Monthly Archives: March 2008

Princesas (Spain 2005)

Candela Peña (left) and Micaela Nevárez in Princesas

I really enjoyed this film. I didn’t know too much beforehand, but I was immediately drawn into the world of the central character, Caye. The film works simply as a character study of a lonely woman and the friendship she makes with another prostitute, from the Dominican Republic. At times it might be a thriller, a (family) melodrama or a romance, yet none of the potential genre narratives are carried through. Instead, we are given the chance to engage with a character who is naive at best, sometimes pathetic, but also resourceful and open to new ideas and relationships. As I watched the film, I thought again how easy it is to ‘see’ film acting only when it is a highly visible construction of an unusual character. Candela Peña’s performance as Caye is as skilful in bringing to life a ‘ordinary’ character as any barnstorming performance that wins an Oscar. Fortunately, Spanish critics recognised Peña’s achievement and she won several awards at home.

My main query is to why it took two years for this excellent film to get UK distribution. I missed the previous release by director Fernando León de Aranoa, Mondays in the Sun with Javier Bardem and now I’m keen to catch up with it.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I was shocked when Anthony Minghella’s death was announced last week. He was far too young and it must have been dreadful for those around him. There have been tributes from all sides of the UK and international film, theatre and oprea communities. He obviously helped a lot of people in the industry and was highly respected. I wasn’t that interested in his films which I assumed to be in the ‘international Miramax mode’ and the only one I saw in a cinema was Cold Mountain, which after a fantastic opening battle scene I found quite literally cold and ultimately disappointing. As a result I approached the film pilot of the projected TV series of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with some trepidation.

I was further taken aback to discover Richard Curtis was a co-exec producer and co-writer. His presence usually puts me off completely, but I’d heard great things of the novels that were the series’ inspiration and I was intrigued by how Botswana would look on film. The cinematography in the film pilot was by Seamus McGarvey and it was very beautiful — far too beautiful really. The opening sequences had numerous crane/cherrypicker shots that might have graced a mainstream Hollywood feature. Unfortunately, the novels (I’m told) are small scale, gentle tales that don’t need the epic treatment.

I have no problem with the BBC screening a series set in Africa (in a Sunday night ‘comfy telly’ slot, just like ITV) and I have no problem with Africa being represented by a gentle comedic series – I readily accept that it’s important to have alternative representations of African stories — they don’t all have to be about civil war, refugees and famine. But . . .

I do have problems with this series. I only lasted for less than half the running time and found something better to do. The opening was slow for no apparent reason. It looked like a one hour idea was being spun out over 100 mins or so. The beauty of the cinematography then began to look likeit was offering an alternative to the slow story. But my main concern is that the film isn’t really an ‘alternative’ to the other representations of Southern Africa. In fact it follows the usual British/American strategy of shipping in actors from the US and UK as well as writers, director, producer etc plus some heads of department. The heavy promotion of the film suggested ‘local’ sourcing of other crew, but as far as I could work out, this meant South African crew members alongside a couple of South African actors. Great play was made of being unable to find an African actor to play the lead role. I interpret this to mean that no African actor was considered suitable for a UK/US audience – I’m sure there are Zimbabwean women who could have played the character, or even South Africans. It wouldn’t be so bad if the BBC (or other UK channels) were prepared to put some money into African film production in Anglophone countries in the way that the French do in Francophone countries — or at least show some African film product.

South Africa is potentially the major source of African ‘films’ (ignoring for the moment the hundreds of video films being produced in Nigeria and Ghana) but as yet the South African industry has remained in thrall to Hollywood. I guess it was too much to expect the Weinsteins and HBO to do anything very different with The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Uwasa no onna (Japan 1954)

Mother (Tanaka Kinuyo) and daughter (Kuga Mishiko) in conflict.

In one of my fantasies, I learn how to manage time so well that I am able to work my way through all the available films of the directors I love. In reality, this means being decisive now and again and buying a DVD which might get watched.

Mizoguchi Kenji is my sentimental favourite amongst the Japanese and I was delighted to discover that Masters of Cinema are releasing a series of double DVD packs of his films. Of course, this means that I will probably have to buy films that I have already got (or rent the films separately). However, in the case of Uwasa no onna it has been paired with Chikamatsu monogatari, which I think I did see many years ago, but certainly haven’t got.

Uwasa no onna is an untranslatable title that has sometimes been rendered as ‘Woman of Rumour’ or ‘Woman in the rumour’ – summoning up a common Mizoguchi theme of the lives of women in the context of restrictive social mores. This is one of Mizoguchi’s contemporary set films (although most of it takes place in the ‘pleasure’ district of Kyoto, where many of the women are employed as geisha). It’s a melodrama based on a triangle of mother, daughter and young male doctor. The great Tanaka Kinuyo plays the mother, a widow who has invested in a geisha house. Her daughter returns from Tokyo after a failed suicide and is shown as shamed by her mother’s profession. The doctor who comes to visit her is the ‘house doctor’ in whom the mother has more than a professional interest.

