Daily Archives: March 16, 2009

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

assembly.jpg

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.

¡Viva! 15th Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

vivaIf you are interested in Spanish language cinema, there is only one place in the UK to be during the first half of March and that is Manchester, where Cornerhouse Cinema hosts the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival. But don’t despair, if you can’t get to Manchester you can still see some of the films on tour around the UK (and in Dublin) at various specialised cinemas.

The festival includes screenings (with a mini Cuban festival during this year’s celebration of 50 years since the Revolution), guest appearances, Q&As and special events, education events for Spanish language students and much more (including a salsa demonstration in the bar and Spanish-themed food and drink). Cornerhouse is helped to produce the festival by staff from the two Manchester Universities and the University of Salford plus the Instituto Cervantes.

It’s always difficult for me to get to festivals during term time, but this year I managed a day at ¡Viva! and relished the opportunity to enjoy three films and to feel the buzz of being in such a lively atmosphere. First up was a new documentary about one of my favourite directors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the best known Cuban filmmaker outside Cuba and arguably one of the two or three most influential figures in the history of Cuban Cinema.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

This 2008 documentary, a Cuban/Spanish co-production titled Titón, de la Habana a Guantanamera and directed by his wife Mirta Ibarra, is a memorial, a love letter and a celebration. It also offers a persuasive argument in favour of one of the great filmmakers of the last century who chose to work in revolutionary Cuba rather than move to North America or Europe – where it would have been easier to make films and to promote himself.

Through a combination of interviews, newsreel and film extracts, ‘home movies’ and photos, Ibarra has concocted an engaging and informative documentary record. I was particularly interested in the early material dealing with Alea’s time at the Cine Centro Experimentale in Rome and his subsequent career in primitive advertising films in Cuba prior to the 1959 Revolution. Most of his earlier films have not, to my knowledge, been available in the UK and it was fascinating to learn more about these. The documentary also provides more contextual material for any analysis of Alea’s better known work such as Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Alea’s ‘middle period’ features in the 1970s and 1980s are also unfamiliar for most UK audiences and again I found that the documentary whetted my appetite for more.

Perhaps the most important achievement here is the presentation of Alea’s criticism of the Cuban Revolution as the positive supportive action of a man who believed in the true concept of ‘constant revolution’ – the only real way to support struggle is to keep arguing for more and better changes. Any of those puzzled American critics who still persist in seeing Alea’s best-known films like Memories and Strawberries and Chocolate (1993) as somehow subversive of the Revolution would do well to study Ibarra’s film.

The only slight downer in this screening was the poor quality of the archive material on show. It looks to me as if ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, must have transferred its archive of newsreel footage to video. The documentary itself, like many festival screenings these days was projected from Digi-Beta tape.

The Black Virgin(Venezuela 2008)
I don’t think that I’ve seen a Venezuelan film before and I found this one a bit of a struggle to pin down. Cornerhouse had a poster suggesting a romantic comedy. It certainly had its comedy as well as melodrama moments. It was also presented with what I must reluctantly assume was ‘magic realism’ (that term seems now to be so overused). The story is narrated (in an adult voice) by a young boy and he may of course be an ‘unreliable narrator’. He begins by describing his affection for his beautiful teacher and being mildly irritated by the attentions of his precocious classmate who expects to marry him. But the narrative’s main focus is the despair of a woman who thinks her husband is ‘playing away’. We then learn that this community lives in a unique ‘town of black people’ on the coast of Venezuela. In a sequence straight out of a ‘Columbus discovers America’ movie, we see a flashback to a Spanish woman arriving on the coast with her aged husband and the coffins of her three sons all killed in the Spanish Civil war. ‘Senora Isabel’ is played by Almodóvar’s 1980s heroine Carmen Maura on fine form (but in a rather limited role).

