Monthly Archives: March 2009

Ordinary Boys (Chicos Normales, Spain 2008)

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El-Khader with one of his siblings

The chicos normales are youths in the Jaama Mezwak district of the Northern Moroccan city of Tétouan in this film by the Spanish documentarist Daniel Hernández. This is the director’s first feature after 30 documentaries and is funded by the Catalan broadcaster Televisió de Catalunya (TVC). I was intrigued by the promise of a Spanish perspective on Muslim youth in the current political climate and wondered whether there would be similarities with British films like Yasmin (UK 2004).

The setting for the film is the district which was the home of several of the Madrid bombers in 2004. I’ve only been a tourist in Morocco, but I do know two important facts about the country. One is its proximity to Spain, and therefore the EU, via both the short sea crossing from Tangier across the Straits of Gibraltar and the rather longer and more hazardous routes further across the Mediterranean and from the West coast to the Canaries. The second is the pressure to travel to Europe, prompted by the growth of the Moroccan population and the inability of the local economy to find jobs for young people.

[Spoilers follow]

The film is a form of neorealist fiction based on the day-to-day lives of two young men, Youseff and El-Khader, and Rabia a female law graduate. All the actors are locals, the credits list Youseff as playing ‘himself’ and the other actors also use their own names for their characters. The narrative begins with a funeral and flashes back to explain what happened during the previous months. Like Yasmin, the events of the story came from discussions with the actors and other members of the local community themselves although the script was written by Daniel Hernández and Gabi Martínez. The credits list a translator/interpreter and I was impressed by the seeming authenticity of the whole enterprise. It could have been a Moroccan film for me (though since I’ve only seen a couple of other Moroccan films, that might not mean much).  

Youseff is the ‘bad boy’. He has been stabbed in the leg in a fight and has allowed the wound to become infected, consequently he needs an operation and is on crutches. He has failed to learn to read and becomes easily frustrated when attempting to earn a living with a market stall. Youseff wants money quickly – for the operation to heal his leg and to spend with his friends. The most lucrative form of ’employment’ is offered by the local drug smugglers.

El-Khader is a more sympathetic character, but in a sense equally lost. He wants most of all to become a performer and attempts to engage in street theatre, but it doesn’t pay and his friends and relatives mock him for not having a more ‘masculine’ interest. He begins to fret about how he can support his mother and his younger siblings. Taking the illegal route to Europe seems the only answer.

Rabia

Rabia

Rabia has decided that she wants to become a fashion designer rather than use her law degree. She manages to join a co-operative and get started as a seamstress on local commissions whilst she plans her future, but she is also struggling to decide how to be a modern young woman in Morocco. Her boyfriend has gone to Austria and doesn’t look like returning soon. She has a dalliance in an online chatroom and an interesting encounter with a young (and rather arrogant) religious teacher. She is not wearing a headscarf in the first part of the film and says that she will wear one when she deems it appropriate rather than be forced to wear it by the pressure of patriarchal society. Later we see her carefully putting on a headscarf, carefully covering her hair but otherwise presenting her very beautiful face to the world – it isn’t clear why she is now doing this.

At first, I found the film difficult to watch. Shot on digital, I found the scenes ‘cold’ and brash. I wasn’t sure if this was a fiction or a documentary and I missed the familiar cues as to which were the central characters and how the narrative was developing, so although I was learning something about the community, I wasn’t being drawn into a story. After about 20 minutes or so, I finally found my way into the narrative and from then on I enjoyed the film.

