Monthly Archives: September 2010

Tamara Drewe (UK 2010)

The two teenage girls, the 'chorus', wait outside Tamara Drewe's house to see what's going on.

I’m not sure what I can say about Tamara Drewe except that I enjoyed every moment. But that’s hardly surprising since I’m a fan of director Stephen Frears and the source material, Posy Simmonds’ comic strip/graphic novel from 2005-7, is one of my fondest memories. The strip ran in the Guardian‘s Saturday Review section in 110 instalments (click on the image below – the whole thing is available online) and I didn’t miss a week. The problem is, of course, that the film is being heavily promoted and released through mainstream multiplexes to audiences who have no knowledge of the strip. The result is a very mixed reception. Audiences under 40 have seemingly ignored the film and IMDB carries several outraged reviews. Interestingly, the film has done pretty well in France and I suspect that it might do well in some other territories where audiences might take it at face value as a bucolic comedy (though the ending – even though softened from the original – might be a shock).

Episode 5 of Tamara Drewe as it appeared in the Guardian

Perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to set it in context and try to explain to readers outside the UK its peculiar allure. Posy Simmonds has had a long career, much of it in the Guardian where she has maintained a gentle satire on the English middle-classes, holding a mirror up to the Guardian readership’s sense of itself as well as taking down the more conservative readers of the UK’s other broadsheets (and tabloids like the Daily Mail). During the 1980s Simmonds’ vehicle for this was a strip about a London family with generally leftist/vaguely hippy politics known as the Webbers (possibly a joke about the sociologist Max Weber). Throughout the period of Thatcher’s Britain the travails of the Webber clan offered a complement to the more vicious satire of the UK’s greatest political cartoonist, Steve Bell. Between them, Posey and Steve kept many of us sane throughout those dark years. In 1999 Posy Simmonds produced Gemma Bovery which also ran in the Guardian. That novel, set in Normandy states its source inspiration in its title. Tamara Drewe as a title is less revealing but the film adaptation lays on enough clues to reveal that we are in the world of Thomas Hardy and his novel Far From the Madding Crowd – adapted as a John Schlesinger film in 1967 with Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, the Tamara Drewe character. If you don’t know the story, it concerns a young and very attractive woman who comes into property in a Wessex (Dorset) village and finds herself pursued by three men – a solid local farmer, a flash young blade (in the novel, a hussar, in the film a rock drummer) and an older married man. Valentine letters (emails) to the men create rather unfortunate circumstances. Simmonds’ innovation is to provide a ‘writers’ retreat’ in the village so that Hardy fan-writers, amongst others, can join the fun.

The screenwriter Moira Buffini has captured much of what was in Simmonds’ satire, but either she or the producers have chickened out with the ending and overall I would have liked the darker and more ‘Hardyesque’ ending of the original. Some of the other, nuanced changes work much better. The ‘Greek chorus’ of the two teenagers who watch all the goings-on and interfere in the narrative are slightly younger than I had imagined from the strip, but work very well and are the best bit of the satire. I don’t remember the American academic from the strip, so perhaps he is an invention. If so, it’s a great idea. He is the balance for the two girls in the ‘chorus’ offering postmodernist comments about Hardy which I enjoyed. The trump trick for all those of us who are fans of the UK radio sitcom The Archers (now in its 60th year and possibly the longest-running sitcom of all) is the casting of Tamsin Greig in the movie as the long-suffering wife of the philandering novelist. She’s there because she is one of UK stage and TV screen’s greatest comedians, but for Archers fans she is always Debbie Aldridge and part of the upper middle-class of the farming community where she is a counterbalance to her evil father, Brian Aldridge, once über-villain and now mellowing paterfamilias. In fact it’s a joy to see so much great acting talent in Tamara Drewe, including the wonderful Susan Wooldridge (Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown) for once allowed into a feature film as a gun-toting cattle farmer.

Poor Stephen Frears, like Michael Winterbottom, seems to suffer from being too eclectic in his tastes and too willing to lose himself in his projects. For me, he has made some of the best British films of the last 40 years and although he doesn’t give a good interview and promote himself as an auteur, he deserves recognition. Tamara Drewe isn’t the UK film of the year, but it’s certainly worth watching and thinking about.

