive ideas in the opening section of the film, and she is shown to be as much a product of her environment as any of the other characters. Chinese history is told through the lens of this one family’s story, and thus large social processes are made personal and relatable. Given that the film was made one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, it is hardly surprising that Hui’s attention is on politics, at least in part. The end of the film is more generally optimistic than the audience might expect, but it is typical of realist modes of storytelling in that it is open-ended; we do not know what decisions Hueyin might make as the film ends with her crying in close-up.

Crying at end

The film, typically of Hui, is beautiful; generally quite dark, there are lovely blue and green-tinted scenes throughout. Generally, there is a powerful sense of melancholy and nostalgia which reflects the theme of missed opportunities and broken relationships.

Loely blue

Hong Kong #2: Hard Boiled

I wrote recently about wuxia as one of the defining genres of Hong Kong (and, more generally, Chinese) cinema. Another very characteristic genre is the triad or gangster movie. The Hong Kong take on the gangster film, though generically very similar to classic Western efforts like The Godfather II or The Public Enemy, is well established as a sub-genre of its own. The director most closely associated with it is John Woo, most famous in Hong Kong for A Better Tomorrow (though probably better known internationally for Face/Off and Mission Impossible II.)

Woo’s influence is obvious in many places. His most obvious fan is Quentin Tarantino, but there are many; you know all those never-ending shoot-outs and fights in Kill Bill or Django Unchained? Or the balletic hyper violence of Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado? Or Neo and Trinity’s billion-bullet shootout in The Matrix? All show the very obvious influence of Woo. Basically, any time you see some poor sap being riddled with bullets by a guy jumping through the air with a pistol in either hand, or a gunfight which goes on and on and on,  or two (or three, or more) guys in a Mexican standoff, you are watching the influence of John Woo. He taught Americans how to shoot each other in films with style.

dogs

This is not to trivialise his influence, though, particularly in Hong Kong. Before Woo, Hong Kong film was dominated by wuxia and other martial arts movies. Reflection theory suggests that film should mirror the place and time of creation, and that if it doesn’t, it’s obsolete. Cool as it would be, Hong Kong is not actually a medieval samurai society where disagreements are settled through acrobatic swordplay or even through Bruce Lee style ass-kickings. So, wuxia and martial arts movies were perhaps starting to look a little hackneyed. John Woo came from this background; he started off making martial arts films for Shaw Studios, then did the same for Golden Harvest. He was very much renowned as an expert in filming action scenes, but may well have been feeling the increasing irrelevance of these particular genres. 1980s Hong Kong was suffering something of a crime wave (crime plateaued in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and much of it was triad-related) and Woo wanted to make a more modern type of film which reflected more accurately the realities of contemporary life. He did this more or less by replacing the fists and swords of the martial arts movies with guns, and thus a new sub-genre was born. It was very accurately christened ‘heroic bloodshed’ by Rick Baker and it was characterised largely by what came to be called ‘gun fu’ or ‘bullet ballet’ – basically, highly stylised gunfights, descended from the long, intricate, highly-choreographed fights from all those martial arts and wuxia movies. It all started with A Better Tomorrow, described by Anthony Leong as a ‘paradigm shift‘ for Hong Kong cinema.

1uphardboiled

The last film Woo made in Hong Kong before leaving for Hollywood was 1992’s Hard Boiled. He worked once again with Chow Yun Fat, also the star of A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. The plot is pretty familiar – a maverick cop sees his partner gunned down by a gang and sets out to get revenge. Indeed, the plots and themes of Hong Kong thrillers are very generic; they tell the same stories and explore the same themes as crime films from the west, which basically means that they are variations upon film noir.

It is probably no surprise that a film called Hard Boiled has a strong noir influence. Our main character, the maverick cop nicknamed Tequila is, of course, the hardboiled detective figure, and to make things even more noirish, he also plays clarinet in a jazz club, as we see during the opening credits. The iconography, the blue palette and the music all locate us firmly in  Western crime film tradition.

Jazz

And so we pretty much know what to expect in terms of character and theme. There is the characteristically noirish confusion of good and evil – typically, the cops are just about as ruthless and almost-sociopathic as the criminals. Tequila is a loner, disinclined to work with others or to follow instructions; he is the classic noir tough guy, oblivious of the law even as he fights to defend it. His partner, Tony, is torn between loyalty to the triad gang he’s been infiltrating and his job as a cop; he’s been undercover for so long, his identity is confused. Such blurring of the lines between good and bad is, of course, at the very heart of noir and as such this is a very conventional film.

Likewise, these two characters are predictably hypermasculine; typically of the action genre, they are pretty much bulletproof. (It gets a bit silly. Tony gets electrocuted to death and is resuscitated; seconds later, he is battling baddies again.) The film is, at one level, about masculine loyalty and honour; like many other crime films , women do not get much of a look in. One of the defining aspects of this parent genre is the conflict between ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’; we see this early in the film as Tony shoots his symbolic ‘father’ in the heart.

