Monthly Archives: September 2008

Control (UK/NL/JP/AU 2007)

Ian and Debbie – too young to get married?

Ian and Debbie married young.

Time to think about Control again, now I’m showing it to students. If you haven’t seen it, this is the film based on the book Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis (1995). For some background here is an interview with Deborah Curtis by Wigan’s finest, Laura Barton. The film vied with This Is England as the best British film of 2007 in my view. (It won four awards at the British Independent Film Awards and several other awards at major festivals.) It tells the remarkable story of Ian Curtis from the time when he met Debbie in 1973 up to his death by suicide in 1980, at the point when Joy Division, for whom he was lyricist and vocalist, were about to tour the US.

I saw the film last November and was knocked out by the performances and the stagings organised by director Anton Corbijn and his team. My first reaction on watching the DVD was to realise how little there is in the film about the band and their music in the terms of the traditional music biopic – and how much more there is of the melodrama about Ian, Debbie and Annik (the Belgian woman he met on tour).

So, this is the first task, perhaps – to get a handle on the film’s genre. Although it’s tempting to opt for the biopic, I think this is the secondary repertoire, even though it probably provides the most interest for some audiences. I wonder what the gender splits will be in dealing with the film? For the film to work purely as a biopic it ought to start earlier in Ian’s life and to include rather more of his family background and formative experiences. To work as a music biopic, it could miss some of the early family stuff, but it would need to focus on the musical development of Curtis and the other three members of Joy Division. Instead, the narrative works on two levels. First it is a melodrama – with a focus on the relationships between Ian and Debbie, Ian and Annik and between Ian and his own demons. Then there are elements of the musical – the kind of musical focusing mainly on public performances. These don’t work in biopic terms since there is no sense of musical progression. In a typical music biopic (certainly the main Hollywood biopics about popular music stars) there is usually a scene where the performer rebels against a manager or a record producer because they won’t allow the development of a new style of music etc. There is relatively little of this in Control. Nor is there much attempt to show the growing popularity of the band – where most biopics would make sure we knew dates and places, there is no real sense of a career being constructed according to some kind of plan. What there is, is the musical narrative (as in Ken Russell’s films about composers) about the tortured artist.

In a long and thought-provoking article in film international no. 31, John Orr suggests that the aesthetic of the film is actually split between the “exterior (the life) [which] is high contrast often with a vertical look: the interior part (the music) has a more impressionistic feel and a more horizontal look, using the full width of the screen”. To some extent, Orr is referring to the musical v the melodrama, although it is a bit more complicated than that. On the melodrama question, Orr makes a number of interesting observations. He cites Corbijn as the son of a Lutheran pastor and summons up Bergman as another “Protestant son of the cloth” before moving on to suggest parallels with a famous British melodrama – Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), the story of a ballet dancer who literally dies for her art. But then he suggests that perhaps the best comparison might be with a film itself influenced by the Red Shoes, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). However, what most interests me are Orr’s comments about the connections that have been made between Control and the 1960s British New Wave films, some of them shot not too far away from Macclesfield (Ian Curtis’s home throughout his life) in Stockport (A Kind of Loving, 1962) and Salford (A Taste of Honey, 1961). My own feeling when I first watched Control was that it looked very different from the representations of Northern England in the 1960s films. Now I’m not so sure, but still a little sceptical.

It was quite brave of Corbijn to shoot in black and white CinemaScope – with a novice cinematographer (the German photographer Martin Ruhe) and a first time leading man – but as Corbijn points out, it is these three elements in the film that have garnered most praise. Corbijn chose black and white because that is how he thinks of Joy Division. When he came to England in 1979, he thought the North looked grey, he took black and white photos for the NME (New Musical Express) and the media images of the Manchester music scene were generally monochrome. He didn’t choose the aesthetic to make a connection to what has sometimes been called ‘Northern Realism’, a blanket term to describe both the New Wave films, Coronation Street and Northern television series and some more recent films such as Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Corbijn admits he has no film background and no real knowledge of British Cinema of the 1960s. Instead, he brings a European photographer’s eye to bear on Northern English life.

Here, I think, John Orr is really onto something, which I felt when watching the film the first time, but couldn’t quite articulate. Orr suggests that Corbijn’s approach draws on something similar to “the ‘outsider modernism’ that marked the 1960s when foreigners Losey, Polanski, Lester, Preminger, Truffaut, Antonioni and Kubrik had all made their mark on the filming of London landscapes and their fascinating topographies”. (Orr p 14)

This ‘outsider status’ allows Corbijn to create a different kind of realism which Orr relates to Lynne Ramsay in Ratcatcher, Ken Loach in Kes and also Terence Davis and Bill Douglas. Not sure about Loach, but I definitely agree on Ramsay (another photographer) and I can see the references to Davies and Douglas (the DVD of whose work has finally been released and I must review). In these films, the characters are observed from a distance and often in tableaux and perfectly composed still shots. They speak only rarely and in the Davies films music is used to articulate emotion. Orr moves on to then reference Bresson and the attention to the details of the lead character’s everyday life, his ‘stillness’ and the way in which he becomes “the involuntary centre of attention, the core of the enigma of the image”. (p 19) 

I think Orr’s analysis is very helpful in explaining how I feel watching the film. I don’t think he had the benefit of the DVD when he wrote the piece, because what he claims are Macclesfield exteriors and Manchester interiors were in several cases filmed around Nottingham (as the involvement of the East Midlands Screen Agency suggests). But otherwise, I think he explains the effect of Corbijn’s approach. I felt the images were clean, sharp, still, distanced and ‘European’. Much of the 1960s New Wave is full of talk and sociological and cultural background. However, those 1960s films were often made by Southern middle class directors working on novels by working class Norther writers, so there are moments of ‘outsider’ observation as well. Perhaps I’ll use a clip from the only CinemaScope B+W print I can think of from the New Wave for comparison (Billy Liar 1963) – which though a comedy-fantasy, does share the thematic of the young man for whom writing might be a way out of his home environment.

