Monthly Archives: May 2008

I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006)

Ivan Barnev and Julia Jentsch as the odd couple in I Served the King of England

I approached this screening with some trepidation, especially after seeing the trailer. Having recently watched Jiri Menzel’s earlier film Closely Observed Trains (1966), which I first saw 40 years ago, I was both excited at the possibility of seeing something similar (both films coming from novels by Bohumil Hrabal, something of a Czech literary hero) and worried that the film’s approach would be stuck in a kind of 1960s timewarp.

At the end of two hours I was surprised at how easily the time had passed but also somewhat disturbed by the lack of any clear response I had to the film. It’s beautifully made with excellent performances and it looks wonderful. But it starts with an ‘iris-in’ and ends with an ‘iris out’ and this indicates its old-fashioned appeal. Not that this doesn’t have its charms and its nice to see so many older and less beautiful people having a good time. On the other hand, it is nearly always elderly men and nubile young women. I’m trying hard to think of any woman over 30 in the film at all. The women are beautiful and they are beautifully photographed (a kind of tasteful leer perhaps). The exception is the film’s star name, Julia Jentsch, here playing a Sudeten German and Hitler fraulein. She is rendered as almost a frump – a tribute to her acting skill and star presence.

The main problem I have with the film concerns the central section dealing with the Nazi period. The plot concerns a man of limited stature, literally ‘John Child’, who we see making his way in the world from the 1930s onwards – the story is told in flashback by the older John/Jan in the early 1960s. The young man has two desires – to become a millionaire and to be surrounded by beautiful women. He will achieve both these desires and then be imprisoned by the Communist state after 1948. As several reviewers have pointed out, there is a ‘Good Soldier Schweik’ feel to the story – emphasised by the award of a medal to John by a diminutive Hailie Selassie (an extremely disturbing sequence!). To use a cliché, this aspect of the story is very ‘Central European’. I was reminded of the recent Svankmajer film Lunacy – later I realised that the same actor, Martin Huba, has important roles in both films. I thought too about recent Polish comedies that I’ve seen (which often weren’t funny, even if I could see that they were meant to be funny) and at one point I thought of Roman Polanski, playing the sidekick of a vampire hunter in his 1967 film Dance of the Vampires. In these other films, however, I think it was clear what was being satirised. I was less sure about I Served the King of England.

The title refers to the maitre d’ of the posh hotel in which Jan works. This man is rather pompous, but he is patriotic and meets his fate at the hands of the Nazis. Jan is the everyman figure buffeted by the flow of historical events, but never engaged. I didn’t warm at all to the young Jan. I found him quite irritating, even more so than the hapless young man at the centre of Closely Observed Trains.

There is nothing wrong with making a period film as such and it seems that there is a desire to do this in several European countries in respect of 1930-1950. Black Books has been mentioned as a Dutch WW2 film that shares some elements with this film (though not its comedy style) and several Holocaust films (The Pianist, Fateless) have also appeared recently. I also recognise that Czechoslovakia in this period responded to the Nazi takeover in ways which still need working over (there is a kind of meta text about ‘Empire’ and German identity in Bohemia running throughout the film – the older Jan spends his years after imprisonment in exile in the mountain villages where German Bohemians fled after 1945). Closely Observed Trains does involve the resistance movement, but in this film Jan sees and feels very little. There are limited occasions when the impact of the Nazi Occupation takes centre stage. Perhaps this is more ‘truthful’ about the Czech experience? I don’t know and this film isn’t going to help me. So, this probably isn’t the best film to show to students to encourage them to explore East European Cinema – although it would help to dispel the image of Prague as a destination for British weekenders looking for a cheap drinking hole. The hotels are truly ‘splendid’. Overall, I think this is entertaining but disappointing. But along with Lunacy, it does represent another high profile Czech film in distribution (albeit somewhat late after its launch at Berlin in 2007).