Shoot Hui in the heart

So, apparently all we have here is a conventional neo-noir set in Hong Kong. But there is innovation. Firstly, as mentioned before, we need to look at the action scenes.  More than anything else, John Woo films are about these set-piece shoot-outs. Emanuel Levy wrote that Woo’s skills in ‘staging action sequences with the precision of a ballet choreography are unmatched by anyone working in world cinema today.’ His hugely stylised gunfights, made with swooping cameras, slow-motion and intricate editing,  took the action movie to new heights of viscerality. Hong Kong films were much more violent that Hollywood movies of the time (or now, mostly) and as such the plumes and sprays of blood which seem to accompany every shooting were both shocking and compellingly visual.

Another aspect to Woo’s possible auteurship is the characteristically Chinese element to his work. He brings imagery from the martial arts movie into neo-noir. White, for example, takes on the Chinese meaning of death and so we often see characters dressed in white (or, in Tequila’s case, covered in powder) to foreshadow or follow death.

Red and white

Perhaps Woo’s favourite symbol, though, is the bird. In this film, Tony makes a paper crane – very Asian! – every time he kills someone and the cranes come to symbolise the soul. Family, always crucial in the crime movie anyway, takes on an added element of importance in the Chinese context.

Cranes

There are also stylistic elements which are very recognisable. Woo’s use of slow-motion and freeze frame, as well as his cross-cutting (we see Tequila recreate one of the crimes as he investigates it; this is cut with the actual crime itself) are all very characteristic of him. His humour, often quite dark, is also a consistent part of his approach. In Hard Boiled, for example, the final, epic shoot-out (basically the last third of the film) takes place in a hospital full of victims, shooters, and babies. Tequila ends up killing off a bunch of bad guys with a baby in his arms (telling the child to look away from the ‘X rated action.’ The baby ends up spattered with blood which is either funny or disturbing, depending on your tolerance for such things:

Bloody baby

So, Woo has his own style, and he consistently addresses the same themes in a sub-genre which he basically created himself. Can we call him an auteur? The originators of auteur theory, Francois Truffaut (in Europe) and Andrew Sarris (in America) would almost certainly turn their noses up at the concept of a auteur who worked in what is preceived to be a very debased genre; and there are those who say that Woo’s style is limited rather than unique. However, Sarris did demand that ‘a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serves as his signature’ in order to qualify for auteur status, and Woo certainly does that. Ultimately, though, genre theory and auteur theory are in conflict – one cannot be an independently-minded artist if all the decisions are made in advance by the genre conventions – and while Woo might well be the finest director of action sequences in the world, I suspect he will never be accorded the respect that directors working in less obviously generic areas are. It could be argued, however, that directing the best shoot out ever – the tearoom shootout at the start of the film has been described as such – goes some way to compensate for that.

 

The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.

watchmen

 

What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.

comflag

The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.

Watchmen2-70

So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

Rors chiaroscuro

He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

rors unmasked

He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.

Hong Kong #1: Once Upon a Time in China

Like any national cinema, Hong Kong’s is complex and deep. Certain genres tend to dominate, though, and one of the more obvious ones is wuxia. This is a sort of Chinese historical drama, often (but not always) based on real characters or events, centring around the use of martial arts. The hero is generally the martial arts expert, fighting for what is right and good. As wikipedia points out, these heroes ‘can be compared to martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai‘s bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America’s Westerns.’ Film can reflect the history of a nation; if the western, for example, is America’s conversation with itself about how their country came to be what it is, then wuxia  serves a similar function in China; it is (sometimes) a working out of historical events and processes which came to form China and Hong Kong.

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China is one of the classics of the genre, and a good introduction in that it is both very conventional and extremely well-done. The hero, played by Jet Li, is Wong Fei-hung – a fictionalised version of a real person and the subject of an awful lot of wuxia movies. In this version, Wong is the leader of a local militia (essentially a martial arts club – the ‘jianghu’ which features in so much wuxia.) He is very much framed as part of this group – he is hardly ever seen alone – thus reflecting and reinforcing the veneration of the collective which is such an important part of Confucian and Communist thinking. The film opens and closes with beautiful shots of him training his men, their movements perfectly coordinated. As is common,  we see him struggle against local gangsters and another martial arts master (‘Iron Vest Yim’) to defend his community. There is a love story too, between Wong and ’13th Aunt’, a relationship which is the embodiment of the courtly and restrained love considered ideal in the genre. Already, we see how Wong represents tradition, decency, collective responsibility; we can see why this is such a popular and traditional genre in China.