Here’s the best trailer – no annoying American voiceover and some nice graphics touches:

Cambridge Film Festival #4: Rewers (The Reverse Poland 2009)

Sabine (Agata Buzek) and Bronislaw (Carson Daly) in Rewers

The last film that I saw at Cambridge deserves its own entry. Although I enjoyed all the films that I saw and found something interesting in each, none of the others particularly surprised me. Rewers was the exception. As the Sight and Sound writer Catherine Wheatley pointed out earlier in the day (see next blogpost), the best experience comes from entering a screening without any real expectation of what you are going to see. In this case, I had read the blurb, but then promptly forgotten it.

Rewers was the Polish entry for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. It is another of those Eastern European films exploring the communist period. We first see Sabine, a rather gawky young woman just turned thirty, with glasses in heavy frames and not very attractive clothes, in a cinema watching a newsreel celebrating Poland’s young male athletes who are presented bare-chested in formation displays. Sabine is clearly excited by what she sees. The setting is Warsaw in 1952 when the Polish state is still very much under the thumb (boot?) of Stalin and the secret police are everywhere. Sabine works as a poetry editor in a state publishing house and she lives with her mother and grandmother in a comfortable flat in an old apartment block. Her brother, an artist, has an attic studio in the same block. Sabine’s mother and grandmother come from the petit-bourgeoisie (they ran a chemist’s shop before the war) are therefore suspect according to the prevailing ideology. Sabine’s brother is reckless as an artist. She herself refers not having fought in the Warsaw uprising but confesses that she wishes she had. The various attitudes towards surveillance are effectively summed up when the family find an old gold coin with the inscription ‘Liberté‘. Gold is supposed to be handed in to the authorities, but Sabine insists on hiding it – by daily swallowing the coin!

The two older women work to find Sabine a husband. She is clearly keen for some sexual experience, but not with the unattractive men who her mother invites to the flat. One evening she meets Bronislaw, a dashing young man who saves her from a pair of thugs who accost her. He looks like the real deal – but things don’t turn out as Sabine expects.

The Polish pressbook calls this film a ‘comedy’ and there are certainly comic moments, some of them not dissimilar to the social comedy moments in the Czech films of the 1960s. But it is dark comedy and it is played out in the context of the real social difficulties of living in a Stalinist state. From my point of view, I found the film fascinating and enjoyable because of the central characters and the interplay amongst the family members. I’m still not quite sure what the title refers to. In some ways ‘Obverse’ would be a better title if the intention is to present Sabine as a surprising character who turns out to be not what we expect. My lack of understanding probably explains why I didn’t really appreciate the modern sequences in which we see an 80 year-old Sabine waiting at the airport. These didn’t work for me, partly because the actors attempt to ‘act’ being old. This rarely works. I’m not suggesting that the acting performances are poor, but rather that when we have been watching the actors play close to their actual ages, we can see through the make-up and costumes to a younger person attempting to move slowly etc. On an aesthetic level, I much prefer the 1950s in the film, shot in beautiful black and white CinemaScope – whereas the ‘present’ is shot in murky colours and appears drab. As well as the wonderful cinematography, the music in the film is also important with jazz as the decadent Western music beloved of the intelligentsia and a tango providing one of the highlights of the film.

I’ve watched a few Polish films over the last few years and I’m struck with the frequent appearance of the national stereotype – Poles in movies drink themselves swiftly into oblivion. It happens so often that I feel it must be ‘true’. It occurs again in this movie. Having said that I think that this is the best Polish movie I’ve seen for a while and it deserves to get a UK release – I hope someone has bought it.

A flavour of the film comes through the Polish trailer (no subtitles) but be warned it hints at spoilers for some of the surprises in the film.

