Monthly Archives: September 2007

Pen Pictures of Directors (3): China

The Soong Sisters (Hong Kong 1997)

As far as I am aware, no films from Chinese women are available on DVD in the UK (it would be great to be proved wrong!). The two films that we may be able to see an extract from are both Hong Kong imports from Yes Asia. The service is good and the DVDs are not expensive. These two films are on good quality DVDs, but they can vary.

The experienced director Ann Hui (born 1947) is a key figure in Hong Kong Cinema. Born to a Chinese father and Japanese mother in Manchuria, she moved to Macao and then Hong Kong as a child and later spent two years at the London International Film School. She began work in Hong Kong television and then became part of the Hong Kong New Wave Cinema making prize-winning films such as Boat People (1982) one of a trilogy of ‘Vietnam films’. More recently she has directed and acted in films with more of a populist feel. Jade Goddess of Mercy (2003) is an interesting film adapted from a popular novel. The young Chinese filmstar and pop star Vicki Zhou (Wei Zhao) plays a young policewoman working on a drug squad and juggling the job, a baby and a marriage under strain.

Mabel Cheung (born 1950) has had a similar career structure. She was born in Guangdong, Southern China, moved to Hong Kong, studied drama in the UK and joined Hong Kong television. After film school in New York, she began directing features in 1985. Her 1997 film The Soong Sisters is a biopic of the three sisters who each married one of the leaders of the Chinese Republic in the early 20th Century (one married Sun Yat-Sen, one a banker and Finance Minister and one Chiang Kai-Shek) and who played an important role in Chinese public life up until the 1980s. The film also celebrated the best acting talents in Hong Kong Cinema with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh playing alongside Vivian Wu (better known in American films and television).

There are several other Chinese women directors currently active and some of them are referenced on this website describing an event at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Earlier this year, as part of the China 07 Festival, Cecile Tang (Shu Shuen Tong)’s 1970 film The Arch was screened at the National Media Museum and we blogged a report on our sister blog.

2 Days in Paris (France/Germany 2007)

Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg in 2 Days in Paris
I rather enjoyed Julie Delpy’s film. It’s a kind of romantic comedy with elements of screwball and (very mild) grossout contemporary comedy that features a French woman and an American man who live together in New York and are visiting Paris on the way back from a holiday in Venice.

It is almost biographical in the sense that Delpy is an actor who has been out of France for some time. She had previously co-scripted the second film she made with Ethan Hawke for Richard Linklater, Before Sunset (2004). That film covered the brief meeting of an American man and a French woman who had met before (in 1995’s Before Sunrise). In the new film, a similar scenario is played for laughs and Delpy directs and even writes some of the music.

Overall, I took this to be an American-style comedy, but with a French script that was more intelligent than American 30-something comedies and less whiny than Woody Allen. Allen is a reference point since the American man is half-Jewish and played by a Jewish-looking actor who in the film is mistaken for an Arab. I mention this because the film plays with the character’s sense of Jewish denial (and a stereotypical French response) and because it is indicative of the kind of material in the film which seems to have upset many of the IMDB commentators, both French and American. But as one of the other users notes, these kinds of jokes are made in all cosmopolitan cities. So, get over it, I suppose.

I think it is depressing when Delpy gets criticised for being egoistic. She has produced intelligent, adult (i.e. grown-up) comedy. That’s pretty rare in my view.

As to the difficulties of finding finance for a film like this, Julie Delpy must have some clout, but I noted that it was a French/German co-production, which possibly explains the brief cameo appearance of Daniel Bruehl.

Pen Pictures of directors (2): Iran

The Makhmalbaf Film House

The remarkable family of filmmakers known as the Makhmalbaf Film House (the website is well worth visiting) comprises Mohsen, Marziyeh, Samira, Maysam and Hana. Mohsen spent four and a half years as a teenage militant in the Shah’s prison until his release in 1979. This self-educated man has since devoted himself to alleviating the ‘cultural poverty’ of Iran with books and films which have often fallen foul of the censors. In 1996 he retired from the Iranian ‘film industry’ and opened a film school in which he taught, amongst others, his own three children and his second wife, Marziyeh. The family have subsequently produced several award-winning films.

Samira is the eldest daughter and has had the most stellar career so far. In 1998, aged 21, she took her film The Apple to Cannes and many other festivals where she won prizes. In 2000 Blackboards won her the Jury Prize at Cannes and a nomination for the Palme d’Or. She contributed to 11’09″01 — September 11 (2002) and in 2003 directed At 5 in the Afternoon. She is currently working on Two-Legged Horse for 2008 release — despite a bomb attack on the production in Afghanistan.

