Tag Archives: realism

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.

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

Tomb Raider #2: The Reboot

 

In the last gaming post, I wrote about the sexism in the gaming industry; the lack of female protagonists, and the unwillingness to give the same level of promotion to those female-orientated games that do exist. There are exceptions – games like Mirror’s Edge, Bayonetta and Beyond Good and Evil are all games published by major companies (EA, Sega and Ubisoft respectively) which feature strong, independent female protagonists. However, the earliest of those was made in 2003 and I’d struggle to think of many more, so what is clear is that there are precious few of them. Gaming, or console gaming at least, appears to be shaped by an industry with an extremely gendered world view, with Mulvey’s Male Gaze very much in operation; men making games about men for men.

Of those female protagonists, of course , the most famous is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft. 2013 saw the latest release in the franchise, Tomb Raider, published by Square Enix. As that back-to-basics name suggests, this was intended as a complete reboot, a redesign of the whole game and concept for a new generation (it’s almost twenty years since the first game was released.) In narrative terms, it is a prequel to all the other games, showing Lara’s first adventure. Ultimately, the game received much critical praise and sold somewhere around 4,000,000 copies. Despite being the most successful game in the franchise, and one of the year’s biggest selling games, sales did not meet Square Enix’s targets and were regarded as disappointing.

Lara herself was redesigned for the game. She is more life-like and less overtly sexualised. In semiotic terms, indices of femininity – breasts and legs, most obviously, but also lips and eyes – are emphasised less, and the palette associated with her is more muted. It would appear that Square Enix are moving towards a representation which relies less upon dominant, and perhaps outdated, ideologies about female roles in video games. Lara is still very conventionally attractive, but she looks less like a male fantasy and more like a fit and healthy young woman. Given the growing importance of the female gaming audience, this is perhaps an attempt to offer some sense of personal identity to that audience. Lara, it would appear, will be defined less by how she looks and more by what she does.

quicker evolution

The first trailer for the game, called Crossroads, was shown at E3 in 2012. E3 is an industry-only convention (unlike events such as Europe’s Gamescom and Hong Kong’s Asia Game Show, the world’s biggest gaming convention) and thus Square Enix were relying on word-of-mouth, journalists and bloggers to take the news about their new game to the audience.

In general terms, it is clearly a conventional game trailer in terms of structure and narrative; it features particularly exciting parts of the game and gives some sense of the plot and narrative (essentially, Lara learning to protect and defend herself.) It utilises some conventions of ‘realist’ film (‘shakycam’, sunspots and rain on the camera) in order to create a grittier gaming experience. The game is also much more violent than previous instalments, and it also borrows conventions from horror films, especially the slasher movie; the canted angles, fast edits and flashing transitions, for example, ant the dark, underground locations. Generically, this takes the game closer to survival horror than adventure.

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 12.19.50 pm

Reactions were mixed, but were soon dominated by discussions about the representational issues in the trailer. There were accusations that it was little more than ‘torture porn’; basically, that it offers pleasures to a male audience who want to watch a young woman being brutalised in a number of ways. (This again makes the diversions offered by the trailer similar to those offered by slasher movies, a genre typically aimed at a male audience.) Lara is battered and attacked for the first part of the trailer and even as she becomes more competent in defending herself, she remains stereotypically feminine and ‘soft’ – for example, she apologises to a deer before killing it. (Try to imagine the male protagonist of any game ever doing that.) Soon, she calls her mentor, a man, to help her defend herself from other men as she tries to rescue her female friend. So, judged by the trailer, we appear to be in a very conventional Proppsian narrative, constructed to appeal to a male gaze; girls are unable to defend themselves from men, so they need other men to help them. Things happen to Lara in this trailer and she appears to be powerless to stop any of it – there is no real sense of her being active and even the last shot is of her falling down a cliff face; she is being represented as a victim, which seems like a huge departure from previous games.

The real controversy, though, was about a scene in the trailer where one of the villains seems about to rape Lara, although she manages to fight him off. The editing in this scene is clearly designed to create excitement – jump cuts, quick cuts from mid-shot to close-up, MTV-style editing. Rape, it seems to suggest, is a fit topic for a game, particularly one aimed at a male audience. This reveals n=much about how audiences are regarded by the industry; Robyn Miller wrote ‘In brief, the marketing strategy assumes that its intended audience will only express interest in a female character if she is systematically victimized and portrayed as inert.’

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 11.09.25 pm

 

Square Enix released a statement which probably did more harm than good, saying that players would want to ‘protect’ Lara – again, we can detect paternalism here and an assumption that the audience is male. The ‘buzz’ was not about the game at this point, but about the trailer and given that the company were relying on positive reports from bloggers and media in general, this first trailer seems to have been a textbook example of bad marketing. In the mainstream, non-gaming, press in particular, the impression was created that the whole game was about rape. (Newspapers with large circulations like the UK’s The Sun and The Guardian are examples of this.) But influential gaming blogs like Kotaku were also bemused by the marketing angle; not at all the response the company wanted.

Closer to  the actual launch of the game, we can see that Square Enix have changed their approach. This trailer, called Reborn, is making a determined effort to appeal across gender and age groups.

Firstly, we actually see the intended audience; both genders, various ages and races.