UNITY

Most interestingly, though, the film deals with China’s recent history with foreign countries. At the beginning, we hear how China is being divided up amongst foreigners (‘Hong Kong went to the British… Macau to the Portuguese…’) and the primary villains in the film, apart form the local gangsters, are the British and American military leaders. The binary opposition between China and ‘elsewhere’ is established earlier; we see foreign soldiers firing guns at a dragon festival (Wong heroically interjects himself to save the dragon, quickly being established as the embodiment of Chinese tradition), we hear Christian hymns competing with Chinese traditional music as Jesuit priests attempt to establish Christianity in China , wee see Wong refuse to wear a Western suit. (‘Chinese are Chinese,’ he says. ‘Westerners are western.’) These representations and oppositions are established powerfully when Wong goes to meet the Western leaders in order, supposedly to iron out conflicts which have been disturbing the peace. Located in a huge, white “colonial” hotel, littered with all the iconography of Western rule, the meeting soon becomes the first big fight of the film and the audience realises that Western arrogance will never co-exist peacefully with Chinese tradition. Against his will, Wong is drawn into the fight; he is represented throughout as a natural peacekeeper, though obviously when he does fight, he kicks ass all over the place. (He is Jet Li, after all.)

Fighting westerners

 

So, then, the fighting. Wuxia are martial arts films of a particular type; the fighting is generally highly stylised, with huge dependence on wire-work and impossible leaps. Martial arts are often under threat of banning in these films, and the discussion of martial arts itself is common. Obviously, kung fu is of enormous symbolic importance in wuxia; it represents Chinese tradition and all that is exceptional about China and her people. Here, Wong’s kung fu is pitted against the Westerners with their guns; his skill and power is opposed to their brutality and cowardice. No prizes for guessing who wins. The whole film is, thematically, an exploration of Chinese exceptionalism (just as the traditional Western is a reinforcemnt of white, Anglo-Saxon American exceptionalism.) When 13th Aunt tells Wong that the West has technological advantages (‘they invented the steam train and other things’) but that they don’t have the ‘people’ that China does, this is the point; Chinese people have more soul and spirit, more morality and decency and worthiness, than those from elsewhere. All of this Chinese spirit is symbolised by kung fu.

Martial arts need to be combined with a sense of decency, though, and it is in this regard that the hero of wuxia most closely represents the cowboy in American film or the samurai in Japanese film.  For all of these figures, fighting ability, toughness and courage are a means to an end; the end is the defence of a way of life regarded as the epitome of moral goodness. Wong is not defending himself or even, primarily, his jianghui: he is defending China’s past and battling to ensure that the future is as much like that past as possible. As such, wuxia is an ideologically very conservative genre, designed to construct and glorify a vision of Chinese tradition as the best possible way of life. Nationalism is common her and the representaions of foreigners are rarely sympathetic (this is common in martial arts movies generally; see, for example, the representation of Japanese people in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man.)

We see the effects of separating kung fu from its accompanying ideology of morality and decency (‘chivalry’ in Western terms or ‘Bushidō’ in Japan) in the character of the other martial arts master in the film, Yim. His kung fu is almost the match of Wong’s – in their first fight, he actually emerges (through an accident) as the winner.

Epic

 

He wants to establish his own school of martial arts in the school and must first defeat Wong (this is a very common plot device in the genre.) Wong treats him with respect and deference, which is not returned by Yim. Already we see that he lacks the important moral component of kung fu and this becomes much more obvious when he joins forces with the local gangsters and their paymasters, the thuggish American military. This is reinforced in the final fight between the to when we find that Yim has a secret blade hidden in his queue (his pigtail.)

There is much more in the movie, not all of it good. Comic relief is provided by Porky Wing the butcher and  Bucktooth So, the American-educated medic. There is the love story between Wong and 13th Aunt. Typically of the genre, there are many elements thrown together to maximise audience appeal; in this regard, it is very like the Indian masala movie. Some of the humour in particular is cringeworthy, but overall the film is a classic of its genre ad one of the clearest examples of the nationalistic and conservative impulses informing wuxia.

Teenagers#1: The Breakfast Club

Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.

Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli  points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most  teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno  – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

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Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.

At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.

Judd Nelson as John Bender

The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.

We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.

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And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.

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Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a  desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.

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The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.

The Act of Killing

Anyone interested in film has probably been spending some time recently looking at the end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. The same films crop up, of course – aggregation sites like Metacritic show that big-budget films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are topping the polls. Number six on that list, though – and in first place in ‘serious’ publications like Sight and Sound and The Guardian-  is something of an anomaly; a documentary, and an experimental one at that, about the persecution and killing of supposed Communists in Indonesia when the army suppressed an attempted coup in 1965. It’s called The Act of Killing and it was made by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. (That anonymity is the first sign that we are not in conventional film-making territory here; the Indonesian crew stayed anonymous for fear of violent reprisal.) It is a wonderful, strange film – one of those which stays with the viewer long after watching -and though many reviewers say it is ‘difficult’ to watch, it really isn’t. The shocking thing, in fact, is how easily we are drawn into a world of utter amorality and chaos.