Marziyeh Meshkini (pictured above) has worked as assistant director for Mohsen and Samira and has directed two features herself. The Day I Grew Up To Be a Woman (2000) will be shown on the course. Stray Dog (2004) is another product of the Makhmalbaf Film House move to projects in Afghanistan after 2001.

Maysam has so far made one film — a documentary about the filming by his sister of Blackboards.

Hana is Samira’s young sister. Although only 19, she has already made a short film (when she was 9) and a documentary The Joy of Madness (when she was 14) about her sister’s experience on At 5 in the Afternoon. She has also published a book of poems.

As is evident from these brief descriptions, the Makhmalbafs all work on each other’s films and they are able to finance their productions through the Film House and its partnerships with production companies outside Iran (often in France).


Ali Barkai as Atim and Youssouf Djaoro as Nassara in Daratt

Daratt (Dry Season) (Chad/France/Belgium/Austria 2006) is a simple tale which nevertheless seems to say a great deal. It takes place in Chad where a ‘Justice and Retribution’ Commission is reporting on war crimes after a long civil war. Atim (a name that means orphan) is summoned by his grandfather and instructed to find the man who killed his father and execute him. Atim sets off for the city and finds the man (Nassara), now a baker with a young wife and suffering from various wounds and ailments. Atim is hired by Nassara to work in his bakery, despite his aggressive stance. Eventually, Nassara comes to rely on Atim – will the execution take place?

I found the film engrossing despite its slow pace. It’s a while since I’ve seen any new African films (I actually have the previous film by this director on DVD, but I’ve not watched it — I will now) and I’m struggling to place it in relation to what I know. There is little here of either the magical realism of a Souleymane Cissé, the politics of a Sembene Ousmane or the postmodernism of a Djibril Diop Mambéty. Perhaps the films of Idrissa Ouedraogo are more relevant. Visually, this film is very spare with long shots and MLS of dusty streets and the bakery with occasional MCUs and CUs. The nighttime scenes are distinctive with Atim walking into pools of light and then back into total blackness.

Atim is at once a ‘country boy’ in the city and a modern ‘rebel’ figure. When he jokes on his mobile ‘phone and suddenly sprays his armpits with deodorant, we are reminded that this is a young man in a young man’s world. He speaks only rarely and it is a sign of the desperate loneliness that Nassara feels, that he quickly grows to love Atim despite constant rebuffs. I’m strongly tempted to see the film as in some way metaphorical in that Atim represents a future in which the young men of Chad can escape from the ravages of the past and come to terms with reconciliation without losing everything of tradition. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic — I hope not. Definitely worth seeing.

Pen Pictures of directors (1): India

Some directors who will feature on the course, who you may wish to investigate:

Deepa Mehta
This Canadian director was born in Amritsar in the Punjab and emigrated after getting her degree in philosophy from Delhi University. She started directing aged 40 in Canada and she is best known internationally for her trilogy of films set in India. This ‘elemental trilogy’ deals with issues relevant to women in Indian society. Fire (1996) looks at a marriage in which a young woman discovers that her husband has married her for convenience and she is drawn into a relationship with her sister-in-law.

Earth (1998) concerns the fate of families caught up in the struggles over Indian partition in 1947 in a story seen from the perspective of a young girl and Water (2005) focuses on the fate of a child bride who is widowed and forced to live in a house with other widows in 1930s Benares. An important aspect of Deepa Mehta’s work is her casting of Shabana Azmi, one of Indian Cinema’s leading female stars, who has herself undertaken several campaigns on feminist issues. Another star, Nandita Das appeared in the first two films of the trilogy and would have joined Shabana Azmi if production on Water had not been halted by the disruption caused by Hindu fundamentalist protestors. For more about Water, read the brief review on our associate blog.

Mira Nair
Born in Orissa, Mira Nair also went to North America to train as a documentary filmmaker, basing herself in the US. She began directing in her early twenties, but first came to international attention with Salaam Bombay in 1988, a documentary-drama about streetchildren in Bombay, funded by public and private investors in India, Channel 4 in the UK and a French production company. In 1991 she made Mississippi Masala, about an inter-racial affair between the daughter of East African Indian immigrants (played by Sarita Choudhury) and an African-American man in the Southern US (played by Denzil Washington). After some less successful films, she finally had a major hit with Monsoon Wedding in 2001, which married the conventions of very different forms of cinema – the loose visual style of European and American Independent Cinema with the intensity of Indian Parallel Cinema and the exuberance of Bollywood.