What is most interesting from a UK (and especially Bradford) perspective is that instead of focusing on what may propel Muslim youth towards an engagement with terrorism, the three main characters have their own concerns and the ‘fundamentalists’ are generally marginalised and only mentioned because they used to meet in a similar location “in another street” to the one in which Rabia sets up her sewing business. The youth are generally not interested in politics except in the case of Palestine, where they recognise that resistance to occupation is justified and should be supported. Youssef’s older brother was sent abroad by the fundamentalists and now he is missing assumed dead since he has not returned (or been listed as being in an American gaol). Yousseff continues to look for news and he has help from older people in the community – another difference to representations of British Muslim communities is that there is little suggestion of a generation gap in attitudes (although the youth are not surprisingly sometimes more aggressive). The future which faces the three Moroccan youths is not rosy and their chances of success are not high but at least this film has offered us a glimpse of what those problems might be and has presented us with recognisable characters in a human drama – even if the events may be too low key and predictable for fans of mainstream cinema.

Yousseff and El Khader

Yousseff and El Khader

I hope the film gets a release – or a showing on UK television. I think it would work on BBC4 or Channel 4. It is an interesting venture to put alongside the work of British directors like Michael Winterbottom who have been willing to go to Muslim countries to attempt to make films about issues that concern us all. As Spain enters a deep recession, I can only fear for the future of young Moroccans for whom a dangerous trip across the Med may prove to be futile.

15th Bradford International Film Festival 2009

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The Bradford International Film Festival is held in March each year at the National Media Museum in the UK. This year’s dates were 13-28 March. It’s one of three film festivals held at the Museum, the others being the Animation Festival and Bite the Mango. The March festival has a USP that other festivals find hard to match – the ‘Widescreen Weekend’ that attracts fans from all over the world to Pictureville Cinema to watch films in 70mm, VistaVision and Cinerama. Every year new prints are discovered or restored and this year featured a rare new release – a special one-off UK 70mm screening of a new French musical, Faubourg 36 (France/Germany/Czech Republic 2008) for which the Museum had to create its own subtitles and devise a way to project them. (The film should get a UK release on 35mm.)

The festival has several other strands. It tends to focus on British filmmakers, inviting directors, stars, cinematographers etc. for interviews and ‘Q & As’. This year the ‘chosen’ were Virginia McKenna, star of 1950s and 1960s features, James Bond writer/producer Michael Wilson, music/art documentary filmmaker Peter Whitehead, writer/director Terry Jones and actor Derren Nesbitt. A last minute surprise addition was local hero Simon Beaufoy fresh from his Oscar triumph. The classic British star James Mason was featured this year during his centenary in a selection of his best-known titles (Mason was born in Huddersfield, not too far away). Bradford is currently bidding to be the first UNESCO City of Film so the local connections are important. The opening and closing galas also feature British film premieres. Other strands include an American Independents collection and Documentaries – including a special strand of films on filmmakers in ‘CineFile’. Films from other festivals and pre-release screenings form a ‘Premieres and Previews’ strand and there are also various collections of Shorts. With the resources of the Museum available to further extend the Festivals reach there are linked ‘Family Events’ and a chance to watch free vintage TV recordings associated with some of the Festival strands. There are also Film Industry events sponsored by the Regional Screen Agency, Screen Yorkshire. There’s always plenty going on at the Bradford Film Festival! Unfortunately it’s on at the wrong time for me and I only got to one screening this year  – see the entry on Ordinary Boys. I’m going to try harder in future.

Global Media for A Level students

On March 20, I presented materials for studying ‘Global Media’ at the OCR A Level Conference in London. The materials related to:

  • Slumdog Millionaire as a ‘global film text’
  • Otaku culture in Japan and the associated media forms of manga, anime, videogames etc.

All the materials can be downloaded as follows:

Slumdog Millionaire (Word)

Manga (Word)

Manga 2 (pdf)

Otaku culture (pdf)

Presentation (pdf)

In addition, on this site you can find entries on anime. Explore the ‘Animation’ category on the left.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Japan 1952)

In the pachinko parlour: Setsuko, Mokichi and Non-Chan

In the pachinko parlour: Setsuko, Mokichi and Non-Chan

The more I see of the films of Ozu Yasujiro, the more I enjoy them and the more differentiated they become. This film, made just before Tokyo Story and scripted by Ozu with his usual writing partner Noda Kôgo, has the usual focus on family arrangements and personal relationships, but its tone is unusual. For long periods it seems quite bitchy and cynical and then becomes quite sweet and sentimental. The train trip is here, the bar and the visit to a spa, but also other aspects of the leisure time of the middle classes – dress shops, baseball, cycle-racing, kabuki, pachinko parlours and even Tokyo Airport and a tracking shot of a couple walking through the streets. There is more sense of the social life of a Japanese city in this film than in all the other Ozu films that I have seen.