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When a story is told, the teller has decisions to make. ‘Where to stand?’ is the first one; that is, whose story are we telling? What angle are we approaching from? This film deals with a series of atrocities and massacres which claimed the lives of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. The obvious approach is to let the victims, or their loved ones, speak, to give them the voice they were so brutally denied. Much more difficult, and controversial, is to stand on the other side and to explore the lives and minds of the men who did the killing. But this is what Oppenheimer does in his film. It is basically the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster who ‘rose’ to become the leader of one of the more notorious death squads. The film claims that Congo was personally responsible for killing around 1000 people. This choice to tell the story of the killers has earned Oppenheimer some furious condemnation; Peter Rainer, for example, refused to give the film a grading, writing that ‘Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime.’ As we’ve seen, other reviewers considered this the finest film of the year; it obviously evokes powerful emotions and responses, which is surely appropriate for a film about a conflict which still shapes Indonesia today.

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Another question which storytellers need to answer is ‘How to speak?’ How do we tell the story, or, in documentary, how do we get the subjects to tell their own story? Conventional documentarians stick a camera in front of the subject and let them speak or follow them around and let them show themselves. Oppenheimer does this also; we follow Congo and various associates, mostly other gangsters, as they go about their business – extorting money from their neighbours, largely – and to that degree it’s a conventional observational documentary. But clearly Oppenheimer wanted to go beyond the surface of how these men continue to justify what they did and ask more profound questions – how, for example, does a man live with himself after committing mass murder on an unimaginable scale? To this end, he uses more creative methods, more associated with performative documentary; he invites the killers, all huge fans of film, primarily American film, to re-create events and emotions from their past by making a film about them. This is a strange, indirect way of getting at ‘the truth’, and predictably it only succeeds in getting at one version of the truth; but it certainly produces a powerful, affecting film, one that both awakens awareness of the events under discussion and provokes questions about the nature of murder and evil.

Watching these men produce their film with almost childlike enthusiasm produces absolutely bizarre imagery, mostly involving the thuggish Herman Koto, an overweight gangster who plays all the female roles and provides comic relief.

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At the start, we watch Koto encourage local children to act out the burning of their homes and the slaughter of their parents, laughing and joking as they perform for him. He is a big, humorous bear of a man, warm and affable, and it is easy to forget tat these children are reenacting things which happened, probably to their grandparents, and that Herman and his friends really were those who were burning homes and slaughtering the inhabitants.

Anwar Congo himself first appears as a dapper, frail gentleman with an amusing vanity (he favours bright, old-fashioned suits and we often see him fussing with his false teeth.) He loves the camera, and is more than willing to discuss his past; this quickly becomesa  discussion of chosen methods of murder as he explains how he hit upon his favoured method -strangulation with wire – as a way of avoiding the need to clear up afterwards. (‘We used to beat them to death,’ he says, ‘but there was too much blood.’) Several times, we see him re-enacting the strangulation of victims as he and his friends, usually dressed as noirish gangsters, for that is how they choose to see themselves, make the film about their actions. The film gains some depth when Congo confesses that he has nightmares about what he has done, and this then becomes the narrative focus of the film; we watch as he approaches an (rather underwhelming) understanding of his actions. At the end of the film, he himself is filmed being ‘strangled’; he weeps as he watches it, then retches when he returns to the scene of many of his murders. This is narrative in the classic Western style; one man forced to change, to perhaps start to move towards some sort of understanding or redemption. (And any suggestion of understanding or redemption, of course, might be completely fabricated by the filmmaker or by Congo himself; it is easy to see why so many people were offended by this film.)

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Oppenheimer guides Congo towards this epiphinaic understanding by making, or allowing, him to confront his past. One of the most powerful scenes is when the stepson of a real-life victim nervously tells the story of how his father was abducted and killed and how he, as a child, had to bury the body. He then acts in the film, playing his father as the gangsters strangle and kill him. At this point, and later during the reenactment of a village massacre, we start to see more thoughtful reaction shots as Congo reflects on what he is doing and has done.

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The massacre scene is perhaps the most powerful part of the film. It is a masterpiece of juxtapositon, as is the whole film; we see men gently encouraging women and children to act more realistically, then cut to one of those men bragging about how he would ‘rape the shit out of’ fourteen-year old girls. An Indonesian MP turns up to help with direction, showing us that the people who massacred all these supposed ‘Communists’ (in reality, simply people who attracted the wrong sort of attention) are, in large part, the people running Indonesia today. The re-enactment itself is blurry, filmed with hand-held cameras, the sound muted, and it is devastatingly effective, both for the viewer and those who act in it, many of whom are in tears at the end.