In 2004 Reese Witherspoon starred in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, which perhaps didn’t get the big audiences it deserved, and in 2006 she directed The Namesake which we will be screening on the course. Again, there is a a brief review of this film on our associate blog.

Although Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have similar backgrounds and are both ‘diaspora filmmakers’ returning to India to make films, the films themselves look and feel quite different. Deepa Mehta’s films might seem to be more concerned with ‘issues’ and her Indian films have something of the qualities of Indian ‘Parallel Cinema’, the socially conscious ‘alternative cinema’ of the 1970s-80s. This makes Water, with its use of music by A. R. Rahman, the leading composer of Indian popular cinema, particularly interesting as a development. By contrast, Mira Nair seems less concerned with specific issues and more concerned with characters, often, but not always, women. If Mira Nair is a more ‘popular’ director, it is because she chooses to work in ways more associated with popular genre cinema — particularly genres associated with female audiences, such as romance, family saga, melodrama etc.

Both directors have consistently worked with women in prominent production roles. Not surprisingly, women are very often writers, editors and production designers — but none of the films mentioned above are photographed by women. Lydia Dean Pilcher has been Mira Nair’s producer on most of her films.

British Film Forever?

This has been the Summer of British Film, a concoction dreamed up by the BBC and the UK Film Council, comprising three linked ‘strands’ — newly minted digital copies of well-known British films in cinemas on Tuesday evenings, a series of ‘themed’ documentaries on Saturday night on BBC2 and a linked series of screenings of British films scattered around the BBC2 schedules.

It isn’t absolutely clear what the purpose of the whole enterprise might have been. The cinema screenings have been for very well-known films that only the youngest audiences wouldn’t know from TV screenings. It’s nice to see these films get a cinema outing, but it’s difficult for me to get excited by them. However, if it gets any new audiences into cinemas, fine.

More problematic is the BBC2 contribution. On the whole this has been an excellent opportunity badly wasted in my view. The expectation, on BBC2, is for a reasonably sensible documentary with an educational or artistic purpose as well as being entertaining. This hasn’t been in evidence. Talking heads such as Phil Jupitus, Billy Bragg and Ewan McGregor share screentime with noted film academics such as Ian Christie. There is a woeful voiceover delivered by Jessica Stevenson, presumably to attract younger audiences and the script is all over the place (Matthew Sweet is mentioned, but I’m sure he isn’t totally responsible). The programmes are themed by genre, but little thought seems to have gone into what a genre might be or how to explain it. The clips are chopped up and usually presented in the wrong ratio (i.e. Academy becomes 16:9 and so does ‘Scope). I watched the first in the series and decided not to bother with the rest. I then relented and thought I’d give it a second chance, but Saturday’s programme roughly themed around ‘war’ was just as bad. I wept for Jack Cardiff and Thelma Schoonmaker, interviewed between clips of Powell & Pressburger films cropped to fit into 16:9 frames, destroying careful compositions willy-nilly (and nearly cutting Pressburger’s name off a title card). These programmes, if they are meant to attract a new audience for older British films, should be on BBC1 (or BBC3?).

The film screenings have included some interesting titles, but also several have been ruined by ‘pan and scan’. Poor Sidney Furie — three of his early 1960s films have been on in the last few weeks (The Ipcress File, The Boys and The Leather Boys), all panned and scanned.

Something very strange is going on at the BBC. Perhaps producers and schedulers no longer talk to each other? On Sunday night, a second documentary, this time under the Arena label, was shown on BBC2 with the title ‘Flames of Passion’. Bizarrely, it used some of the same clips from the British Film Forever doc of the night before — but this time they were presented properly in the correct ratio and from excellent prints that positively glowed in terms of expressionist lighting for the late 1940s pictures. No talking heads and a voiceover by the mellifluous Miriam Margolyes, more time on each film and a structure (with chapter heads) that at least made sense and the inclusion of some much less well-known material — by comparison with the night before this was a gem of a programme. I guessed that Bob Murphy must have been involved somewhere and he was listed as Research Consultant. Cheers Bob! I remember the course you put on at the BFI on the sensationalist melos of the late 1940s with much joy.

I imagine a lot of teachers will think about using the British Film Forever docs for background. I urge them not to — or at least to contextualise them very carefully. But ‘Flames of Passion’ is a must (fans will recognise the title as being the film trailed when Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard make their trip to the cinema in Brief Encounter).