Since the screening I’ve read a number of interviews with Jiri Menzel in the Guardian and on Kinoblog and I’ve had the chance to revise my views. I can see Menzel’s argument that the recent film is an advance on the 1966 version with a hero who is more ‘truthful’, but I can’t get over my distaste for him (and the fact that at times he looks like a strange cross between Neville Chamberlain and a blond Hitler). This isn’t a slight on the Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev, rather the context for the character. I’m never really interested in people who want to be millionaires, which I guess is my problem. However, it does occur to me that the concept of a male character who is unheroic and to an extent deceitful, but still very attractive to women is shared with Jacques Audiard’s wonderful film Un héros très discret (1996) starring Mathieu Kassovitz. That film seems to me to be a more successful attempt to explore how, in this case French, history has represented the German Occupation. The use of a certain kind of comedy is the difference between the films.

Persepolis (France/US 2007)

We watched Persepolis as part of an evening class studying the unusual process of adapting a graphic novel (in four volumes). We watched the French version with English subtitles on a digital print. The subtitles were yellow and I found them difficult to read against the black and white graphic images.

I enjoyed the film, but I confess that I spent much of it trying to think about how the animation worked in relation to the graphic novel, what was left out from the novel and what might have been changed. Looking over the novel again after the screening, I realised that many of the sub-plots and several characters had been left out. But this didn’t affect our enjoyment of the film. Most of the class had read the book as well as seeing the film and there was general agreement that both versions were enjoyable and worthwhile.

We looked in detail tonight at two sequences in the film, the romance between Marjane and Markus and the ‘music video sequence’ based on ‘Eye of the Tiger’. We argued that the romance was an intensely ‘cinematic’ sequence in which Marjane Satrapi (who was filming her own story) and Vincent Parronaud, the co-directors, had compressed the romance into a single montage sequence of a couple of minutes, whereas in the novel it takes several pages. They then applied several techniques borrowed from ‘classical cinema’ of the 1920s-40s (in an interview they referred to ‘Italian comedies’ and German Expressionist films). We noted a wonderful circular wipe, ‘irising’ as per silent cinema, fantastic vertical wipes, the ‘micky mousing’ of musical notation for characters running and lots of other cinematic tricks.

The ‘Eye of the Tiger’ sequence, by contrast, is expanded from the page. What in the novel is a double page spread (the novel has 347 pages of frames) becomes a sequence lasting over a minute. It’s a very enjoyable sequence to watch, which unlike some music sequences in contemporary films doesn’t stop the narrative, but tells us important things about how the character has changed. It also acts as a perfect example of ‘global popular culture’. The song, which appeared in Rocky III, was a worldwide hit and it represents the ways in which responding to American culture (including doing aerobics a la Ms Fonda) would be a form of self-assertion by a young woman in Iran (although it does seem slightly anachronistic, being set in 1992 ten years after the song was first released).

Eventually, I concluded that the film simplifies the graphic novel. By this I don’t mean that it reduces the impact or the import of the novel. Rather it streamlines the story and uses the power of cinema to create strong identification with Marjane’s personal story. Cinematic techniques are used effectively to make the film accessible. The novel is richer in detail and more ambitious in scope, but arguably won’t be seen by as many people and will be enjoyed in different ways. I was pleased that the comparison worked to ‘prove’ the premise of our evening class – that adaptations are simply different versions of the same material in distinct formats. Neither is ‘better’, simply ‘different’.

For a different view see the excellent review by Rahul Hamid in Cineaste. I think this reviewer argues a good case for the superiority of the books in terms of the presentation of the political and cultural complexities of the stories – but I’d still argue that what remains in the filmic version is worthwhile and deserves to find a wide audience. Hamid raises the question of how far Marjane Satrapi has gone in embracing French culture and denigrating that of Iran. She claims this was never her intention, but it would be good to hear more Iranian views about how far she has succeeded.