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There is too much to say about this film; Dana Stevens summarises it well by calling it ‘a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.’ I hope my students will watch it, not only for the lessons it teaches about life (evil is boring, everyday, everywhere) but also for the example it sets for film-makers; how fearless, creative, unconventional thinking and approaches can lead us to ask uncomfortable questions and communicate powerful truths.

Paul Greengrass #2: Captain Phillips

As I wrote in the last post, Paul Greengrass has developed a style which is composed of two distinct approaches to film; Hollywood thrills combined with politically-motivated realism. In Bloody Sunday we see his politics and realism dominate; in his two Bourne films, we see him tend much more towards mainstream thriller. He does both of these things exceptionally well, and bringing them together, as he does in Captain Phillips, results in a gripping thriller which is infused with, but not slowed down by, the real weight of political and social comment.

As with Bloody Sunday, the film is based on real events. In 2009, the US ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by 4 Somali pirates, led by 18 year old Abduwali Muse. The Captain, Richard Phillips, was taken aboard a lifeboat and held hostage for five days until he was freed by a Navy Seal team. This film is based in part on the book written by Phillips. This is typical Greengrass territory; a real story of conflict and danger serving as a microcosm of much wider political tensions, exploited for opportunity to both thrill and educate an audience.

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Primarily, though, Captain Phillips is a thriller. The tension gets cranked up so much that it’s actually hard to keep watching at times. Tension, of course, is created by many things and Greengrass’ characteristic “shakycam”, combined with sensitive and responsive editing by Chris Rouse, serve to effectively recreate both the chaos of the actual hijacking and the almost unbearable claustrophobia aboard the lifeboat once Phillips is taken hostage. Aesthetically, it’s business as usual for Greengrass and, as usual, all the kinetic camerawork and jumpy editing strives to put us in the middle of the action. It works, I think; although it is much complained about, I’ve never had a problem with Greengrass’ cinematography since it suits his subject matter and overall style of edgy, nervy realism. If you’re in the anti-shake camp, though, there’s a facebook page you can join to vent.

Conventional wisdom tells us that mainstream film should be edited ‘invisibly’, that audiences should not even be aware of camera and editing, focusing instead on the performances. Although we’re definitely not in ‘invisible editing’ territory here,  the performances are easily strong enough to distract those who need distracting, for they are astonishingly good. Tom Hanks, an actor who I think struggles to escape his own persona – decent, warm, humorous – plays (very) slightly against type as the slightly officious, bossy Phillips. He nags his crew, frets about his son and comes across very naturally as an unremarkable father figure. By the end, however, we have come to be astonished at the resilience and courage of this very normal man, and the last ten minutes of the movie might well count as the absolute pinnacle of Hanks’ career.

Even stronger, however, is the performance by first-timer Barkhad Abdi. Playing Muse, the leader of the hijackers, he manages to convey youthful bravado and invulnerability with a mature understanding that he is trapped in a struggle between much bigger forces. We come to like him, indeed, and feel for him at the end; as with Hanks, there is a real star quality and charisma in Abdi which leaves the audience open to understanding the motivations for his character’s actions.

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The relationship between these two forms the basis for the narrative. At the start, we are in fairly simple good/ bad binary opposition territory (although the ‘bad guy’ role is filled more by Muse’s very volatile sidekick, Bilal, played with ever-increasing intensity by Barkhad Abdirahman.) It would be very unlike Greengrass to leave this relationship uncomplicated, though, and there is always a sense that these two men, Muse and Phillips, are alike in some ways. Edwin Davies sees the film as ‘an examination of a clash between two captains, Philips and Muse… that is firmly grounded – or, perhaps more appropriately, anchored – in their shared humanity.’ As blogger SBT points out, both men are mere middle managers in larger organisations, working for and frustrated by bosses’ expectations; later, we see the commanders of warships in similar roles, eager to interpret and execute – literally – orders from their own bosses. What we see played out on screen is the human cost of interactions between vast national interests and tensions; but it’s done so well that it works basically as a struggle between two men, both trying to do their jobs as well as possible.

Greengrass doesn’t make too much of the socio-political context (although, bafflingly, Stephanie Zacharek writes that ‘there’s something about Captain Phillips that’s exhausting, and it may have to do with Greengrass’s insistence on trying to explain why unhappy Somalis would want to clamber aboard an American ship and start firing automatic weapons willy-nilly’; although ‘exhausting’ is exactly the term to describe Greengrass’ work, it’s hard to see where or how he has overdone the contextual material.) At the start, we see Phillips’ concern about his son’s job prospects juxtaposed with Somali villagers clamouring to be allowed to be part of the pirate crew. Later, he suggests to Muse that there must be employment open to him other than fishing or piracy. ‘Maybe in America, Irish,’ retorts Muse. There is almost a father-son relationship between the two, though the film never becomes quite that cheesy; but Hanks nags the hijackers about their doomed enterprise, teaches them how to operate the lifeboat, even gives Muse some advice on how a Captain should act. All of this, of course, gives the film an emotional richness and punch which most thrillers lack.