There is a lot more to discuss about the film, but now I’m eager to hear what students have to say after the screenings.


The official website:

Guardian film blogs

Joy Division fansite

Matt Greenalgh info in The Stage

BBC Joy Division documentary

Hollywood and Bollywood

A couple of interesting news items this week about the increased interest in Bollywood by Hollywood and vice versa.

First, Delhi High Court ruled that the Indian film Hari Puttar from Mirchi Movies was not a threat to Warner Bros. control over the Harry Potter franchise. In reality it seems that Hari Puttar is actually more like an unofficial remake of Home Alone.

Elsewhere, it looks as if Steven Spielberg and co. have somehow managed to escape from the clutches of Paramount which took over DreamWorks in 2006. The white knight turns out to be Indian media conglomerate Reliance Adlabs which will back the new DreamWorks to make six pictures per year. These will probably be distributed by another Hollywood major – Screen International is backing Universal.

Finally, in an Asian Film Market Special, Screen International reports the Indian box office has risen to $1.6 billion. There is also the suggestion that the growth of the middle class market in India (as in China) may keep ahead of the economic downturn in the West.

It seems likely that more Hollywood-Bollywood deals will be announced over the next couple of years.

Juno – the ‘indy’ that defeated Hollywood

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

It’s not quite true of course. Juno, although officially an independent production, was produced from within a network of Hollywood relationships between two smaller production companies, Mandate Pictures and Mr. Mudd, and Fox Searchlight, the independent brand of the major studio 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless, Juno works as a case study for any analysis of what the demarcation lines between studio and ‘independent’ might mean and also the cultural differences between mainstream and more specialised cinema and their audiences.

In business terms, the bald facts are there to see on Juno cost under $10 million to produce. The marketing and promotional budget will have been large – bigger than the production cost probably. But the revenue has been substantial with $230 million worldwide (nearly two-thirds from North America) and DVD sales of $50 million in North America alone. On top of this, the film’s soundtrack has been a No1 bestseller.

The producers

Mandate Pictures is a Los Angeles based independent production company formed in 2005. In 2007 it was bought by Lionsgate, the independent studio-distributor, but Mandate continues to operate as an independent brand. Mandate’s pictures have included a number of low-medium budget pictures, some, like The Grudge, being made with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. Others include comedies such as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Mudd is also an independent producer and involves producers Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith, in partnership with the star actor John Malkovich. Mr. Mudd was also a co-producer of Ghost World and John Malkovich has helped to produce a range of films, some outside Hollywood including The Terrorist (India 1999). To further emphasise the network of independents, Mandate, now in a two year ‘first look’ deal with Mr. Mudd, is also planning to make a film with erstwhile teen star Drew Barrymore. Whip It!, starring Ellen Page is scheduled for 2009 with Barrymore directing and executive producing through her company Flower Films. Earlier, Barrymore had co-produced and starred (as an English teacher) in Donnie Darko, like Ghost World a smart film, but not a mass audience crowd pleaser like Juno.

An indy sensibility?

Juno reached a mass audience. In North America it was given a platform release – steadily growing over several weeks. The US distributor was Fox Searchlight. In the UK, the film was released as a mainstream wide release under the 20th Century Fox banner on 363 prints in second place on the UK Top 10 and with a screen average higher than any other film except for the (platformed) release of There Will Be Blood. So in the UK, it was ‘mainstream’ not specialised. Did it keep any sense of being ‘indy’? Probably not for UK audiences. In the UK we tend to see only ‘quality’ US TV on terrestrial channels and overall UK understanding of US teen culture is limited by both access to aspects of the culture and alienation from US politics and especially conservative social values. Nevertheless, Juno did receive some flak for seemingly promoting the ‘pro-life’, ‘anti-abortion’ cause. I’m not sure about this. Though I am firmly behind every woman’s ‘right to choose’, I think it’s problematic to see the choice to keep the baby in narratives like Juno as supporting the anti-abortionist stance. It is argued that the overall positive message of Juno and adult (i.e. not ‘teen’) comedies such as Knocked Up leads to complacency in the audience because no real moral dilemma is explored.

If Juno is an indy film that appeals to audiences willing to reflect on how characters approach life, there shouldn’t be a problem. But if the film is mainstream entertainment, does the viewing context change how the audience is asked to view the film? I don’t think the mainstream audience is less intelligent or less perceptive, but the context is different. It’s this quandary that makes Juno interesting for me.

I think it’s a shame if the wonderful language of Juno puts off audiences in other, non-English speaking countries. I’m waiting to see attendance figures across Europe, but the film generally did not do anywhere near as well outside the US/UK. The current figures suggest only 37% of box office was outside North America (when the norm is more like 55-60%). How well did the subtitling/dubbing convey Juno‘s use of language?

Useful Links for studying Juno:

An interesting blog with lots of comments on the film:

Scroll down this blog from Filmbrain to find some juicy comments on Diablo Cody and Juno (re the critiques in Cineaste)

Reverse-shot, another blog with a distinct downer on the film and some interesting comments on how indy film is attempting to be accepted by the mainstream – not a good idea?