The family is middle-class. The wife, Taeko, is very definitely ‘leisured’ and has at least two maids. She lives in a large Tokyo house with two floors (though Ozu carefully avoids actually showing us stairs – I’m not sure why). Her husband, Mokichi, who she thinks of as ‘Dull-san’ or a ‘relaxed turtle’, is from a lower middle-class background. He was a corporal in the Imperial Army and has done well in his (office) job at an engineering company. A sudden trip to Uruguay becomes a plot point in the last third of the film. Taeko is bored and constantly lies to her husband in order to spend time with her girlfriends at the club or going away to a spa. The lying is pointless, since she is a very bad liar and anyhow, Mokichi would probably raise no objection if she told him straight.

Both husband and wife are acting as mentors. Taeko takes her niece Setsuko under her wing and Mokichi agrees to be a guarantor for a young man, Non-chan who is seeking employment. The two younger characters represent the rapidly modernising Japan and Taeko is taken aback to discover that her niece has no intention of agreeing to an arranged marriage (which of course she went through – and ended up with Mokichi). The young man meanwhile is tempting Mokichi into spending time in pachinko parlours and baseball.

Taeko and her girlfriends gossip much like suburban wives in a 1950s Hollywood comedy-melodrama. The tone then changes a little with the resistance shown by Setsuko to an arranged date. An intriguing sequence this, set in a kabuki theatre – we never see the stage, but hear the actors – as we watch Taeko and her friends searching for Setsuko who has ‘escaped’. She ends up with her uncle and Non-Chan. Mokichi is quite sensible and when he realises that she simply won’t accept the arrangement, he leaves her slurping noodles with Non-Chan. I won’t spoil what happens in the end, but it’s an interesting resolution to the narrative.

The film’s title refers to the kind of meal that Mokichi really enjoys – poor people’s food, simple but subtle with the clash of flavours producing something pleasing. It becomes an important plot point and Mokichi suggests it’s a metaphor for marriage with the different flavours of men and women. Taeko comments on the smell of pickles on her hands which Mokichi refers to as the smell of a ‘working woman’s hands’.

Great movie!

A short history of Japanese film studios

Japan offers the film student an alternative ‘studio history’ to that of Hollywood. There are striking parallels and some major differences in the development of ‘studio majors’ from the 1920s onwards. Three of the oldest Japanese studios Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho have been around since at least the 1930s and are still active today. Toei arrived a little later, as did Daiei, which was eventually incorporated in the assets of a relatively new player, Kadokawa, a publishing house founded in the 1950s (cf Warner Bros and Time-Life getting together in Hollywood).

Like the Hollywood studios, some of the Japanese majors have at different times attempted to run fully integrated film operations with producing studios, distribution companies and exhibition chains. One slight difference has been that live action venues, especially kabuki theatres have remained in their portfolios – but another similarity is an interest in theme parks and studio tours etc.

The first Japanese studio system reached its peak in the 1930s having had to recover from the earthquake in 1923 which destroyed much of central Tokyo and in which film prints and facilities were lost. But from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the Japanese film industry was effectively controlled/restricted first by the Japanese military authorities who forced through a ‘realignment’ of studios via mergers and then by the Allied Occupation Forces from 1945-52 who vetted script ideas and discouraged production of jedaigeki (‘period’ films which might promote traditional/non-democratic values). During the 1930s the Japanese film industry had become the world’s biggest and it regained this position in the 1960s, only to lose it again with the impact of video in the late 1970s.