The DVD carries a Tony Rayns introduction in which spends most of the time discussing how Mizoguchi didn’t wish to make the film which was forced on him by his studio Daiei and how it was the last film he made with Tanaka, with whom he fell out when she became a successful director herself (the first significant female director in Japan). The introduction is both tantalising and frustrating. Rayns reminds us that Mizoguchi himself knew about the world of the pleasure houses (i.e. brothels) both from personal experience (common and acceptable for middle-class Japanese men of his era) and from his research for several other films which explored the same milieu. In this sense, it is clear why Daiei thought that this was a suitable property. It was written by Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi’s long-term collaborator and Narusawa Masashige, who would go on to be a major collaborator, so something was wrong if Mizoguchi turned away from the script. Rayns suggests that he was simply tired after winning three successive prizes at Venice or disdainful of what was clearly a straightforward genre piece. Daiei’s motives become clear in the trailer included on the DVD which announces a ‘dramatic epic’ with all the sumptuousness of the geisha world. These now seem rather ridiculous claims for what turned out to be an 84 min film with relatively little visual splendour and none of the bravura camerawork that graces a film like Sansho Dayu from the same year.

But this lack of epic scale doesn’t detract from my pleasure in watching the film. What I see is the competent genre work of a team of highly skilled filmmakers and performers. Most of all it makes me wonder about how films like this were seen in Japan in the 1950s. Presumably, this would have been half of a double bill in an upmarket cinema in Tokyo or Osaka. What would it have shown with? Were cinemas at this time controlled by the studios themselves? As one of the newer, smaller studios did Daiei have access to their own cinemas or did they have to rely on their larger competitors for bookings? An interesting brief history of Daiei by Greg Shoemaker answers some of these questions, but raises further seeming contradictions — writing in a fantasy magazine, Shoemaker is more interested in the science fiction and exploitation films which Daiei were making in the same period. Mizoguchi’s more artistic work was an important part of Daiei’s attempts to produce commercially successful period films that would appeal to foreign markets (hence the festival screenings). The more generically inclined period films would then become reliable commercial earners at home in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But though I love Mizoguchi’s period films, I find his contemporary films equally interesting. My question remains. Who were the audiences who got to see what appear now to be small genre pictures for older middle class audiences – in the 1950s perhaps the equivalent of audiences who enjoyed Douglas Sirk’s melodramas?

The obvious thing to do is to compare Mizoguchi’s contemporary films with those of Ozu and Naruse — something increasingly possible now that the DVDs are appearing. Mizoguchi seems to me the more painterly (he was a trained painter I think), less realist but perhaps more concerned overall with ideas of art and society. I think three representations will remain with me from the film. First, the daughter (played by Kuga Mishiko) reminds me so much of Audrey Hepburn and is wonderfully fresh and modern in a mise en scène which is otherwise so traditional. Secondly, Mizoguchi offers us the contrast of the stage life and ‘real life’ with performances of both kabuki and noh plays (the latter being relatively rare in contemporary set films). Finally (and another Mizoguchi trait) is the sense of community shown by the girls in the house who effectively introduce us to all sides of the courtesan’s life.

A note on the DVD: these are direct transfers from Daiei masters and surprisingly for UK DVDs they are NTSC discs. My DVD player/TV set can cope, but the image is never as good as PAL and appears here as rather lacking in contrast. It works fine on my Mac, though here the primitive sound quality is more evident. The DVD twin pack also has a small 56 page booklet, most of which deals with Chikamatsu monogatari, but there is a short extract from Keiko McDonald’s out of print book on Mizoguchi. I found this useful in thinking about the mise en scène of the geisha house itself with the contrast between the cramped quarters of the girls and the more lavish use of space (so precious in Japanese buildings) in the mother’s and daughter’s rooms. No mention of Mizoguchi’s reluctance here but McDonald does note, the Western style of camera work and editing and she concludes that Mizoguchi was, in terms of social critique, adopting an attitude of detachment and of “showing us how it is”.

The final page of the booklet is something to cheer every cinephile – a set of instructions about how to watch a film in Academy ratio on a modern TV set, complete with illustrations showing how the image will be distorted or cropped on widescreen TVs set to ‘fill the screen’ defaults. What an excellent idea — all DVDs should carry this!