Overall, a superb film which works, as ever with Greengrass, on the head and the heart.

Paul Greengrass #1: Bloody Sunday

We’ve got to teach these people a lesson…

Paul Greengrass gained global fame for his direction of two of the original Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. Those films showed how sure a hand he has when it comes to creating and managing tension and thrills. More recently, he directed Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, just as exciting but with a more obvious political theme, largely because it is based on true events (review to follow.) That film – based on reality and overtly political – seems to be a fairly obvious return to his roots; Greengrass was well-known as an investigative journalist and television producer before he was a film director. Most famous was  his co-authoring of the book Spycatcher, which revealed secrets about Britain’s spy services and was the subject of an unsuccessful banning attempt by the government.

So, clearly he’s serious about the political content of his work, and perhaps his finest film, though not his best known, is Bloody Sunday. Made in almost-documentary style, it recreates the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland when British soldiers fired on unarmed Civil Rights marchers, killing 13 of them. Bloody Sunday, as the massacre came to be known, has since been the subject of enormous controversy and two government enquiries. (The first found the British Army blameless; the second, thirty years later, found the exact opposite.) Combining violence, oppression, politics and authentic controversy, it is hard to imagine subject matter more suited to Greengrass’ style.

Typically of Greengrass, the film is presented in a sort-of cinema verite style. (This is very typical of him. Even his Bourne thrillers, as The Guardian points out, were made in this style.) More generally, we can see the influence of the Italian Neorealists. First, many of those appearing in the film are not actors; many of the soldiers are played by actual ex-paratroopers, for example, and one of the victims of the massacre is played by the nephew of a real-life victim. Don Nesbitt, author of the book on which the film is based, appears as a priest. So, we’re watching people with direct connection to and involvement in the events documented in the film. With the soldiers in particular, this adds hugely to the verisimilitude and realism; they sound and look and behave like soldiers, not like actors. When they talk, it sounds ad-libbed and believable; they interrupt and talk over each other just as people do in real life. As Edward Guthmann writes, ‘Nothing looks rehearsed, and each of the dozens of actors seems to respond to the action while it unfolds.’

The camera is handheld (this might actually be the fundament of Greengrass’ aesthetic) and, particularly in the shooting scenes, this is supposed to put the viewer right in the middle of the action (although arguably, it’s such an overused technique now that it no longer has that effect.) Real sets, ambient lighting and so on are used, and editing is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the neorealist ethos; the diegesis in this film looks and feels very much like the real world. The idea is to create a sense that what we are watching is real; the filmmaker has removed himself as far as possible from the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter. It works; this is one of those films which leaves the viewer exhausted and outraged at the end.

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However, Greengrass is not making a documentary; this is a narrative film and as such the narrative is artificially imposed onto events. We follow one character, basically, the organiser of the march, played by James Nesbitt. We are focused on the march itself and how much he has invested in it, but we also see him with his parents, his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and so on, and the audience can hardly help but empathise with him. The fact that he is played by James Nesbitt, one of the most automatically likeable actors working today, already starts sugest where Greengrass’ sympathies lie. We are being manipulated throughout the film. At the start, for example, we see the crosscutting between the (chaotic, civilian) preparations for the march and the (efficient, military) organisation for the army response. Crosscutting continues throughout, always constructing the binary opposition between the ruthlessness of the army with the well-meaning naiveté of the marchers. Cinematography contributes to this; before the march for example, we see one shot wherein Nesbitt’s character is trapped in the mid ground between the British paratroopers in the foreground and the Nationalist paramilitaries, the IRA, in the background. The shot, and the whole scene, not only shows how trapped our main character is, but seems to suggest that these two groups – the British army and a terrorist organisation – are alike in terms of their intractability and cynicism. Greengrass, clearly, is not one to shy away from controversy.

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Representations in this film are most definitely not those we would expect from mainstream cinema. Soldiers – those on ‘our’ side at least – are dominantly represented as heroic and generally predisposed to do the ‘right’ thing. Here, we see absolute cynicism in the military. The army sets out not to control the march but to provoke trouble and arrest as many people as possible. Commanding officers are shown to be removed from the actual trouble, secure in their knowledge that nothing they do will be questioned or challenged. It is significant that the accents of the commanders are most definitely upper-class; the soldiers, like those they are shooting at, are working-class. This is not particularly developed, but there is certainly an idea about class warfare and solidarity being expressed. Perhaps the most shocking representation of the army comes at the end when those soldiers who have just killed 13 civilians are called before their superiors to account for their actions. Greengrass frames them in almost full-frontal close up, having them talk, and lie, directly to the camera. Juxtaposed with the shocking, chaotic violence we have just seen, the calmness of this scene and the blatant dishonesty of their testimony is shocking and sickening. Lighting is subtly chiaroscuro to connote the wickedness of what is being done.