The Japanese studio system saw stars and writer/director units contracted to the major studios much as in Hollywood. There seems to have been a more visible form of apprenticeship system with new directors having a mentor or ‘old master’ who helped them get established. Aspects of this can be found discussed in books about Kurosawa and the other major directors. Kurosawa is also interesting in terms of his move towards a form of independent production under the umbrella of Toho in the 1950s. The japanese majors tended to own or lease studio facilities in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo was the base for gendaigeki (‘contemporary’ films) and the old capital of Kyoto became the centre for jedaigeki. Kyoto still has studio facilities used for film and television production of period dramas. During the studio period, double bills would often include one film from the company’s Tokyo studio and one from their Kyoto studio.

During the 1950s, the major studios came to be associated with specific genres and approaches to retaining audiences. Animation became important in Japan after 1945 and some studios developed specific animation divisions or acquired independent animation companies.

Brief background on the best-known studio brands

Some studio websites are only available in Japanese. If there are studio brands that I have missed out or if any of this material is incorrect, please leave a comment!

daieilogoDaiei was originally formed as a subsidiary of Shochiku in the mid-1930s but came into its own as part of the Japanese wartime ‘consolidation’ of the industry into three companies. After the war, in which Daiei had been a compliant provider of propaganda pictures, the studio faced several problems – no theatre chain or ‘acceptable’ back catalogue and a general restriction on jedaigeki imposed by the Occupation authorities which hit Daiei’s Kyoto studio hard. Two of Daiei’s innovations in the 1950s, however, proved successful. The gamble on sending a film to the Venice Film Festival paid off with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of O’Haru (1952). This was sustained by the export success of Gates of Hell in 1954 with its colour photography. Daiei then became the first Japanese studio to consistently use colour. The studio declined during the 1960s and shut its doors in 1971 before the assets were finally bought by Kadokawa in 2002. (See Greg Shoemaker’s ‘History of Daiei‘.)

logo_kadokawa-copyKadokawa Pictures is part of a new form of Japanese media conglomerate. Kadokawa Shoten, founded in 1954, is a major Japanese publishing house responsible for manga, magazines and popular literature. Kadokawa Group has expanded the firm’s interest into television, video games and both live action and anime filmed entertainment. Kadokawa Pictures USA sells English language versions of the company’s products in the US. In Japan, the company owns Asmik Ace and other film-related businesses and in 2002 took over the assets of the Daiei studio. Kadokawa owns a cinema chain and also acts as a distributor of foreign films in Japan as well as for its own products. Kadokawa made an impact in Europe and eventually North America through films such as Ringu and Dark Water, both based on books published by Kadokawa Shoten and produced by Asmik Ace.

nikkatsuNikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major film studio. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company” and it was founded in 1912 when several production companies and theatre chains consolidated under a trust. Nikkatsu lost out in the 1940s when wartime controls forced a damaging merger. The studio did not make films again until 1954 after which there was a concentration on modern action films such as the yakuza films of Suzuki Seijun as well as the more varied output of Ichikawa Kon and Imamura Shohei. The company has made, and continues to make films in numerous genres. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they strictly produced what they termed roman porn films in order to make ends meet. Unlike “pinku eiga“, Nikkatsu’s films were produced with relatively high budgets and production values, as well as featuring mainstream actresses, many of whom also starred in network television and nationally released film dramas. Today Nikkatsu is a vertically integrated operation with film and TV production, distribution (including satellite) and a small theatrical exhibition chain. 

PCL Photo Chemical Laboratory was an early film production company that was bought in 1936 by Kobayashi Ichizo to form the production base for what would become the Toho group.