Far East Film Festival 10

Report by Leung Wing-Fai

Mad Detective

Mad Detective (Hong Kong 2007)

Far East Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. The annual fest takes place in Udine, Italy and attracts mostly European critics and fans. From a small gathering of Hong Kong films in 1998, the festival has grown steadily and this edition encompassed films from Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand as well as a few titles from the small film industries in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The opening guest was the well-known J-Horror director Nakata Hideo (Ringu, Dark Water). A side bar event, the ‘Ties That Bind Summit’, reflected the trends in Asian filmmaking in exploring collaborations between East and West (focusing on Europe) in production and distribution. These developments might be at the expense of other strands: there was only one retrospective of four early films by the South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok. The legend was that Shin and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, were kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong in 1978. They were taken to Pyongyang in order to develop the film industry there. This year, I had personal reasons to be there as the book I co-edited, East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, would be present, as was an Italian collection on Johnnie To that I contributed a chapter to (yes, the inevitable plug).

In 2007, Japanese films took 47.7% of the domestic box office, down from 53.2 of the previous year; South Korea saw a fall to 50% of local market share (FEFF 2008: 27, 51). The number of film productions in Hong Kong dipped to 50 in 2007. There were signs that Asian audiences had become weary of high budget blockbusters, especially the historical costume drama that the various Asian film industries had been producing over the past few years. An example is An Empress and the Warriors, by the renowned director/martial arts choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tong (Hong Kong 2008), that fails to break new grounds. Films by big-name directors have been disappointing too. This year’s special guest Nakata Hideo presented two films, the Death Note spin off L Change the World (Japan 2008) and Kaidan (Japan 2007). Interesting enough, Death Note has just been released in the UK. It is described as a mix of cop thriller, youth movie, two-player arcade game wrapped in a stylish manga package (FEFF 2008: 167), pretty similar to my own categorisation (the joystick-less game-film monstrosity). I rest my case. Kaidan is a disappointing piece from one of the leading exponents of Japanese horror, especially when compared to the classic Kwaidan (Kobayashi Masaki, 1964): the only similarity was the titles. The film is loosely based on the work of Sanyutei Encho, a 19th Century writer, and tells the story of a poor itinerant salesman Shinkichi who meets an older woman Toyoshiga. They soon develop an obsessive love relationship. Toyoshiga dies after an injury inflicted by Shinkichi and a curse is cast over the surviving lover. There are a few good scenes but the overall power of the film is nothing like Ringu and Dark Water. What is this ‘King of J-horror’ going to try next after these failed attempts at modern thriller and historical drama?

Talking about horror films, I was once again present at the annual (unfortunately named) horror day. The programmers clearly ran out of ideas: the Korean titles (The Guard Post, Black House) were not even horror but more thrillers. It seems that the Thai film industry is still desperately trying to capitalise on the genre (perhaps after the success of The Eye which remake is hitting our screens right now). The Screen at Kamchanod (Thailand 2007) was helmed by Songsak Mongkolthong, assistant director to Pang Brothers on The Eye. The film is competently made but attempts to combine an unconvincing romance subplot only exaggerate the slim story, which is about recreating a legendary outdoor screening where ghosts, rather than humans, are supposed to have attended. Body (Paween Purijitpanya 2007) has about ten false endings, reflecting perhaps the lack of confidence of a first time director.

The Korean selection also failed to excite me. Black House (Shin Terra 2007) is about an insurance claim investigator who gets sucked into a terrible web of deception, mutilation and murder by a psychopath. The Guard Post (Kong Su-chang 2007) is firmly in the same territory as Park Chan-wook’s JSA as it examines the tension and claustrophobic world of young army recruits in the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea. The inferiority of this latest offering is clear when the narrative descends into mysterious diseases and incessant gunplay. Hellcats (Kwon Chil-in 2008) goes back to the safer realm of relationship drama about three women (two sisters and a daughter/niece). The characters are well drawn but the realist aesthetics only point to the film’s similarity to television soap.