Ellen Page – the biggest fansite

Official Juno website

An interesting Guardian article by Tom Porretta (author of Election) on the 1980s ‘Brat Pack’ teen movies by John Hughes

Somers Town Part 3

Tomo and Marek

Tomo and Marek on a spree

A viewing finally allows me to return to discussion of Somers Town and its funding as well as comparing notes with Rona’s Edinburgh Festival review. On reflection, I think that the film is light in narrative terms – certainly in comparison with Shane Meadows’ earlier successful films. However, the film has the potential to work well with audiences and I think it is very interesting as a ‘text in circulation’.

I saw the film on a digital print which meant that it appeared on the larger of the two main screens at the National Media Museum. (One of the problems associated with digital prints is that they can’t be moved between screens.) A relatively small audience rattled around in the theatre, but they seemed to enjoy the film. Applying the Mark Kermode test, the film must be a genuine comedy since I laughed out loud on several occasions (Kermode admits this is rare with most mainstream comedies). This bodes well for the three events I have coming up.

I suspect that the first problem facing Meadows and scriptwriter Paul Fraser was the basis on which they would expand the initial idea from a 9 minute short to a 70 minute feature. I have no expertise as a scriptwriter, but it seems obvious to me that it isn’t just a question of lengthening scenes and adding events and sub-plots. Just as a short story is a different form to a novel, a short film is a different form to a feature film. What is apparent in Somers Town is that the Thomas Turgoose character, ‘Tomo’, has no back story. All we know is what he reveals in a cafe conversation – that there is no one for him in Nottingham. Is he running away from a violent father, from simple boredom, from a criminal past or something else entirely? Or is the line in the cafe just part of a con to get sympathy. I don’t remember any specific clues. Of course, there is no reason why he should be anything else other than an enigma, but this would be less of an issue in a short film. In a feature we expect to learn a little more about characters and Somers Town inverts our usual experience. Tomo is the enigma and Marek, the migrant ‘other’, is someone with more background. Marek is, in some ways, a typical character with a father who works hard and drinks hard and who is capable of violence when provoked. (Or perhaps I’ve just been unlucky in the few Polish films I’ve seen recently, all of which which feature heavy drinking.) The third young character, Maria, is a kind of magical/mythical creature – the perfect fantasy girlfriend. There are only two other significant characters, played by Kate Dickie and Perry Benson, both of whom are ‘helpers’.

In terms of style, the obvious references are to the 1960s and both French and British New Wave films, not least because of the black and white cinematography. Here’s Shane Meadows on

“I went to London – I’d not really shot outside of the Midlands before. I was very excited but when I actually started taking photographs of the various locations, because there was a massive range of buildings from a massive range of times we ended up with a huge variation in colour. So I started to worry that it wasn’t going to look great. I had some of the photographs converted into black and white and suddenly it started to look like the same place rather than this mish-mash. Around St Pancras there’s so much development going on, there was any colour of plastic sheeting – it was like any image was going to be a patchwork quilt of colours – so black and white film was able to temper that design and to get the best out of the area.”

The connection to Paris suggests several potential French comparisons – perhaps to Truffaut’s slightly younger characters in 400 Blows (1959). As far as British cinema is concerned, there is a reference to The Knack (1965) in the Sight & Sound Review by Mark Sinker – prompted by the the scenes in which Tomo and Marek push Maria along in a wheelchair (in The Knack, Rita Tushingham is pushed along on a brass bedstead). I’m not sure about this, the trip down to St Pancras in 2008 from Nottingham seems a lot less of a shift of culture than coming down from the North in the mid 1960s. On the other hand, there is still a charge in the suggestion that London is a different place and as another review (can’t remember by who) put it, Somers Town is a welcome alternative to the view of English working-class life offered in a London-set film such as Adulthood. The Knack was clearly an attempt at a form of social satire (from the play by Ann Jellicoe) and 400 Blows was a powerful film about youthful alienation. Somers Town seems much lighter. Partly, this is because of the final sequence – the ‘money shot’ for Eurostar, I guess. I don’t want to spoil the film for potential viewers, so let’s just say that the ending is possibly a fantasy (which does take it back to The Knack, perhaps.)

The release pattern of Somers Town has been quite interesting. Presumably, the distributors, Optimum Releasing, thought that despite the success of This Is England in ‘breaking out’, Somers Town would struggle to find an audience beyond specialised cinemas. As a consequence, the film opened on 62 screens in the UK with a steady screen average of just under £2,000 for the opening weekend and No 13 slot in the Top 15. Week 2 saw a 37% drop and Week 3 a 43% drop, but this was mainly because the screen count dropped to 39. In retrospect, I think that the film probably exceeded the expectations of Optimum and that if they’d managed to keep it at 50+ prints in a wider range of multiplexes they might have had a bigger success. Even so, £400,000+ after 3 weeks is a good return for a low budget film. The UK Film Council is also probably feeling quite pleased since it awarded Optimum £140,000 to boost the print count to 62.

The other interesting aspect of the release was that Arts Alliance, the company which supplied digital projectors for the Digital Screen Network in the UK, funded a digital print of Paddy Considine’s Dog Altogether (17 minutes) to be shown before Somers Town on the same programme. The short was presumably available to any programmer with a digital screen (though not all seem to have taken it). Arts Alliance is also connected to the City Screen chain of cinemas, so I presume that they took it if they had a digital screen available. I’m pleased that the National Media Museum did take it as I hadn’t seen it before (it has appeared on Channel 4 and is available (to UK and Ireland PC owners – not Macs, boo!) on 4OD. The two films together make an 88 minute programme which I think is OK (I think other cinemas tried to find other suitable shorts). It’s great to see short films used in this way – they are important in introducing new directors and they need to be seen in mainstream cinemas, not just on TV or at festivals. There was only one problem with this particular combination – the certificates. Dog Altogether is a 15 Cert short (it deals with a character’s struggles with violent behaviour) but Somers Town is 12A. This must have caused a few headaches for cinema directors and front of house staff.