Cambridge Film Festival #3: Archives, New Wave and Chinese Banking

Our third day began with the Arts Picturehouse’s regular archive film screening, enhanced during the festival with a double-header programme. Jane Jarvis, Screen East Digital Heritage Co-ordinator, presented the results of a joint project with the French archive responsible for Normandy in a programme that promised ‘Bon appetit!’ and included extracts from a range of films dealing with regional foods, the highlight of which for me was eel fishing, both in the Fens and in the open sea. Alex Davidson from the BFI Film and TV archive then unearthed a number of food related clips. These were well-chosen. A three minute extract from a 40 mins Peak & Frean’s film from the 19o6 showed the operation of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey.

Fanny Craddock, TV chef

This is in the BFI Mediatheque (which has  an access point in the Cambridge City Library) and looks very interesting. Wartime ‘Food Flashes’ are always fun and a Lotte Reiniger animation from 1951, Mary’s Birthday, was wonderful in its creative presentation of food hygiene issues. But the main treat was a 1967 TV programme from one of the first celebrity chefs, Fanny Craddock. The food she prepared (and the context – ‘The Bride’s First Dinner Party’) had the audience gasping in disbelief.

Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut

Two in the Wave is the title of Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary was quite similar in format to yesterday’s Glenn Gould doc. So much archive footage exists plus the films themselves, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that the subjects could virtually tell the story themselves, despite Truffaut’s relatively early death and Godard’s current reluctance to be interviewed. I’m not sure that there is much ‘new’ in the documentary, but if you don’t know the details of the story they are entertainingly presented here. I was particularly struck by the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that made those articles that we used to read in translation seem so fresh in their original page layouts. Equally, Laurent has access to some wonderful stills and crisp new prints of New Wave films. It seems extraordinary now that audiences in paris in 1961/2 were not much interested in films like Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Jacques Demy’s Lola. Enjoyable and informative, the film is a treat for both nostalgists and younger film fans.

The third film of the day was an intriguing prospect that in the end was I think disappointing but still interesting. Empire of Silver (HK/Taiwan/China 2009) is a Chinese historical drama with epic pretensions. Set at the end of the 19th century and up to the 1911 Boxer Rebellion it looks stunning with shots over cityscapes and desert landscapes filling the CinemaScope frame with beautiful imagery. The story, adapted from a novel by Cheng Yi, concerns the Kang family of bankers from Shanxi in the North of China who are involved in building up and modernising the banking system in China. I missed part of the opening credits, but the story seems to be told in flashback by the youngest member of the family who is a babe in arms in 1911 and is therefore addressing the current generation as a very old man.

Aaron Kwok and Hao Lei in Empire of Silver

The Kang family has four sons, one of whom is a deaf mute. When the eldest and most likely heir is seriously disabled in an accident and the fourth son has a nervous breakdown, the wayward third son becomes the family’s only hope for the future. This means liaising with his father, but apart from disagreeing as to how to run the business, No 3 son also has a major issue concerning his father. As a young man he had a young woman ‘assigned’ to teach him English and with whom he fell in love, only for her to be married to his widowed father and thus become his stepmother. If all of this wasn’t enough for a family melodrama, the backdrop of the narrative is the clash between the decaying Imperial order, the Christian churches in China and the Boxers who oppose them and the troops sent by Western powers to support their business interests. It ought to be a potent mix, but I don’t think it works. One serious problem for non-Chinese audiences is that there are no recognisable stars (i.e. from either international arthouse cinema or popular Hong Kong action films). The third son (they don’t have names in the family) is played by Aaron Kwok who came out of Cantopop in Hong Kong and then became a Taiwan/HK star, but I don’t recognise the titles of his films. The remainder of the cast are mainland stars, mainly of TV and films not released outside China. Jennifer Tilly is rather wasted as an American churchman’s wife. In a story where most male characters dress in a similar manner with shaved heads, it is quite difficult to follow individual characters in what is a complex plot. Star recognition helps the audience get a foothold.