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The representations of the army finalise in the scenes where they are shown to chase, then murder, fleeing citizens. The shots of uniformed British soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in the back, situated in ordinary working-class housing estates,  are designed to be shocking and brutal. The always-present emphasis on the reality of these events makes it massively more powerful and effective.

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Although made in a cinema-verite style, then, it soon becomes clear that Greengrass is very much pushing an agenda, that he is not wholly objective about these events. There is subtle artistry at work here; note, for example, that the palette is appropriately desaturated throughout the film until after the massacre when we start to see shocking, garish splashes of blood. Greengrass is appropriating the realist style in order to give weight and credibility to his own take on historical events.

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The film is extremely powerful, largely because of the weight of realism that it brings to bear. It utilises the two aspects of Greengrass’ style – thrills and reality, excitement and intelligence – to superb effect and it is, I think, his finest work to date.

The Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made (it’s certainly a popular choice with fans, making second place in the IMDB all-time-greatest list, although critics are a little harsher, only allowing it number 21 in the Sight and Sound list. The sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part 2, is generally thought of one of the best sequels of all time. It’s certainly one of the most successful, being the only sequel ever to win an Oscar. There is much discussion over which of the two is better. To me, it’s wholly artificial to debate the relative merits of the two films; even compared to most films and their sequels, they feel like two halves of one text and the removal of one part diminishes the power of the other.l

Where does the film’s reputation come from? It’s certainly not originality. The Godfather as a whole is a wholly conventional gangster story. If we look at the earliest crime dramas, we see many of the conventions are still evident decades later in Coppola’s movie. The Public Enemy, for example, made by William Welman in 1931, one of the founding texts of the genre, has several similarities. The focus is on the criminals, not the police (indeed, the forces of law and order are pretty much absent.). The criminal is an anti-hero – somehow sympathetic despite doing generally immoral, and often very terrible, things. The text is very much gendered; it’s a film full of men and it’s about masculinity. It’s also about family – actual families and crime families. Such conventions – and more – are evident in both films, and in other crime movies like Nine Queens or The Town or Rififi. Of course, this isn’t just a crime film, it’s a Mafia movie (or ‘mob film’) and that’s a subtext with a range of conventions all its own. The Mafia, as an Italian organisation which spread to America, gives Coppola the perfect basis for exploration of his themes – old world versus new world, tradition versus modernity, father versus son, past versus present and so on.

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So, is this merely a ‘genre’ film? Is there space to recognise auteurship at work? Certainly; the distinction between genre and auteur theory has always been a dubious one, and if we accept the postmodern view that nothing is particularly original anyway, then auteurship becomes a shaky notion anyway. Coppola’s vision is most definitely recognised in this film, and we can see his favourite themes and motifs appear in many of his other films. We see monomania just like Michael Corleone’s in Apocalypse Now, for example, and paranoia just like Michael’s in The Conversation.  Although the film is not particularly original, it is certainly the most fully realised exploration of many of these common themes and that is how it earned its reputation and what justifies the inclusion of Coppola in any list of great directors. That is, they’re not the first Mafia films, but arguably the best. (Scarface and Goodfellas are in the running, though!)

American (and thus global, pretty much) crime film, of course, is closely intertwined with the noir tradition, and at its heart, The Godfather Part 2 is a noir. Aesthetically, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen – not for nothing is the cinematographer Gordon Willis known as the ‘prince of darkness.’ The darkness of the cinematography (as well as the exceptionally affecting minor-key score by Nino Rota, noted and praised by Roger Ebert, who says ‘it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story’) connotes, as in all noir, the darkness at the heart of the story, at the very heart of the world represented in the film and the people who occupy that world.