Dog Altogether is an appropriate partner for Somers Town in the sense that Paddy Considine is a long time collaborator with Shane Meadows (performing lead roles in A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes and he acknowledges Meadows help:

However, in tone Dog Altogether is much darker and I’ve heard of several complaints from audiences expecting a light comedy and not happy about seeing something else. This used to happen in the days of the ‘full programme with supporting feature’ when inappropriate B features would appear on the bill with A comedies – there is mileage here in research into how audience tastes have changed (i.e. audiences are perhaps now less tolerant of the unexpected – or perhaps feel that they have paid specifically to have seen the single title, whereas previously they paid for ‘a night out’.

I’m collecting clips and useful websites, more to come later:

Here’s Thomas Turgoose being interviewed about the film:

For all things Shane Meadows, the best source is

Here is the interview on ITV’s This Morning featuring Shane and Thomas Turgoose discussing how Tomo was cast for This Is England:

A couple of YouTube clips while we wait for the DVD release. The first is a Sky ‘bitesize clip’:

This one is a video package from Associated Press – a good example of the material available to TV stations and other media outlets from agencies:

These are ads directed by Shane Meadows, so Somers Town isn’t his first ‘sponsored’ film:

The official website:

An article in Campaign Magazine about how the advertising agency Mother Vision started off the Somers Town project.

Co-producer on the film was Barnaby Spurrier and Tomboy Films

There are not many women in the UK who are award-winning cinematographers, so check out Natasha Braier’s website.

Check out this Finnish blog for an interesting quote linking Shane Meadows and François Truffaut!

And here is a possible Truffaut stimulus film, Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers). This is the first part of a two part short film:

I think this film shares not only a narrative idea (boys attracted to an older girl) but also a light tone.

Here is the UK Film Council chart for the week of the film’s release.

Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008)

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Die Welle has received good coverage in the UK media for what is a ‘specialised release’ in the UK (i.e. only a few prints on release). However, it was slagged off by both Bradshaw in the Guardian and the academic turned critic Sarah Churchwell on BBC2 Newsnight Review. For me, they both make the mistake of judging the film as an art object and not what it is – a solid, mainstream teen movie (or youth picture as I would prefer).

The first thing to be clear about is that this is that very rare beast in the UK – a mainstream German picture, from one of the main German film companies. Usually, we don’t get to see the big German comedies and action films, presumably on the grounds that it is too expensive to dub them for the multiplex and that the arthouse audience won’t like them if subtitled (as per Bradshaw). This is unfortunate as it deprives us of German popular culture as study texts for film and media studies.

The plot of the film is derived from a German best-selling novel, in turn based on events in a California high school in the 1960s when a teacher decided to teach about fascism by putting his students through a programme of inculcating discipline, uniformity and commitment to the group. In the film, the self-selecting group of students who opt for a Project Week topic on ‘autocracy’ find themselves with a popular and laid-back teacher, horrified that he’s been given the topic to teach and that his preferred option ‘anarchy’ (he has been a real anarchist) has been given to the most conservative teacher in the school. Faced with a class expecting something new, “Not the Third Reich again, man!”, he quickly decides he needs a new idea.

The narrative, as befits the youth picture genre, is compressed into a week, Monday to Saturday. Things happen very fast in the youth picture. Another convention of the youth picture is that there are plenty of characters, all of whom are ‘typed’ in some way because there isn’t time to make them into ’rounded characters’. (Apart from the teacher, there are at least eight or nine important student characters.) Watching some critics grapple with this is amusing, but also frustrating.

The filmmakers obviously want to reach the 15-24 market and they have adopted a muscular and very American style. It’s in ‘Scope and features some fast cutting matched to a rock soundtrack as well as the usual array of computers and software that perform tasks at an astonishing speed in highly visual ways. If only students could design webpages and logos at this speed – but this is a genre movie.

I have two interests in the film. First, amongst all the Americanisation, what is distinctive about German popular culture, since we see it so rarely? I gleaned a couple of things. In the play with types it is important that one sympathetic character is a rather good-looking young Turk and another character is identified as an Ossi. I don’t have much of a problem with typing, but the rather cynical/dour young woman who represents the ideologically pure hippie dissenter was a mistake, I think. The main distinguishing feature in the school, apart from the wealth of many of the students and the quality of the school building, was the choice of water polo as the sport in which the ‘jocks’ display their macho prowess (the central teacher character is also the water polo coach). This is a welcome riposte to the American football of Hollywood teen movies (American ‘football’ is one of the few sports that leaves me completely unmoved). I always think of the famous water polo match between Hungary and the USSR in 1956 (recently the subject of a Joe Esterhazy-scripted movie) as being an indicator of a different sports outlook in Central Europe. The water polo is linked to another aspect of Die Welle, which is the location of the teacher’s home on a houseboat moored on a lake near the school. Summer, lakes and forests take me back to the German textbook we had at school for O Level. I’m sure we followed a German family through the Summer from school (do German schools start early in the morning in Summer?) to the holidays.