The obvious question is why release this film internationally. It has taken eighteen months since Berlin in 2009 for this film to be prepared for release in the West via Hanway Films. Jeremy Thomas is Executive Producer and the post-production seems to have been carried out all over the world – why? Clearly a film that features a narrative of banking crises and a debate about the morality of banking, as this film does, possesses a USP during the current international banking mess. However, I don’t think that this mostly talky film with a couple of brief action sequences is likely to intrigue audiences. I have to agree with Variety‘s reporter who suggests that the film looks like the “carcase of a bigger film”. I kept thinking something was missing. Theatre director Christina Yao with her first film (directed and co-written) needs a bit more help in getting audience juices flowing. As it is, they will mostly appreciate the efficient camerawork and production design from Hong Kong regulars Anthony Poon and Chung Man Yee.

Cambridge Film Festival #2: Documentaries

Today was about documentaries. The first in the main auditorium was the much anticipated Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Canada 2009). There have been several previous Glenn Gould films, including the celebrated Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), but I haven’t seen any of them, so I can’t make comparisons, but I would be surprised if many are better than this one. I enjoyed every minute of the 108.

For the uninitiated, Glenn Gould (1932-82) was an eccentric but highly talented and driven pianist. I’m something of a philistine about classical music but I knew of Gould as a major figure in Canadian culture and I was fascinated to learn about his career – filling in the many gaps in my knowledge. Unlike yesterday’s The Miracle of Leipzig which struggled with the lack of archive material, no such problems faced the Canadian duo Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont who made this film. Much of Gould’s life as a middle-class kid from the Toronto suburbs was documented by friends and family and he himself preferred to deal with media representations than to perform ‘live’ in front of audiences (he stopped performing at the height of his concert career in his early 30s). But although the ‘personal’ stuff is very interesting, I was riveted by two events that were recorded ‘officially’ – Gould’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 when he was just 24 and his first recording stint at Columbia in New York in 1955 when he had the youthful arrogance to record the Goldberg Variations for the first time. The Russian footage is amazing and we learn that Gould’s first concert was only half full at the start, but the audience were so amazed at his technique and feel for Bach (not officially ‘approved’ in the Soviet Union) that they all dashed out to telephone friends. The second half of the evening performance was full and the rest of the tour was a sell-out.

Because of the wealth of material, the film could be composed entirely from archive and witness interviews. No voiceover commentary was necessary and the editing is seamless in stitching the story together using the interviews and Gould’s own recordings. It’s becoming something of a cliché for me, but I really enjoy the ‘Canadianness’ of people like Glenn Gould who returned to Toronto because he identified with the city. The Columbia head honcho in New York is quite insulting about Gould’s ‘provincialism’ but he is ignored. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It seems to have deals with dozens of documentary TV channels, so you’ll probably have the chance to see it on the box. It has been released to US cinemas so I hope someone picks it up for international sales. I’m sure it would be enjoyed by many audiences on the big screen.

Next up was a German doc about a Lebanese family struggling with immigration rules in Berlin. Neukölln Unlimited (Germany 2010) was screened in the Queen’s Theatre in Emmanuel College – an impressive lecture theatre in a new building, but hard on the backside for a 90 minute movie. Fortunately it was an entertaining film, directed by Agostino Imondi and Dietmar Ratsch. The i website (in English) is here. Imondi is a Swiss-born director trained in Rome.

Neukölln is a district of Berlin which is presumably not that different to parts of London in attracting refugees and asylum seekers. The family in this ‘social documentary’ are Lebanese Shiites. The parents fled persecution during the Lebanese Civil Wars, but all the children have been born and brought up in Germany. They don’t speak Arabic and after being deported once, the family came back (almost immediately, I think. The parents are now divorced and the older (teenage) children all have guaranteed residency for the next year or so because they are in school or apprenticeships. The mother and her youngest child (a baby) still face deportation and the order seems to depend on the possibility that the children, 18 year-old Hassan, 19 year-old Lial and 15 year-old Maradona can earn enough to match the welfare payments made to mother and baby. I confess that the German bureaucracy baffles me but I suspect it is no better (and no worse) than the equivalent gobbledygook in the UK. On this score, however, I did note that a young black woman said that at least in England/London (she had a British passport) there were more black people and she didn’t get called an ‘African’.