Toho (from Wikipedia) Toho was founded by the Hankyu Railway in 1932 as the Tokyo-Takarazuka Theater Company. It managed much of the kabuki in Tokyo and, among other properties, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater and the Imperial Garden Theater in Tokyo; Toho and Shochiku enjoyed a duopoly over theatres in Tokyo for many years. Toho had a long (and often difficult) relationship with Kurosawa Akira over many years from the 1940s-60s. As well as the popular Kurosawa films, Toho is also a known brand in Europe and the US because of its science fiction and ‘monster’ pictures from the mid 1950s onwards and its distribution of Miyazaki Hayao’s work for Studio Ghibli.

tohoscopeThe ‘TohoScope’ logo (for the anamorphic system used by the company from the early 1960s) is a fondly remembered image for many film fans.

Toho-Towa is a distribution company, founded in 1928 with a focus on importing the best of international cinema. It is now a subsidiary company of Toho.

Tōei (from Wikipedia) is a Japanese film and television production and distribution corporation. Based in Tokyo, Tōei owns and operates thirty-four (34) cinema houses across Japan, a modest vertically-integrated studio system by the standards of the 1930s Hollywood. The name Tōei is derived from “Tōkyō Eiga Haikyū” (Tōkyō Film Distribution Company, the company’s former name). Tōkyō-Yokohama Films, incorporated 1938, had previously erected its facilities immediately east of the Tōkyū Tōkyō-Yokohama Line; they managed the Tōkyū Shibuya Yokohama studio system prior to V-J Day. From 1945 through the Tōei merger, Tōkyō-Yokohama Films leased from the Daiei Motion Picture Company a second studio in Kyoto. Through the merger, they gained the combined talents and experience of actors Chiezō KataokaUtaemon IchikawaRionosuke TsukigataRyutaro OtomoKinnosuke NakamuraChiyonosuke AzumaShirunosuke ToshinHashizo Okawa and Satomi Oka. On October 1, 1950, the Tōkyō Film Distribution Company was incorporated; in 1951 the company purchased Ōizumi Films.

Toei Animation is a leading animation company and part of the Toei Company.

Shintoho began as a Toho subsidiary in the late 1940s and then sought to develop an independence that in the 1950s saw it successful with war pictures and action adventures for ‘ultra-conservative’ audiences. Its independence ended in 1961 when the studio went bankrupt and the assets reverted to Toho. 

180px-shochiku_logoShochiku Formed in 1895 by Takejirō Otani and his brother as a Kabuki production company, Shochiku grew fast, expanding its business to many other Japanese theatrical entertainments, like Noh and Bunraku. The company began making films in 1921 and was the first film studio to abandon the use of female impersonators and sought to model itself and its films after Hollywood standards, bringing such things as the star system and the sound stage to Japan. Today, Shochiku is considered to be the oldest continuously-operating film studio in Japan. Shochiku is associated with the ‘lower middle-class’ dramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other films for a family audience in the 1950s.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture – cinema entry

Vivre sa vie (France 1962)

Anna Karina (centre) as Nana in one of the brothel scenes.

Anna Karina (centre) as Nana in one of the brothel scenes.

(Notes from a 2003 class.)

Paris in 1962 was arguably the most exciting place in the world for cinephiles – true obsessives about cinema. ‘La nouvelle vague‘, the outpouring of films by new young French directors, was at its height and readily appreciated by both a young audience, better educated and newly affluent, and by filmmakers across the world, including in the UK and the US.

There were over a hundred first-time filmmakers who made up la nouvelle vague, but it is a small group of ex-critics from the magazine Cahiers du cinéma who have been most remembered. Jean-Luc Godard made his first feature A bout de souffle in 1959 and quickly followed it with Le petit soldat (1960) and Une femme est une femme (1961). Vivre sa vie was his fourth feature and the third to star his young wife Anna Karina. Godard’s early career almost defies critical belief. Producing films on very modest budgets at a prolific rate, whilst at the same time learning how to direct and how to re-invent cinema is no mean feat. Each of the first four films brings together ideas about art, philosophy, and modern life refracted through forms of popular cinema and a conscious attempt to question the conservative conventions of film style and narrative.