A few titles that I enjoyed most came from three separate (geographical and generic) territories. Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers! (Yoshida Daihachi, Japan 2007) follows the tradition of the dysfunctional Japanese family plot (exemplified by Ishii Sogo’s 1984 classic The Crazy Family). It is black comedy through and through: sibling rivalry, incest, physical violence, wife beating, you name it. The dark humour will certainly make the audiences cringe and think about their own family relationships. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, the Milkyway filmmaking team from Hong Kong, provided Mad Detective (2007) in which the eponymous hero (played by Lau Ching Wan, one of the guests present at the festival) adopts unconventional methods to solve crimes. These include burying himself alive and claims of his ability to read the minds of the culprits. The hall-of-mirrors scene depicting the seven personae of the murderer has to be a first in Hong Kong, if not world, cinema. Lucky Dog (Xhang Meng, China/South Korea 2008) follows a day in the life of a 55-year-old man, Kangmei, who has been made redundant after working for the railway for 40 years. The eternally optimistic Kangmei is brilliantly realised by the comedian Fan Wei. The otherwise banal and occasionally bleak reality is enlightened by the wry humour and outstanding performance.

I also found the medium to low budget attempts from Hong Kong mildly enjoyable. Magic Boy (Adam Wong 2007) is a youth romance where the male protagonist does magic tricks to win the girl. Trivial Matters (Pang Ho-Cheung 2007) is a tableau of short films. Some of the segments are rather lame but there are a couple of gems, such as Ah Wai the Big Head, a story set in the early 1990s. The narrator (Kate) brushes off her classmate Ah Wai with clichéd advice. The two girls then grow apart only for Kate to find out that she has played a decisive part in the life of Ah Wai. This is set against the singing career of Danny Chan, a Canto-pop singer who died in 1993.

Far East Film always manages to reflect the latest trends from the film industries across the region. 2007 appeared to be a quiet year all round. Asian horror, Hallyu (Korean wave) and high budget blockbusters continue to disappoint; medium/low budget productions are filling the gaps but unsatisfying. I am still waiting for the next big cinematic thrills from East Asia (a bit like drip feeding when you really crave a substantive meal!). Well, I did get my Johnnie To book signed by the director, his long term collaborator Wai Ka Fai, the wonderful actors Lam Suet and Lau Ching Wan. What more would I need from a film festival?

Far East Film Festival (FEFF) (2008) Catalogue Udine, Italy: CEC

Thanks to Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche for my attendance at Far East Film 10, as well as Stefano, Emmanuel, Giampiero and Laura.

Cannes 2008

It seems auspicious to start this blog on the night when the Cannes Film Festival is the focus of BBC2’s Late Review. This is the annual jaunt to Cannes and this year follows the usual pattern – with only one film reviewer amongst the quartet. In fact, Mark Kermode is just about the only visible film critic of any standing on UK television. My argument on this blog will be that UK media generally don’t take film seriously as an art form and Late Review lives up to this billing.

There are 22 films in competition, but the programme’s running order is utterly predictable. Four American films are discussed first, beginning with a totally unnecessary discussion of the new Indiana Jones (i.e. because it is being reviewed everywhere else) followed by Soderbergh’s Che, Kaufman’s Synecdoche and the new Clint Eastwood. The token ‘foreign’ segment comes in the middle with an Israeli animation, a Walter Salles film and the latest Dardennes Brothers venture. The programme then rounds off with the three highest profile British films. I would have risked folding money that they wouldn’t discuss any East Asian films or any others from Latin America outside of the named directors’ films (i.e. those already known). There are 500+ plus films released theatrically in the UK each year, but there won’t be space for many of those seen at Cannes — certainly not in the next few weeks. There is a connection between what a supposedly ‘high culture’ BBC arts programme will discuss and what gets released. Why not ask (for once a year) a round table of knowledgable reviewers, some at least with wider tastes, to join Kermode just for once? (I quite like the good Doctor, but it would probably do him good to be on with someone who knows as much, if not more than he does.) Someone like Jonathan Romney plus an academic like Ginnette Vincendeau anda controversial figure like Tony Rayns would make up an interesting panel. I suspect they might select a slightly different set of films to discuss.