 

Hassan, Lial and Maradona

 

The children’s chance of earning the cash is boosted by their prowess in performance skills (possibly a ‘non-pc’ attribute in the UK where linking an ethnic minority to dance skills is a bit ‘iffy’). Hassan is a skilled street dance/hip-hop star who performs in a group at a Berlin theatre in his spare moments and Maradona is a breakdance star. Lial works in a venue promoting boxing matches and other entertainment. Hassan has the most responsibility (and a girlfriend) but Lial is equally committed to helping the family. There is a short sequence, which I would have liked to see extended , in which she discusses the changing family environment for Muslims depending on where they are and how they are brought up – certainly, as far as I can see, Hassan respected her position. Maradona is the bad boy who gets into trouble at school, risking deportation because of a criminal record – but he’s hard to dislike. Everything ends not ‘happily’ but certainly ‘hopefully’. I must also reference the true moment of global culture when Hassan and Maradona travel to Paris to take part in a streetdance contest/exhibition and a discussion takes place, in English, between French and German Arabs about how they are treated in their ‘home’ countries (i.e. in Europe). I’m not sure I totally followed the discussion (I blame the seats) but this seemed important. As well as the performance element (we see several dance performances) the film also utilises animation to record the family history of flight from conflict.

Finally, in the same venue, I watched an American documentarist’s essay about the Zabbaleen – the Coptic Christian garbage collectors of Cairo – in Garbage Dreams (US 2009). This was also a ‘social documentary’, focusing on a wider range of characters, but picking out an educated woman who set up a ‘Recycling School’ and three teenage boys who represent the next generation of garbage collectors. The filmmaker Mai Iskander acknowledges her major influence as the Maysles Brothers, important members of the Direct Cinema movement during the 1960s and 1970s (though she describes the approach as ciné verité – which to me means something slightly different). She has worked elsewhere in Africa as well as in the commercial industry. Garbage Dreams was a long-term commitment (over several years) that has also been followed up on US public television (see this PBS website). There is also an official website for the film.

 

Mokattam Street in the Zabaleen community (from Garbage Dreams on flickr)

 

The film is true to the Direct Cinema legacy, driven forward by its four principals. Laila is the woman who opens the ‘Recycling School’ (which teaches “map-reading and computers”) and attempts to organise the community and act as some kind of mentor for the four young men. She also provides the tetanus shots that are used to protect the workers handling the waste from Cairo’s households and attempting to recycle it. Nabil, a beautiful strong young man is relatively passive. Adham is more entrepreneurial but has to grow up fast when his father is imprisoned and Osama is something of a fantasist unable to hold down a job for very long. Through these individuals and their families we learn about the Zabbaleen and their business. They routinely recycle around 80% of the waste that they collect, turning it into raw materials that can be exported. When Adham and Nabil are able to join an exchange programme and travel to South Wales, they are impressed by new technologies in waste recycling – but not by UK recycling rates – and by the local residents’ co-operation in sorting the waste. Returning to Cairo they hope to develop this home-sorting of waste with their customers, but Cairo (a city of 18 million with no properly organised municipal waste collection/disposal service) now has two or three large European companies contracted to deal with the problem. These companies seemingly don’t care that much about recycling and they won’t co-operate (although they do recruit workers locally). Gradually the Zabbaleen are losing the business. But there is some hope at the end of the film and the ‘project’ continues (hence the websites).

I found the film to be both uplifting in human terms and expertly made with real community involvement. The only slight drawback is that this kind of documentary can only offer us the chance to see what a small group experiences in their work and home lives. We have no idea about how the rest of the community (there are 70,000 Zabbaleen) is doing or how the Cairo authorities are planning to deal with the problem (or not). Having said that, a quality film that promotes recycling and involves those working at the sharp end is always going to be worthwhile.

Cambridge Film Festival #1: Our first day

The 5th day of the festival was the first of my visit. I’m aiming to cover some of the lower profile films and focus on films from outside the US and UK.