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It’s Michael’s story, of course, and the almost Shakespearean wallop that the film packs is a direct result of the focus on his descent from his family’s moral touchstone – the boy his father, Vito, tried to protect from the family business – to what Coppola himself called a ‘monster.’  Pacino turns in a magnificent performance (no small feat in a film which contains just about all of the generation’s greatest American actors) which conveys the deep loneliness and emptiness within Michael; that theme, that we are spiritually dead, is classic noir. Noirs from the classic period, of course, were informed at least in part by spreading secularism and the decline in religious faith caused by World War 2. The resultant crisis of faith and conceptions of the universe as a cold, Godless and chaotic place found expression in the bewildering narratives and moral relativism of films like Kiss Me Deadly. Here, we see it more obviously in the religious iconography and symbolism; Michael marking Fredo for death with a kiss, like Judas with Christ, for example, or the opening Catholic funeral which leads to more violence. These symbols are empty of religious signification and full of violence and deceit, and the implication is clearly that religion has no real part to play in this world, despite the (conventional, of course, of the mob film) many instances of characters praying, blessing themselves or offering thanks to a God they clearly have no time for. This rejection of religion – the rejection of Catolicism, Italy, the Old World –  perhaps reaches its fullest expression in 1990’s (much inferior) The Godfather Part 3 when we see Michael – murderous, treacherous and amoral – receive special commendation from the Pope for his ‘charitable work.’

In terms of context, The Godfather Part 2 is rather difficult to pin down, and that’s a compliment. It is amazingly undated and looks like it could have been made just about any time in the last forty years. Again, this gives it a Shakespearean weight and relevance in that it is not constrained by reference or relevance to one place or time. Bu there are contextual points to be made. It clearly grows out of the New Hollywood movement, most obviously in the way it takes an existing genre and reworks it somewhat (just as, for example, Dennis Hopper would do much more drastically to the Western in Easy Rider.) Likewise, it can be seen to deal (as crime movies often do) with several important contemporary issues – the immigrant experience, for one, or the way women are treated in Italian-American cultures or, indeed, more generally.

Primarily, though, the social importance of the film comes from its examination of the American way of life itself. Michael, like Vito before him, is absolutely in pursuit of the American dream. He wants a better life for his family than he had himself (we are repeatedly reminded of his desire to put the family’s business on a legal footing, even as it becomes clear that this dream of legality and respectability is impossible) and he wants professional success – to be the best at his job, to live up to his father’s memory. He wants financial security and safety; all the things which Americans are told to aspire to. Maryann Johanson writes of the Corleone family that ‘their story is pretty much the story of America in the 20th century.’ The entire Godfather saga is an analysis of what this dream, this ambition, does to Michael, and the obvious answer is that it destroys whatever is good in him. John Hess, writing at the time of the film’s release, casts all this in a Marxist light; he sees the film as detailing the binary opposition between capitalism (The American Dream) and humanity (represented by everything Michael loses.) He sees opposition between Michael’s family and his crime family, his ‘work.’ The two, clearly, are incompatible (Hess writes that ‘the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.’ It’s a fascinating way to look at the film; Michael’s family are taken from him by violence, or they are alienated or, most tellingly of all, he has them killed. Fredo’s death at the end of the film is extremely affecting, marking as it does the final nail in the coffin of Michael’s own humanity. The final shots of Michael show him entirely alone, firstly in flashback at his father’s table, secondly in the present time as an older man.

young alone old alone

Michael has, in some way, always been alone. In the first scene he has just announced his desire to join the army, against his family’s wishes. In the second, he has had Fredo killed, (obviously) against the wishes of what remains of his family. Clearly, he has never understood what family actually is, what it is for; he understands it as something to protect, to make prosperous, but he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand why he is actually doing all this for his family.

In this, he is opposed to his father, Vito. Their stories – Vito’s climb to ascendancy as Godfather in the 19oos and Michael’s descent to monstrousness in the 1950s – are told in parallel, thus creating the binary oppositions – past and present, old world (Europe) and new world (America), father and son – which so profoundly inform the film. Vito is shown to be a man who loves his family – properly, affectionately – and his friends. As he is gathering friends about him, Michael, 50 years later, is alienating them (sometimes, the very people his father befriended all those years before.) At one point, we see Vito with his family, telling his son how much he loves him, being the conventionally happy family man:

kids

When we cut back to the film’s present day and Michael’s story, he is arriving alone at his home to meet his wife, who has just a had a miscarriage (we later find it was an abortion.) He looks at her, then turns away; he does not have his father’s ability to be open and emotionally natural – to be a good human being – even with people he once loved. It’s not so simple as father/good, son/ bad, of course; immediately before returning to be with his family, Vito had gunned down a local mobster. This is his first killing, and one which does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. Nobody here is a ‘good guy’ (this is noir, at least in spirit, remember) but Michael apparently does not know how to maintain his humanity in the midst of so much evil. In Michael Hess’ terms, already mentioned, he is a business man, not a family man; he can’t be both.

All in all, a truly magnificent movie, one that does what the best narrative art does; shows us real, believable characters being buffeted by life and managing or failing to manage to reain something of themselves. By the end, when Michael is completely without humanity, we still feel for him, because we understand how he came to be like that; the film shows us how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, perhaps, merely constructs, how we are all the product of our environments, how even the best of us- Michael Corleone, the young charmer, the war hero – can be corrupted.