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 6.33.10 pm

 

Secondly, they are speaking Lara’s words, giving her a voice; in the previous trailer, most of the talking was done by Roth. We still see Lara suffer a lot, but this time the ‘turnaround’, where she takes control of the narrative, comes a lot more quickly and more powerfully. ‘I must fight,’ she says, and then we have a list of adjectives to describe her – ‘fast’, ‘bold’, ‘brutal’ and so on. These are words and ideas which would not conventionally be associated with females. Finally, we hear ‘I am LARA CROFT.’ The focus is now on her as a survivor rather than a victim (the tagline for the game was ‘A survivor is born’) and as the protagonist, the active character in the narrative. This is much more in keeping with the established character of Lara Croft and, indeed, it offer a much more accurate representation of what was generally agreed to be a very good game.

There were other marketing approaches used – free DLC was given away to those who pre-ordered the game for example – but perhaps the damage had been done. Jeff Vogel wrote that the marketing campaign never made clear who the game was actually targeted at – the genre of the game, the mood and tone, the main character had all apparently changed and were represented inconsistently throughout the campaign – and perhaps that was part of the reason for the apparently disappointing sales.

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.

head

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.

old men dressed up

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.

fat bloke in pink dress

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.)

dancers

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.

anwar reflective

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.

reenactment massacre

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.

Film Fall Preview

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.

Muse

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.

hospital soldiers

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.

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 9.19.53 am

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.

direct address lying

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.

murder

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.

blood

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.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The whole universe depends on everything fitting just right. If a piece get bust, even one tiny piece, the whole universe would get busted.

Some films don’t exactly fill me with desire to rush out and see them. This one- first-time director, amateur cast, a somewhat unlikely mix of social realism and fantasy – certainly didn’t and that’s why I’ve only now seen it, a year after it was released. I should have known better; this film made an enormous impact on release (winning at Cannes and Sundance, and being nominated for four Oscars) and after seeing it, I can see what the fuss was about. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s actually better for the imperfections, born as they are of ambition. Peter Travers calls it ‘a game-changer that gets you excited about movies again’, and though I don’t know about the ‘game changer’ part,  I absolutely agree that it would take a hard heart not to love this film.

dad

The film tells the story of six-year old Hushpuppy who lives with her father Wink in the Bathtub, a small community separated from New Orleans by a levee. Her mother is gone – she floated away, Hushpuppy is told – and her father is both unwell and prone to drinking and anger. The community teacher tells the children about how the Bathtub is soon to be washed away and how the aurochs, prehistoric creatures, will be released from the ice caps. We follow Hushpuppy throughout the story and watch the development of her relationship with her father as well as the strength and vulnerability of her community; we see their friends die, but they have a ‘funeral the bathtub way; with no crying.’

This is such an a ambitious movie, amazingly so when we consider the director’s inexperience, the amateur cast, the tiny budget. It tells us the story of the New Orleans flood – more, of a way of life associated strongly with New Orleans. We see the poverty and associated problems – drunkenness, illness, broken families  – and the strength and love in these communities. Characters like Miss Bathsheba, the teacher, exude roughness and warmth in equal measure, and they personify this beautifully shot and realised world. At one level, then, it’s a kind of social realism, and the low budget, non-professional actors and focus on the problems of working-class people put it firmly in the tradition of Neo Realism inherited from films like The Bicycle Thieves directors like Vittorio de Sica or even New Wave classics like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Perhaps it’s coincidence that among the final shots of both films are long, hard stares into the camera by the youthful protagonist, but the similarity in intent is clear; these children are tough, resilient, survivors.

(Quvenzhane√? Wallis)

At another level, it’s a coming-of-age film, and this is the aspect that’ll make you cry. Wink’s illness progresses throughout the film, and Hushpuppy has to come to terms with the mortality of her father, herself, and everything. There is an amazing central performance from  Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy – only eight years old when the film was released (six when she started filming it) and yet she perfectly communicates the wrenching pain and anger and bewilderment that Hushpuppy feels at various times. She is an a mazing talent (and she has now appeared in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. That’s not a bad CV for someone who hasn’t left junior school yet.) Director Benh Zeitlin (himself only 29 when the film was made) recreates the child’s point of view in a number of ways – the warm palettes which clash with the cold tones of the holding centre Hushpuppy and her father are sent to; the handheld camera throughout which, while it seriously annoys some reviewers, seems to me a perfect way to capture a child’s slightly wonky view of the world; the beautifully lyrical voiceover. It’s very reminiscent of films like The Fall and even Pan’s Labyrinth in its use of the child’s point-of-view.

Finally, it’s a fantasy movie. It’s a real shock when we start to see ice caps melting and the aurochs emerge – not something you’d actually expect in a film set in New Orleans –  and this is the part of the movie which made some reviewers qualify their praise for the film (James Berardinelli writes that, ‘The movie comes across as a collection of competing themes and ideas that collide more often than complement one another and never fully gel.’) However, I think it’s a wonderful, weird addition to an already powerful film. The aurochs, in their massive, snorting, physicality serve as the perfect binary opposite to the tiny Hushpuppy and their journey to the bathtub both adds (even more) narrative movement and shape to the film and, again, mirrors Hushpuppy’s own journey back home and, of course, her metaphorical journey to independence. The film, particularly the ending, has the weight of allegory about it and it reminded me of Life of Pi as another movie which resisted easy interpretation. What the aurochs represent is open to debate; but we feel they are significant and we want to understand them and in that ambiguity we both experience the same dilemma as Hushpuppy herself – she feels more than she can express – and we feel how the film has the fluidity and depth of lyric poetry.

beasts_of_the_southern_wild_review

It’s incredibly refreshing to see a low-budget movie succeed so much on the strength of creativity, daring and wonderful production and performances. It’s the best, most beautiful,  film I’ve seen in an age, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.