“…this initial fixation upon and investigation of Nana’s image, in particular her face, from a variety of perspectives, is the essence of Vivre sa vie. So despite its surface break-up into twelve chapters, its notation as a treatise on prostitution (from actual reportage), its essayistic and discursive qualities, and its extremely varied audio-visual devices, all elements which attempt to survey and understand the outside of the subject, Vivre sa vie is most candidly a ‘documentary’ of Nana’s image (and subsequently the image of Godard’s then wife, Karina). Elements such as Nana’s visual similarity to Louise Brooks, her emotional reaction to and identification with Joan while ‘silently’ watching Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and various other references to films and stars, highlight the cinematic self-consciousness of this work and its engagement with a history of images (cinematic, photographic, literary, etc.). The film itself becomes a record (similar in effect to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), a catalogue of postures, poses, gestures, everyday, real and performed actions. And also a record of the social, economic, sexual and cultural circumstances that lead to Nana’s situation and the philosophical and existential dilemmas she encounters. The film doesn’t exactly present an argument but rather a series of observations, approaches and reports denuded of many of the trappings of fictional narrative cinema.” Adrian Danks (2000)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was a highly praised Danish film made in 1928 with Maria Falconetti as Joan. Louise Brooks was an American who became a star in Germany for the director G.W. Pabst. In one of her classic films, The Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany 1929), she plays a young woman cast out of a middle-class family home after her seduction by an older man. Forced to stay in a home until her child is adopted, she turns to prostitution.

Vivre sa vie includes ‘documentary’ accounts of Nana’s life, but it is also presented in twelve ‘tableaux’ “to emphasise the theatrical, Brechtian side. I wanted to show the ‘Adventures of Nana’ side of it” (Godard in Milne & Narboni, 1972). Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) promoted a political theatre which used various devices to ‘distance’ the audience, to stop them getting too involved in ‘story’ and to make them think about the process of presenting a narrative and the social context of the events it portrays.

Godard was trying to “film a thought in action” (a typically slippery Godardian quote from Milne and Narboni). The film includes important dialogue, full of the usual Godardian allusions to art and culture, and the image is often subservient to what we hear, Raoul Coutard’s cinematography still manages to create a tone that suits Anna Karina’s presence and there are moments, such as her electric dance around the billiards table, when it isn’t too difficult to see why Godard’s seemingly ‘specialised film’ attracted a large audience in 1962.

Godard and narrative
In his first feature-length film, A bout de souffle, Godard presented a recognisable narrative that drew on the Hollywood ‘B’ crime film – “a boy, a girl and a gun”, to quote the director. Even so, Godard saw fit to break or distort other familiar narrative conventions, including those to do with editing and sound in particular. Some of Godard’s inventions in the film may have been prompted by his chronic lack of budget and some by a simple ignorance (by both Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard) about how it was done ‘properly’ in the French studios. Even so, the invented ways of constructing a film worked well and enabled Godard to move forward quickly and by Vivre sa vie he was already fulfilling a desire to ‘write an essay on cinema’ rather than simply to ‘tell a story’.

Like many other nouvelle vague films, Vivre sa vie was filmed on the streets and in the cafés of Paris. Narrative space is represented in a conventional way as is narrative time. The assault on our sense of narrative development comes rather from a refusal to comply with our expectations of how actors will be presented within the space – the film opens with Nana facing away from the camera, instead of conventional mid-shots we are often offered close-ups or side-on compositions. Godard’s trademark slow tracking shots appear as Nana drifts into prostitution. Characters walk out of or through static frames. The soundtrack features voiceovers and music which starts and stops abruptly. Seemingly important dialogue is sometimes delivered by characters who are off-screen. We could argue that the whole film is held together only by the focus on Anna Karina – who is mesmerising.