Francisco Díaz and Carmen Maura in La virgen negra

Francisco Díaz and Carmen Maura in La virgen negra

Senora Isabel has built the town and is responsible for its people. When the aggrieved woman seeks the help of a local woman with some form of magic power, she learns that the way to get a wish granted is to change the figure of the Virgin in the local church for a ‘Black Virgin’. Senora Isabel grants the woman’s wish. The Black Virgin appears and all kinds of wishes – good and bad – come true.

I’m assuming that many of the allusions and references in the film (e.g. the presence of a Brazilian in the village) have specific meanings in Venezuela. I found myself drawing on my limited knowledge of other Hispanic Caribbean/African communities such as Cuba and Nicaragua to make sense of the cultural mix and especially the use of religious imagery and music. The photography is very stylised with extensive use of filters or digital manipulation to create the magic realist tone. The film ended abruptly after the intrusion of a second narrative associated with an external threat to the town. I think it would be difficult to release this film in the UK, so I was grateful for the chance to see it. We get too few opportunities to see how other cultures attempt to use cinema to tell local stories.

Luis Fernando Peña as 'Memo' in Sleep Dealer

Luis Fernando Peña as 'Memo' in Sleep Dealer

Sleep Dealer (Mexico/US 2008)
This terrific ‘speculative fiction’ movie combines an impressive array of contemporary developments in both technological and political activity to produce a genre picture with real soul.

‘Memo’, the neatly named protagonist, is a youth in a village in Oaxaca in the far south of Mexico. His father has a small agricultural plot – a ‘milpa’ where beans are grown as a combination crop with corn. But life is hard. A US multinational company has damned the river and taken ownership of all the water – the campesinos must pay to irrigate their land and the dam is protected by robot guards with video cameras and machine guns.

Memo is bored and sets up an illegal satellite dish hacking into phone lines around the globe. One night he is listening in on a conversation when he realises hat he has been detected and he immediately shuts down. Shortly after, he and his brother set off on a short trip, but watching TV in a bar they suddenly realise that the reality TV show which shows American security forces blowing up the hideouts of suspected terrorists has detected Memo’s satellite dish and a ‘drone fighter’ piloted by a controller in San Diego is set to demolish their home. They are too late to save the shack and their father who is shot down as he tries to escape.

In despair, Memo heads for the North to become a sleep dealer in Tijuana. The border with the US is closed but Mexicans still do the work for Americans. They go to factories in Tijuana where they jack into a neural system and operate robots carrying out all kinds of tasks in US industry and services. This work eventually makes the worn-out workers blind. The final main narrative idea is that neural bloggers offer ‘memories’ for the nostalgia industry on the neural network and Memo has his own memories ‘uploaded’ without his knowledge. How will he react when he finds out?

All of these ideas leap off the news headlines. Water as a commodity, private security, US drone strikes in Pakistan etc. are ripe for exploitation. There are obvious reference points to Phil K. Dick (he would have loved the neural blogging of memories as an idea) and to films like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This a really clever script with its play on the Mexican-American cultural experience. I was also reminded of the first Robocop movie when seemingly outrageous ideas were delivered in TV broadcasts. It’s a cliche now perhaps, but as in Paul Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, there is still mileage in hearing a reality TV announcer warning you that there is extreme violence coming up and then exhorting you to make sure that your youngest kids don’t miss it! This and similar sick jokes got big laughs at the screening.

A Sundance-supported film, this Mexican-US release (largely in Spanish) looks like it has been picked up by Fortissimo and might well get a UK release. Director Alex Rivera is American with Latin-American parentage who decided on a Spanish language production with Hispanic characters (in America and Mexico). I’d urge you not to miss it if it does appear. With the earlier La Zona this is further proof of the strength of popular Mexican cinema and its ideas about speculative fiction.

The screenings of both La virgen negra and Sleep Dealer were close to full houses and this added to the fun of watching the films. ¡Viva! is a festival well worth supporting. See you there next year in March? And don’t forget the tour!