Battle for Haditha (UK 2007)

I remember enjoying and being impressed by one of Nick Broomfield’s early works, Soldier Girls (1981). His later high profile series of authored, ‘performative’ documentaries such as Biggie and Tupac (2002) tended to leave me cold. I could see that they were important in terms of introducing new documentary styles but I just found his presence irritating. I was therefore intrigued by his turn to documentary drama in Ghosts (2006) which I was glad I caught on the big screen. I wish that was where I saw Battle for Haditha.

Instead, I saw this film about the Iraq War on Channel 4. It was broadcast on the day it was released on DVD in the UK. It did in fact get a cinema release – one week in three cinemas according to the UKFC website. I assume that this was to get some reviews and to qualify for awards. This wouldn’t matter except that I was shocked to discover that the film was shot on Super 35 and the film print was ‘Scope 2.35:1. The Channel 4 broadcast was 16:9 or thereabouts (whereas Film 4 usually gets aspect ratios correct). I don’t really feel like I’ve seen a film properly if it is in the wrong ratio and coupled with the annoying ad breaks this ruined my concentration. More 4 screened a documentary co-directed by Broomfield’s son immediately after the Battle for Haditha ended. At one point they trailed the doc. in an ad break and I became confused – I thought the film had started again. If Channel 4 does get some public money after all its lobbying I suggest that Ofcom forces them to restrict ads to the gaps between programmes, not during them.

This long preamble is just to make the point that I find it difficult to judge a film that has aroused controversy – because its presentation was so flawed. The events depicted took place in 2005 and Broomfield recreated them in Jordan using non-actors with some connection to the original ‘players’ in the incident. The main American character, the marine corporal, was played by an ex-marine who had been wounded in Iraq (and who shows his battle scars in one sequence). The case of the marines who were accused of murdering civilians after a roadside bomb exploded has not yet been resolved. This has led to some attacks on Broomfield, as has the overall representation of the Americans. Yet the film does attempt to portray three sides to the argument in a dispassionate way – the marines, the ‘insurgents’ (both foreign fighters and locals) and the local families who were both innocent bystanders and victims of the conflict.

I don’t think it is Broomfield’s fault that I had least sympathy with the marines. I know soldiers have to be tough and that these young men have been brutalised by the war. In principle, I don’t hold them responsible for what Bush and Blair have unleashed. But I found it hard to engage with faceless guys in combat gear who seem to shout and swear most of the time. Most people would surely sympathise with the families, including the young couple pictured above, whose lives are shattered. Oddly though, it is the two men who plant the bomb who seem to be the characters we get to know best. At least they have a reason for what they do — and remorse when it goes wrong. The real villains of the story are the American commanders and the Al Quaeda/insurgent leaders.

The film is very well made on a tiny budget of $2 million, but in the end I’m not sure whether it ‘works’ in terms of the documentary drama style. It doesn’t, for me, have either the fluid action of Paul Greengrass, the melodrama intensity of Ken Loach or the real sense of ‘being there’ that Michael Winterbottom achieves. But if I’d seen it in a cinema I might feel differently about it.

Auf der anderen Seite (Germany/Turkey 2007)

At last a day off and the chance to watch some movies. In fact it started the night before when I saw Juno, but Friday was the day when I managed to see the new print of Bertolucci’s The Conformist and the new Fatih Akin, ‘On the other side‘.

I enjoyed The Conformist, especially because of the performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant and the sumptuous mise en scène. It is wonderful to return to the films of 1970 and to embrace a cinema that could mix a traditional story with a strong sense of atmosphere and no worries about narrative. But it is equally wonderful to watch a contemporary movie as riveting as the Fatih Akin.

As an aside, I was not impressed by the cinema showing the film. The Curzon Soho is supposedly the premiere UK art cinema, but it isn’t a patch on the Cubby Broccoli or Pictureville at Bradford. I really don’t like a cinema where you have to look up to the screen (the Prince Charles off Leicester Square is the worst offender – but I haven’t been there for a while, perhaps it has changed?). Which means that is even more impressive that Auf der anderen seite can so exert its power. I’m now seriously considering how I can get to Istanbul by train.

I found this film much less aggressive and ‘hard’ than Akin’s previous film Head On, but equally moving. I hadn’t expected the Tom Tykwer style coincidences to be so important and I loved the sequence in which characters in a car pass a train carrying other important characters – two narratives interconnecting without the protagonists’ knowledge. Great too, to have such an open ending. I just hope that the deal with Sky Box Office pays off and that more people get to see the film this way – I just worry that it won’t get seen in cinemas by more traditional arthouse audiences if the digital pay per view release cuts the number of film prints in distribution.

A useful review article on the film by Thomas Elsaesser is on the Film Comment website.