The festival is relatively low key but with plenty of buzz around the principal venue at the Arts Picturehouse and if the three screenings I attended today are anything to go by, attendances are pretty good. The three films that I chose are I think representative of the range of material being presented.

First up was Gravy Train (Canada 2010), an indy comedy thriller from the writer-director team of Tim Doiron and April Mullen (who also play the lead roles). Doiron and Mullen’s first feature was a crowd-pleaser at the 2007 Cambridge Festival and this time they were in attendance. They’d already done a Saturday session, but here they were on a Monday afternoon doing it all over again and clearly enjoying themselves. Their second film is full of silliness based around a backwoods town with a 20 year-old murder mystery and a classic melodrama plotline. Much of the fun comes from the 1970s throwback setting and I’m sure that I caught whiffs of cheesy US cop series mixed with Russ Meyer (sans the enormous breasts) and Mel Brooks. On top of that the film features spoof local TV news, fantasy sequences and a plotline that was once a mockumentary on indie filmmaking.

 

Tim Doiron in one of the fantasy sequences from Gravy Train

 

I’m not sure that I found Gravy Train quite as funny as the publicity claims, but I’m not really the audience. What I did recognise was the skill and commitment that went into its making. It looks very good on screen and the RED 1 camera is certainly going to gain some more fans. Excellent production design utilising primary colours also helps. Mullen and Doiron have attracted some major players as well and they are clearly thinking about how to develop as producers.

Although made close to the border in Niagara Falls, this is very much a ‘Canadian’ film with some touches of British humour and it did get a brief cinema run in Canada via Alliance. That means that there will be a Region 1 DVD release if this kind of silliness is your bag. April Mullen and Tim Doiron are two likeable and talented filmmakers – I hope they get more chances.

The Miracle of Leipzig (Das Wunder von Leipzig – Wir Sind das Volk, Germany 2009) was screened in the largest auditorium which was nearly full. This is a conventional documentary combining archive material, reconstruction and witness interviews. It’s skilfully made but I was a little put off by some rather heavy-handed musical scoring and an English-language voiceover that I found quite irritating. I wonder why this voiceover was necessary – or rather why it had replaced the original German. I’m guessing that it was thought necessary in order to sell the doc to TV in America and the UK where the extra subtitling might be thought onerous. Fortunately, the story is so gripping and the witness interviewees so engaging that eventually I stopped noticing the voiceover and even the music.

The ‘miracle’ is the great demonstration in Leipzig in October 1989 that was one of the major factors in the collapse of the East German state and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. After several weeks of gradual build-up with many dissenters imprisoned or harassed by the Stasi, 70,000 marched around Leipzig city centre in open protest, chanting ‘Wir sind das Volk – we are the people!’. This was too much even for the combined might of the police, Stasi, paratroopers and workers’ militias, many of whom were not prepared to face their own relatives on the street. The film’s producer was at the screening and he made the telling point that the ‘miracle’ occurred only a few months after the Tiananman Square massacre. The fact that the demonstration passed peacefully with no violence was indeed a miracle. (Though there had certainly been violence from the police in the weeks leading up to the march.) The other interesting point is that there was relatively little archive material and virtually no ‘social media output’ at this time. It was effectively banned in the DDR – few people had cameras and few were prepared to be seen using them. Much of the ‘official’ footage was destroyed by the authorities fearful of how it might incriminate them so that the events of just 20 years ago are much less well covered than those of the 1930s and 1940s.

I had to leave the Q & A because my next film was starting, but I think that this film is likely to turn up on TV around the world and it’s worth looking out for.

The Hunter (Shekarchie, Iran/Germany 2010) also deals in a way with protest by ordinary citizens and is also funded via Germany, but it’s a very different kind of film. Rafi Pitts is writer-director and star, best known in the West for his previous film It’s Winter (2006), his third feature (which I haven’t seen). The Hunter focuses on Ali who works as a security guard in a car factory in Tehran. He works the night shift and sees little of his beautiful wife and small daughter and we discover that he has been in prison and that wife and daughter kept him sane. The opening third of the film offer us a real sense of Tehran as a city, contrasting the busy nightlife of the old city with the more alienating environment of concrete highways and high-rises in the suburbs. The film is very slow-paced and I confess that my attention wandered so that I might have missed a few clues, but there seemed to be some questions about Ali’s past – and possibly about the wife and child.