The second interesting aspect of the film is, of course, how it deals with fascism. Here the film is quite astute. It may be ‘simplistic’ and ‘naive’ as the critics make out, but the filmmakers have thought about a teen audience and how they might be engaged. There are aspects of fascism which are not just attractive, but seemingly morally pure – the possibility of inclusivity, the eradication of differences caused by wealth etc. The teacher uses these aspects to draw in students. One visual signifier of this is the uniform. The whole uniform scenario works very well – not least because it is so visual, but also, in a UK context, because the return of uniforms happened a long time ago and it will be interesting to see what UK teens think of the film in this respect. There are some great scenes and I really enjoyed the burning of Nike and Adidas sportswear in favour of the simple uniform the students adopt – an attack on German and US capitalism as part of a ‘new movement’. The revelation of the evils of fascism is much more effective when it can be seen to be seductive and reasonable as well. I also thought the film handled the conflicting emotions around romance and commitment to the cause very well.

I think the film does run out of steam in the third quarter and I felt the ending was a mistake in some ways, but overall, I think this will work well with its target audience. It certainly bears comparison with Hollywood and it’s good to see an entertainment film that tries to take on board ideas. I don’t think teen audiences will feel patronised by the film and even if they don’t like it, I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say.

Myrin – Jar City (Iceland/Germany/Denmark 2006)

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

I don’t normally do this, but I watched the film of Jar City just days after finishing reading the book. This was preparation for an introduction to the film as an example of literary adaptation – something I’ve blogged on before.

A little background. Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason has produced a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. The books have been extremely popular in Iceland and the first to be translated into English in 2004 carried the Icelandic title Myrin. In the UK it was published as Jar City. Ironically, the filmic adaptation is officially called Myrin – Jar City on the title-card for the BBFC certificate, but the novel has been re-published as Tainted Blood. Go figure, as the Americans say. I think ‘Myrin’ means ‘marsh’ in Icelandic and here it refers to an area in Reykjavik where a building houses a large number of medical specimens in in glass jars. Thus ‘Jar City’.

As an adaptation, the film is interesting in terms of the decisions taken over narrative structure, characters and presentation. I don’t want to spoil either the film or the book, so suffice to say, the film drops a sub-plot of no real narrative importance except to flesh out the story about Erlendur and his daughter Eva Lind and also re-orders events a little. The result in my view makes the film less of a procedural investigation and possibly a more familiar form of filmic narrative. I’m fine with this. I enjoy the slower pace of the procedural, but I recognise that it may not be something for a mainstream audience. It also goes with what I think is quite a clever attempt to make Erlendur a slightly more conventional investigator. (The novels portray a much more dishevelled, older man who forgets to eat properly and rarely has clean clothes – Ingvar (above) is quite striking without the heavy glasses and has a natty line in cardigans and parkas.) However, this ‘softening’ is a matter of degree. The filmmakers have kept Erlendur’s junior partners much as described in the books (the two I’ve read so far). Sigurdur Oli is suitably Americanised and bumptious, while his female colleague Elinborg is happily an ‘ordinary’ and quite sensible woman. I confess that I had no real idea what she would look like, so the joke’s on me if I expected someone more glamorous.

Of course, outside Iceland this won’t be treated as a mainstream film, except perhaps in other ‘Nordic’ countries. Iceland itself has perhaps the highest cinema attendance per head of any country in Europe – perhaps in the world – so perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything other than a ciné literate film from Baltasar Kormakur, the director of 101 Reykjavik, the only other Icelandic film I think I’ve seen. That seemed quite hedonistic by comparison. In style terms, it’s noticeable that Jar City uses a CinemaScope frame, filling it with quite a few long shots of bare landscape and modern housing/offices, sometimes aerial shots and mostly cast in bluish/greenish light. I’ve not been to Iceland, but I could feel the cold and the wet. I could also smell it since this story rather overdoses on the olfactory. The other style feature is the use of music, at times quite obtrusive and sometimes using choral voices. I fear that to those outside Iceland, the music probably simply conveys a sense of Nordic solemnity – I couldn’t find out much about it, not even from the minimal press notes. This was one part of the film I didn’t understand. The opening and closing images feature close-ups of men in uniform singing outdoors as if in a choir on parade. The closing shots reveal that Erlendur is amongst them – so presumably it is a police choir or some form of ceremony at which the police are on parade. I have got some ideas, but I don’t want to spoil the film. If anyone can give me a clue that isn’t a spoiler, I’d be grateful. It’s an interesting element since the other Indridason book I’ve read focuses on a child who is a choral superstar, so it clearly has resonance for the local audience.

Back to the adaptation question. The film is, I think, more conventional in the way it presents the criminal activity that Erlendur investigates. There is little time to consider the serious ethical and sociological/political issues that the story raises. In the book, because Erlendur and the team struggle to get leads, it actually became more gripping. On the other hand, the realism of the film gives a much better sense of what Iceland might actually be like and what being a police officer in a country of only 320,000 must be like. As a vegetarian who lives in a sheep-rearing region, I’m still flashing back to the sight of Erlendur tucking into a boiled sheep’s head that he buys from a drive-thru. There is also a funny anti-vegetarian joke, but at least its at the expense of Sigurdur Oli.

As far as I can see, the collection of samples in Jar City and the associated research is a national issue since Iceland’s small population – sometimes considered the most developed society in the world – is the first to be properly classifiable as a genetic population. This raises quite a few potential questions. The other important theme is the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Iceland. The director has said that this is what attracted him to the character of Erlendur, who embodies many of the values of ‘old’ Iceland. His daughter represents ‘new’ Iceland – which does seem to have problems.

I’d recommend the film and the book.

(Apologies that I haven’t managed to represent Icelandic names properly – I haven’t managed to sort out my keyboard!)

Hero (China/Hong Kong 2002) – Narrative analysis

(These notes were written for a student event on Film Narrative. Hero was the case study film. The students had seen the whole film, so there are major SPOILERS here – you have been warned!)