There is a story – Nana’s story of her gradual decline into prostitution and criminality – and if an audience clings to the conventional notion of narrative, the story can be followed. This story is affecting enough because of Karina’s performance and the unexpected ending, but somehow the ‘essay’ about what cinema could be seems much more compelling. By ‘breaking the rules’, Godard gets closer than the continuity editing of Hollywood to presenting ‘social reality’, with all its complexity, on screen.

Discussion questions
1. To what extent do Godard’s techniques ‘distance’ the audience and prevent us identifying too closely with Nana?
2. If Vivre sa vie is what Godard often referred to as an ‘essay’, what does it suggest about cinema, art and the possibility of moving beyond entertainment to explore ‘realities’.
3. How important are the conventional genre elements of Nana’s story in providing the framework for Godard’s ideas?
4. How do we feel when we watch the film – frustrated, bored, enraptured, emotionally involved?

References and further reading
Adrian Danks (2000) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ on www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/5/cteq/vivre.html
Tom Milne & Jean Narboni (eds) (1972) Godard on Godard, London: Secker & Warburg
V. F. Perkins (1967) ‘Vivre sa vie‘ in Ian Cameron (ed) The films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista

Other websites:
www.geocities.com/annakarinawebpage/PhotoGallery.html
www.imagesjournal.com/issue04/features/newwave4.htm

Ji jie hao (Assembly, Hong Kong/China/South Korea 2007)

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Zhang Hanyu as Gu Zidi

The range of Chinese films distributed in the West is increasing. This popular genre picture from 2007 has been distributed in UK cinemas and on DVD by Metrodome. The film is a biopic about a hero of the People’s Liberation Army who joined up in 1939 and was invalided out after an incident in the Korean War in 1951. Gu Zidi is first seen as the Captain of the 9th Company of a regiment fighting street battles with the Kuomintang Nationalist Forces in 1948. Reprimanded for his treatment of POWs, Gu is then required to base his depleted company on the rise formed around an old mine and to defend it until the last man is standing. He is instructed to retreat only if he hears the ‘Assembly’ call by the regimental bugler. The defence of the old mine is undoubtedly heroic but Gu loses all his men and is himself rendered unconscious. Apart from a later incident in the Korean campaign, most of the rest of the film is presented via flashbacks as Gu attempts to get the authorities to find the grave of his dead comrades who had all been taken into the mine. His story never waivers but he can’t be sure if the bugle call was ever played because he has lost much of his hearing. Did the Army abandon his company? Was the fault his?

The film has generated interest amongst Western fans of military action films (with their detailed interest in campaigns, weapons and strategies). Several commentators compare the film to Saving Private Ryan (a film that has undoubtedly been of great importance in influencing the representation of battles, but is possibly overpraised as a drama). A more helpful comparison would be the South Korean film Taegukgi (Brotherhood, SK 2004) and possibly Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). The Korean connection is strong in many ways (I’m sure I read somewhere that there was some contact between the two groups of filmmakers). Because the original incident is a Civil War battle, there is a strong sense of the ‘home front’ mixed with the military action and of the confusion over identities which also occurs in the Korean story. There is also a similar attitude towards the absolute horror of war and its representation via CGI. For me, Assembly was perhaps too gory – I’m happy to accept that “war is hell” and I don’t need to see so many dismembered bodies. It did seem at times that arms and legs were too easily severed by a single rifle shot. On the other hand, director Feng Xiaogang did choose to play all the battle scenes via a much reduced palette of blues, greys and reds that certainly didn’t glamourise the violence.

The problem for Western action fans is that the biopic spends plenty of time on the struggle to establish where the bodies are buried. The action is crammed into the first half only – apart from a few flashback scenes. The whole history of the long war – more than 20 years from the first Japanese incursions into Manchuria to the stalemate across the 38th parallel in Korea in 1953 – for what became the PLA is barely known about by audiences in the West and this history and how it is explored is what I found most interesting about Assembly. The film is propagandistic in some ways and also as sentimental as many Hollywood films, but overall it is quite a sober and moving account of an important period. I hope we get to see more Chinese films like this.