Joy Division (UK/US 2007)

Photo by Paul Slattery/Retna Ltd.

Watching the documentary Joy Division was an unusual and rewarding experience. Unusual because I got the impression of sitting in an audience of fans, an impression reinforced in my attempt to read IMDB comments on the film. All the comments are by Joy Division fans and most seem to have already seen the bulk of footage. There is little in the non-professional film critic’s world of writing that seems to come from outsiders. So here goes.

I loved the Anton Corbijn biopic of Ian Curtis, Control – though not perhaps in the same way as many fans. Though I remember Joy Division, I wasn’t in 1978-80 particularly interested in that type of music and although subsequently I have become a huge fan of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ I’ve never collected the music. So I came to the documentary without too much baggage, except that I wanted to have another perspective on how the Manchester of the late 1970s was represented to fit alongside 24 Hour Party People, Control and Carol Morley’s The Alcohol Years.

In this respect, Joy Division makes some big claims. The film is partly predicated on a typically extravagant assertion by Tony Wilson that Joy Division helped to reinvent Manchester as a ‘revolutionary, modern city’. The documentary briefly attempts to justify this statement before getting wrapped up in the story of the four young men and it is an intriguing suggestion – but it needed much more exploration. On the whole this is a film about art, I think. At its centre is the extraordinary imagination of Ian Curtis, who drew to himself a group of talented and intelligent people (who, like Curtis himself, appeared to have both laddish and artistic sides to their behaviour). Overall, I think the range of articulate and reflective commentary offered by the interviewees in the film is remarkable and far exceeds what is available in other ‘music documentaries’. As I watched it I did think “this is a notch above any of the standard stories about bands and rock stars that we often get on BBC4”.

The film is distinctive in terms of its documentary style. The found footage is often grainy with colours bleeding into one another or similarly grainy black and white and the overall tone of the film takes its lead from this kind of visual ‘feel’. Most of the various interviews are conducted in very low light conditions so that each interviewee has dilated pupils and looks as if they might be auditioning for a vampire movie. But somehow, it works as a consistent aesthetic. Director Grant Gee appears to have a background in music video/documentary and he certainly seems accomplished here.

I enjoyed many of the performances, but my interest was more sociological than anything else. I knew the centre of Manchester from childhood. I visited again in the early 1970s and I’ve worked in various parts of the city (and Salford!) on one-off gigs since the early 1990s, but I didn’t really experience the late 1970s in the North West and I was struck by how desperate some of the events seemed. By contrast, the 1960s was vibrant and still optimistic. I noticed that there were few references to family or local support systems (compare this to the lower middle-class world of Lennon and McCartney with art school and helpful relatives all over the place). The film might be guilty of listening too much to the romantic presentations of Tony Wilson, entertaining though they may be, but I think I need some more viewings to really get to grips with what’s going on here. I look forward to watching it again.

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Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947)

Dora photographs Jenny in Quai des Orfèvres

I picked this up in a bargain bin of DVDs — pleased with myself because I’d been wanting to watch it for a while. Later I was deflated when I noticed that a trio of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s most famous films (this one plus Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la peur) were on offer at a better overall price in an online store. C’est la vie! But I wasn’t disappointed by my purchase, even though it was a dodgy DVD that kept crashing during the opening menus. Optimum are to be applauded for releasing French classical cinema, but they don’t offer much in the way of extras – only a trailer on this DVD.

Quai des Orfèvres came to my attention after I’d watched 36, Quai des Orfèvres (France 2004) the policier starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. Several commentators made reference to the earlier film and some suggested that the newer film was a remake. The title of both refers to the address of the headquarters of the most important French police organisations – something like the equivalent of ‘(New) Scotland Yard’ in the UK. However, the title is the only direct link between the two films and the title of the earlier film is not particularly revealing since although the narrative does feature a lengthy interrogation at police headquarters, it is primarily a film noir melodrama.