Everyone is familiar with the conventions of the Hollywood film narrative. This isn’t a reason not to study Hollywood – or to take the conventions for granted. Hollywood, as befits the dominant institution in cinema across the world, is highly dynamic and constantly evolving in terms of film narrative. However, it is often difficult to analyse the films you know best. It helps to have some ‘distance’ from the films we study and one way to do this is to study some films that are ‘not Hollywood’ in order to make comparisons. Often by ‘comparing and contrasting’ similar films from different systems we notice much more about them than if we looked at only one system.

Maggie Cheung as .. in the red sequence

Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow in the red sequence

Hero is a film that is recognisable as a traditional Chinese genre, first from literature and then from cinema. The wu xia pian or ‘martial chivalry film’ has gone through several cycles of popularity in the cinemas of the ‘three Chinas’ (‘mainland China’, Hong Kong and Taiwan) since the early 1950s. The genre has been affected by events outside China, not least the worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong 2000). The director of Crouching Tiger was Ang Lee, a Chinese-American who made the film as a tribute to the films he had enjoyed as a child in Taiwan.

Hero could not have been made on the scale (i.e. with the budget) that is apparent on screen without the success of Crouching Tiger. Although Hero has a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, he is known in the West for his ‘art films’, most of which have been melodramas – not ‘action films’ in the Western sense. The four big stars of Hero are divided into two who are widely known for ‘non-action’ roles in Hong Kong Cinema (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) and two genuine martial arts stars who have moved from Hong Kong to Hollywood (Jet Li and Donnie Yen). Because of these ‘global considerations’ and the backgrounds of the individuals concerned, Hero could not be a straight ‘martial chivalry’ picture – and this means it will have found different audiences, who will have ‘read’ the film in different ways.

Narrative Structure
Hero uses the narrative device known as a ‘flashback’. The film starts in the present (a ‘present’ 2,200 years ago) and then Nameless begins to tell his story, allowing narrative time to be ‘re-wound’. But there is a twist since it becomes apparent that Nameless may not be a reliable narrator. He is prompted by the King to remember things differently, so that we experience some of the same events twice with different outcomes as the stories are re-told. Towards the end of the film, the narrative returns to the present and in this final sequence we experience events in parallel – what is happening to Nameless in the palace and what is happening to Broken Sword and Flying Snow in the mountains.

This kind of narrative structure is not unique, although it is unusual. It fits a genre set in a ‘pre-industrial society’ where there are no cameras or audio recorders, no ‘evidence’ of what happened. It is part of an ‘oral tradition’ where people tell stories and within a wu xia it works because one aspect of a duel between warriors is ‘sizing up’ an opponent. Defeating an enemy is not all about action. It also involves psychology and out-thinking an enemy. Interestingly, one of the most famous films that used a similar structure was Rashômon (Japan 1950) – a film which director Zhang has referred to as an influence. Rashômon is set in 12th century Japan where a man is murdered and his wife raped. The accused is allowed to tell his story, which is very different from the wife’s. Then he changes his story and a witness gives a fourth version. The film raises the question “what is truth”. In Hero we get at least three different narrators. Nameless begins the story, but is then interrupted by the King and later by Broken Sword, both of whom recount their own experiences which Nameless would not necessarily know.

The different versions of events in Hero refer to an assassination plot (and a great romance) but the film does seem to end with a ‘resolution’. Nameless dies a hero’s death and Flying Snow dies with Broken Sword dead in her arms. China is eventually unified. But is this the end of the ‘story’? Because of the history of the writer-director and the nature of the wu xia genre, what do we take away from the story? Are we confident that the second version of events is more truthful than the first?

Questions of colour, cinematography etc.
The writer-director of Hero, Zhang Yimou, trained as a cinematographer in the Beijing Film School and emerged in the early 1980s as one of the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers. Several of the filmmakers from this period became famous around the world as their films received screenings overseas and won prizes at festivals. In the late 1980s China emerged from a long period of isolation from the rest of the world and many of the films seen in the West were interpreted as saying something about the history of China under Mao Zedong in the 1950s to 1970s – not directly, but by means of metaphor.

Zhang Yimou began as a cinematographer and then moved on to become a director. He quickly established a reputation as a director with enormous visual flair and in particular, the use of colour. At the beginning of his directing career he made three ‘period melodramas’, Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Ju Dou was set in a dye-works and you can probably work out from the other two titles that ‘red’ figures strongly in these films. All the films are very carefully ‘composed’ and controlled, so that each image is almost like an art photograph. At the centre of each image is a very beautiful woman, played in each case by Gong Li. In his last few films, Zhang has used his new protégé, Zhang Ziyi, who in Hero plays Moon.

A cinematographer who rivals Zhang Yimou for visual style in East Asian cinema is Chris Doyle. Although Australian by birth, Doyle settled in Hong Kong to learn his trade and became associated with the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Through this connection, he, like Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, gained a profile in the West. Doyle has been a very ‘experimental’ cinematographer pushing forward the boundaries of what can be achieved on film. The combination of Zhang and Doyle was bound to be special in some way. Complementing the two is Tan Dun, the composer of the score for Crouching Tiger, but generally not a prolific composer for cinema, being known in China and internationally for his symphonic work for the concert hall. The score uses traditional instruments and chants, but is also carefully mixed with sound effects, e.g. in the fight between Nameless and Sky, the sound of rain, the clatter of the blind musician’s stick, the clash of metal when sword meets spear etc.