 

Ali (Rafi Pitts) in The Hunter

 

One day when Ali is out hunting in the hills away from the city, there is an incident back in the city and his life goes into turmoil. Ali reacts violently and the closing third of the film becomes more like a crime thriller when he goes on the run. All these events take place against the backdrop of Iranian elections and unrest on the streets (although we don’t see much of this). There is a sense that the film is metaphorical about persecution and the capacity for individual action, but I think that audiences are going to need a little more guidance to get the most from the film. Artificial Eye have picked up the film for UK distribution, so we might discover more. (The film’s pressbook is available here.) Rafi Pitts trained in the UK at Harrow/PCL (now Westminster) in the early 1980s and then moved to France. The final scenes in the forest work well in the ‘human drama’/thriller mode, but I’d like to see it again to get more out of the first half. You can tell that my attention wandered because I kept wondering if the Iranians once drove on the left not the right – this is what happens when it is your third film in a row!

Kurosawa #5: I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being Japan 1955)

Nakajima (Mifune Toshiro, centre) uses his fan vigorously in the heat of the adjudicator's office. Shimura Takashi (an adjudicator) can just be seen on the left edge of the frame. Nakajima is standing between his daughter and son.

(This post was sent to us by Leung Wing-Fai )

I Live in Fear, also known as Record of a Living Being, centres on Kurosawa Akira’s humanist concerns. The contemporary drama is one of the lesser-known films of the acclaimed auteur. It tells the story of a 60-year old industrialist Nakajima (played by Mifune Toshiro who was only 35 at the time) who decides to take his entire family to Brazil after the Second World War and the Bikini Incident. In 1954 the US forced the 166 inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to leave their homes, and then conducted a full-scale test of an atomic bomb, which was thousand times as powerful as the explosion at Hiroshima. The Japanese fishing boat ‘Lucky Dragon’ strayed just beyond the demarcation zone resulting in all crew members being killed or suffering radiation sickness. The incident sparked a national petition (with 20 million signatures) calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.

Nakajima’s family takes him to court and tries to declare him mentally ill in order to stop him from spending the family fortune on migration to Brazil. On the other hand Nakajima believes that the nuclear threat is the madness and fails to understand why everyone else should be so complacent. The opening credit shows crowded Tokyo streets full of faceless commuters who seem orderly yet lacking in direction. It can be interpreted as a statement on the group’s lack of ability to challenge fate, which the old man’s children are all ready to accept. One of his sons tells him that there is no point worrying about the atomic bomb as they cannot do anything about it anyway. Nakajima is not only fighting the fears of nuclear destruction but the weight of the crowd represented by his numerous relatives.

One of the most striking scenes is when Nakajima hears planes flying low, and sees a flash of lightning in the sky; he rushes over to his grandson and wraps himself around the baby to protect him. His daughter is horrified and grabs the child from Nakajima. The scene sums up the old man’s motivation and the reaction of his unsympathetic family. The turning point comes when Nakajima burns down his factory to force his family to migrate, with the opposite effect; they are more convinced that he is demented. The ending is most regretful. Nakajima has been put in an asylum. One of the magistrates goes to visit him; when Nakajima sees the setting sun, he thinks that it is a nuclear explosion and shouts, “It’s burning! The earth is on fire”. The film was supposedly inspired by the death of Kurosawa’s long term colleague, the composer Hayasaka Fumio who once told the director, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow . . . Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all”. Hayasaka died during the filming of I Live in Fear, which explains the dark world-view. Unsurprisingly the film was too topical and dark to be successful among the Japanese public, but even now it reminds us that perhaps fear heightens the sense of being, as the two titles respectively suggest.