Clouzot has suffered in retrospect from his decision in 1942 to work for the German ‘front’ studio Continental during the Occupation. One of the films he made then, Le Corbeau (The Raven) was named as ‘propagandist’ and Clouzot was denounced as a collaborationist. I saw the film a couple of years ago during the Leeds Film Quarter experiment and it is clear now that the film was much more ambiguous (it concerns a flurry of poison pen letters that gradually undermine a small town community).

A useful essay by Fiona Watson on the Senses of Cinema site gives a clue to Clouzot’s influences and importance as a filmmaker. She tells us that Clouzot began working for Ufa at Babelsburg in 1932 dubbing films and this was where he developed an interest in the work of Fritz Lang. Later it became clear that whilst Clouzot had learned much from Lang, his competitor in the 1950s would be Hitchcock and the two would vie for the title of ‘Master of Suspense’. Many of the American reviewers of those Clouzot films available as subtitled DVDs begin with the Hitchcock comparison, but this might not be the best place to start with Quai des Orfèvres.

My own interest in French films of the late 1940s and early 1950s has always been fuelled by a desire to test out the criticisms contained in the polemics by Truffaut and the other Cahiers writers. Was the French ‘Quality Cinema’ of the period as hidebound and stuffy – ‘le cinéma du papa‘ – as they maintained? Watson points out that Truffaut was obsessed with Le Corbeau as a teenager, memorising whole chunks of dialogue, and I did start thinking about one aspect of Truffaut’s own work – his interest in French popular culture – as I watched Quai des Orfèvres.

The film focuses on an unusual ménage à trois. Maurice is a trained musician reduced to working as an accompanist. At the same time, his rather dim but attractive young wife, ‘Jenny Lamour’, is beginning to gain attention as a chanteuse. The couple live in a flat and below them is the studio of a ‘glamour photographer’, Dora, who is in love with Jenny. When Jenny accidentally kills an aging lecher (who sends young women to be photographed in ‘erotic poses’ by Dora) the other two both become involved in trying to avert Jenny’s arrest. Although Dora is not an ‘out’ lesbian, the inference is clear and I was reminded of the representation of the lesbian relationship in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, which must have shocked American audiences around the same time as Quai des Orfèvres was released in France.

As well as the music hall scenes of the chanteuse and the glamour photography shoots, the film also offers the auditioning rooms of a showbiz agent and the backstage of a circus in its overall representation of Parisian popular culture. The second half of the film involves the investigation of the death by an eccentric (but effective) police inspector. There is an intriguing mixture of comedy, suspense and detail of procedure in the investigation and the presence of a pack of hungry newshounds made me think of His Girl Friday. The other factor in this mixture of emotions is that the later action takes place in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and as if to emphasise a Dickens connection, the inspector’s adopted son (an African boy from the Inspector’s time in the army) turns up at the police station almost like Tiny Tim. This delirious concoction is beautifully staged and photographed, echoing both pre-war French and Langian noirs and also the similar noir melodramas being produced in both the US and the UK in the late 1940s. In one respect it confirms the Cahiers view of ‘quality cinema’ being based on a 1942 novel. What it lacks in comparison to some of the American and British films is the new sense of ‘street realism’ that was introduced around this time.

The critic who really despised Clouzot was Jacques Rivette who described him as “sickening”, whereas Godard merely rated Clouzot as not as interesting a filmmaker as Roger Vadim. Clouzot’s crime was, like Réné Clément and Claude Autant-Lara, to be interested only in ‘style’ and to disavow ‘social cinema’. Sometimes, the New Wave critics do seem very precious and it seems to me that a film like Quai des Orfèvres is stylish, entertaining and, if not a comment on the ‘reality’ of its period, at least populated with interesting and richly detailed characters.