Zhang Yimou’s previous work is relevant to an understanding of Hero, simply because it sets up an expectation that the colours in the films design will in some way have a political message. There are five sequences where a colour either predominates are is made ‘significant’ in a scene:

  • The King of Qin’s palace is grey/black, enlivened only by splashes of red. This forms the beginning and the end of the story and the overall feel of this sequence extends into the first fight between Nameless and Sky;
  • Red dominates the first version of the story by Nameless in which he describes the calligraphy school, the attack by the Qin army, the stabbing of Broken Sword and the subsequent fight between Flying Snow and Moon;
  • Blue becomes the colour for the second version of the story;
  • Green is the colour for the story that Nameless doesn’t necessarily know since it covers the first meeting of Broken Sword and Flying Snow and also the failed assassination attempt;
  • White is the final colour, dominating the deaths of Flying Snow and Broken Sword and alternating with the black sequences back in the palace.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

What meanings might we give to each of these uses of colour? Zhang Ziyi only appears in the scenes away from the palace so she doesn’t appear in the ‘black’ scenes. In an interview she gave this response to a question about the other four colours:

. . . Hero uses the four colours, Red, Green, Blue and White, to tie in four different segments of the story. On the other hand, each of them also contains a different story. Green is the representation of reminiscing, blue is the struggle among the three of them [Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Moon]. The layout is unique; it’s unlike traditional wu xia films. It has quite a bit of artistic love story. In addition, Hero is not a typical wuxia movie – its main theme is in no way the same as the past wuxia films, which are mostly about the seeking of vengeance or vying for the ultimate martial arts manual that leads to endless fights and killings. It is about the love and compassion of the heroes of the world, their magnanimity, and has a kind of international spirit. The costumes in Hero are also very special: one character, one design, and there are four different colours. I feel that it’s something very modern, in as much as being avant-garde. (

And here is Zhang Yimou in another interview with IndieWire magazine:

IW: How did you come up with the color changes in the film: red, white, blue and green?
ZY: Hero is not a traditional martial arts movie. It’s very structurally presented. I like Rashômon, and thought I could use different colors to represent different parts in the movie.
IW: Why those particular colors, red, white and blue?
ZY: There’s no particular meaning to each color. I just needed the colors to represent . . .
IW: Points of view.
ZY: Yes, yes. Each color represents a different period and different [way of telling the] story . . . (

Zhang suggests that there is no relationship between the particular colour and what happens in the sequence. Perhaps we should be suspicious of any director who makes this kind of statement (he could be ‘playing’ with the interviewer, or perhaps he was just bored). Even if Zhang did not consciously choose a colour, we as the audience will respond to colours differently. Red is most often associated with ‘passion’ and ‘danger’. This is true in every society – red is the colour of blood. It has a further meaning in China where it could be a reference to the victory of communism. Blue is often a cold colour associated with water, whereas green is often associated with calm. White is slightly problematic since in some cultures it relates to purity and in others to death. White is the colour of mourning clothes in many parts of Asia.

If you want some more ideas about what the possible meanings of the colours might be, a detailed discussion is available on this website: This review raises many interesting points about the mise en scène of Hero. Author R. Hu suggests that it bears all the signs of Zhang Yimou’s approach to mise en scène: “the use of water, blood red colours, pigments, drapes/fabric, aerial shots and box-like architectures”.

The palace of Qin is a good example of the ‘enclosing architecture’ (Zhang has said that he chose black to represent the Qin Dynasty), as is the interior of the calligraphy school. Contrast this with the ‘open’ exteriors, in particular the lake and the desert. Hu’s review is very long and detailed and it is only possible to highlight some of the points here, but you might like to consider:

The King of Qin’s version of the story which is shown in blue and has a strong circular motif (think of the circle of library scrolls within which Nameless performs the trick with the cup). This is repeated but with a subtly altered mise en scène in the white sequences. The circle represents the king’s view of strength and unity and blue is suggested as the colour of imagination (this is how the king would like the story to have unfolded?).

A great deal seems to hang on the ‘excess’ of water and the contrasting drought in the desert scenes. How many times does water seem to be important? When Broken Sword first meets Flying Snow it is by a waterfall, when Nameless fights Sky it is teeming with rain. When are the other times that water is featured?

“Although much is said about the various colour themes in this film, yet many do not similarly acknowledge the distinct construction of the mise en scène belonging to the various colour schemes. From the box-like enclosure of the Black/Grey sequences, we move into the disjunctive and disunited labyrinth of the Red sequence that contrasts with the perfect unity of the Blue sequence, the fluidity of the Green sequence and the vast expansions of drought and negative space of the desert scenes in the White sequence. The final moments of the film brings the viewers back full circle into the coffin-like confinement of the Black/Grey sequence which begins the film. Yet interestingly, the final shot of the movie is that of the Great Wall of China which though is a wall meant to exclude and confine, yet nevertheless expands into the distance so far, its end is that of which cannot be perceivable by the naked eye.”

Narrative resolution
The reactions of audiences towards the film in the West (it is more difficult to assess what they might be in China) often contrast what they perceive as a technically brilliant film with a rather disturbing political message. The ‘hero’ is a man who sacrifices himself to allow the King of Qin to unify the warring states and establish the Chinese Empire. This does not go down well in the West and many commentators have criticised Zhang Yimou who in the past has been both praised and damned for the assumed political messages of his films (equally, but in the opposite way, in Beijing and Washington). Much of the debate hinges on the final text that appears on the screen. In the Miramax version in the West it says ‘Our Land’, but Chinese scholars have suggested that the Chinese script actually means ‘under heaven’ or ‘the world’. Is the act of sacrifice that Nameless makes for ‘Chinese’ people or for all people?