Soulboy (UK 2010)

Jane (Nichola Burley) attracts Joe with her dancing

Soulboy is a small gem of a movie. It’s a flawed gem because the opening is clunky but then the narrative gathers speed and with Martin Compston’s assured central performance it makes its way to an admittedly predictable resolution – but then this is basically a sweet little love story with an interesting background in one of the UK’s great subcultures.

Plot outline

The Potteries in 1974. Joe (Compston) is in a rut with a boring job as an assistant deliveryman and no luck on Saturday night in the Purple Onion, his locality’s excuse for a nightspot where his dancing fails to impress the girls. Spotting the glamorous Jane (Nichola Burley) in the street he tracks her down to her job in a hairdressers and asks for a cut. He gets a rather surprising cut and learns about a new dance culture in Wigan, ‘Northern Soul’. When he takes the coach to Wigan, Joe discovers that he has been missing out when he meets an ex-classmate and his younger sister Mandy (Felicity Jones). From here Joe will pursue Jane and be taught how to dance by Mandy while at the same time trying to avoid being dragged into trouble by his best mate (Alfie Alan) and avoiding Jane’s ‘protector’ and dancefloor dictator (Craig Parkinson). You can probably work out the rest from there.

Commentary

There are many good things about this production – and a couple of problems. One of the plus points is the setting in Stoke-on-Trent. For readers outside the UK, Stoke is probably best known as the home of English chinaware and the film includes shots of decaying factories. Stoke is symbolic in many ways of an industrial area that has been ‘left behind’ and forgotten even when the larger industrial cities have been ‘regenerated’. (Stoke is midway between Birmingham and Manchester.) In the 1970s, social change seemed to reach such areas rather later so the emergence of Northern Soul was significant. The new dance craze started in Manchester at The Twisted Wheel and came to full prominence at the Wigan Casino with Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch in Stoke as other major venues.

Northern Soul is a popular dance culture which in its heyday attracted young working-class dancers in the North of England to all-night sessions dancing to relatively obscure American soul records from the hinterland of African-American music in the post-Tamla era. The soulboys and girls were often mods and brought with them and interest in fashion and pills rather than alcohol and in many ways introduced aspects of the club culture and rave scene that emerged later in the 1990s. Although all the original venues are long gone, Northern Soul lives on attracting new young fans and a hardcore of those who have been dancing for more than thirty years.

The film certainly attempts to capture the authenticity of the Northern Soul scene and the official website includes plenty of  background material and information about the soundtrack and current live events around the UK. There are some interviews tacked onto the credits that feature original soulboys and girls from the 1970s who attest to the authenticity of the film and the popularity of the scene and the website material suggests that the producers tried hard to do justice to the scene. The dancehall location is in fact the current Stoke hall that hosts Northern Soul nights, but I suspect that it is smaller than the Wigan Casino. The film is a low budget independent and there isn’t really the camerawork and setting to do justice to the dancing. The director Shimmy Marcus has a track record in Irish independent cinema, including music documentary and comedy drama, but the writer Jeff Williams has no other credits on IMDB.

I feel that the love story is what works best in the film, not least because of Jones and Compston (I thought the whole cast was strong). The music was great and I thought the film introduced the Northern Soul phenomenon sympathetically without really convincing someone who didn’t know about it already. The worst aspects of the film were the Stoke-on-Trent tourist clip at the beginning – copy of the Full Monty opening and then the broadish comedy/crime stuff on the near-deserted streets of Staffordshire towns. I had terrible flashes of those 1970s British soft porn films like Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (1978). Thankfully it soon settled down into something more interesting.

Here’s the official trailer (note that it says ‘Northern England’ – not sure how that will go down in the Potteries):

Isn’t the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones just wonderful?

There is a range of material on the film and its production on YouTube but here’s one of the many YouTube vids of the real thing (and another terrific track):

The film is being released in a very carefully selected pattern of specialised cinemas by Soda Pictures. It’s not the way to draw in the multiplex audience, but perhaps on reflection they are right. I suspect that the film will be most enjoyed as a nostalgic treat  in which case its biggest sales will be on DVD.

– Now where’s that copy of Len Barry’s 1-2-3 that we danced to at Blackpool Mecca in 1965?