It might be helpful to consider the importance of all the emphasis on the calligraphy and the symbol of the sword in the film. This importance comes from Broken Sword. Who is the real ‘hero’ of the film? Is it Nameless who certainly seems to be the main protagonist? Is it the King of Qin who creates the Empire of China? Or is it Broken Sword, from whom the whole idea of sacrificing oneself for the ‘greater good’ comes? It might be worth exploring what you think is the purpose of the love story between Broken Sword and Flying Snow and how this relates to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

If we want to understand the complexity and depth of the filmic narrative, it is essential that we know something about the genre elements in the film and what these might mean in terms of the expectations of the audience.

Hero has been described as a ‘wu xia pian’. Mandarin and English are different kinds of language and therefore translations are open to interpretations. We will work with a translation that suggests ‘martial arts chivalry film’. Such films are not well-known in the West with only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang’s follow-up film to Hero, House of Flying Daggers (2004) getting any kind of wide release. Western audiences are aware, however, of more contemporary martial arts films from Hong Kong, such as those of Bruce Lee in the 1970s and Jackie Chan in more recent times. Also, many audiences are familiar with the choreography of martial arts as it has been imported into Hollywood action films – everything from The Matrix trilogy to the Charlie’s Angels films.

Wu xia is a distinct genre and the martial arts ‘action’ is located in a period setting and in the context of specific conflicts related to the honor codes of the warriors. This means that:

  • the films are rooted in the specific cultural context of pre-modern China;


  • the repertoire of these films will share certain elements with similar genres in other cultures, e.g. the chanbara or ‘swordfight’ film from Japan and the ‘swashbuckler’/musketeers/knights tales from Europe and America. There could also be links to westerns and gangster films – those in which a notion of honour, loyalty and responsibility are important.

The important cultural roots in China mean that the actions of ‘warriors’ in wu xia are linked to forms of philosophy and traditions of training which involve apprentices and masters (so that in Hero, Broken Sword is attempting to master calligraphy and marry it to his swordfighting skills and Moon is his apprentice/page etc.). Warriors recognise each other according to the ‘schools’ which have trained them and will often remark on the quality of skills demonstrated. Other elements include:

  • ‘super powers’ – warriors are able to leap high and long and to hang in the air, their swordplay is more accurate and swifter than seems possible and they can defeat whole armies of lesser warriors;
  • related to these super powers, wu xia may also involve other fantasy elements including witchcraft, ghosts, out of body experiences etc.
  • the contests between warriors often take place in a specific location, away from the fictional world of mere mortals – often in a world of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests (jiang hu)
  • jiang hu is often in a state of ‘chaos’, caused by wars or corrupt officials who have recruited warriors to do evil things – the good warriors therefore have a mission to restore the balance in jiang hu and the ‘real world’
  • the mission may focus on some form of lost sacred object, often a scroll, a sword etc.
  • narratives will often focus on a hero with a mission who has to overcome some form of disability (thus blind or one-armed swordsmen are not uncommon);
  • families or ‘surrogate’ relationships are important, so that the son or daughter of a warrior may follow a parent into training;
  • the tradition of female warriors is not new and can be traced back to 1920s cinema in China (see Reynaud 2003). The modern female warrior possibly dates from an important Taiwanese film directed by King Hu, A Touch of Zen (1971).

Looking through this list of elements it is clear that Hero does use several elements from the repertoire.

  • male and female warriors (Nameless, Sky, Broken Sword and the King), Flying Snow and Moon, all except the King with ‘super’ powers;
  • there is a sense of jiang hu in the location of significant duels at the lake and in the forest etc.;
  • there is a sense of ‘chaos’ – arguably created by the King’s initial actions and then the hatred and revenge engendered in Nameless and Flying Snow in particular;
  • the focus on calligraphy is strong and Broken Sword’s mission to bring swordsmanship and brushwork together is a driving force in the narrative.

However, as the filmmakers have indicated, Hero is not a ‘pure’ or traditional wu xia. There are other elements that are important. The romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is essential to an understanding of the narrative. The questioning of the love of one for the other, the ‘tests’ of love, the anger and jealousy at suspected betrayal etc. are all elements from the love story. (Even if the jealousy was not ‘true’, it still features as an element.) These elements don’t invalidate an approach to the film as wu xia, instead they make it a richer and more complex text because they are essential in any reading of the narrative.

References and Further Reading
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill
Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge
Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan
Sharon Lin Tay (2004) Review in Sight & Sound, October

The explication of basic concepts in genre offered in this pack is extended in the resources pack on Key Concepts: Genre published by BFI Education Projects and itp publications in 2001.

Websites (David Bordwell) (Reynaud)

Essay or discussion questions on Hero

1. How is the art of calligraphy represented in the film? Which of the characters is most associated with calligraphy and what is it that they do?

2. What is the role of the character Moon in the film’s narrative? What does she do and how significant is her role?

3. How strong is the love between Flying Snow and Broken Sword – how is this love represented?

4. How would you describe the ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ that drives the narrative of Hero?

5. List the main sequences in Hero according to the dominant colours (of costume, decor etc.). How would you explain the difference between the red, blue and green sequences?

6. How many of the ‘genre elements’ of wu xia have you seen being used in Hollywood films? Select one or two examples and explain how the same elements might be shared by Chinese cinema and Hollywood – and how they might be used differently.

7. How would you describe the King of Qin? Is he a sympathetic character or is he a villain? What kinds of evidence do you take into account in your decision?

8. There are several fight scenes in the film. How does the director attempt to make each fight different so that we don’t become bored?

9. How is sound used in the film? Are there moments you remember when a particular sound or passage of music is essential to understanding what is happening? Or does sound always simply support the image?

10. Why do you think water plays such an important part in several of the fight scenes?