Monthly Archives: April 2011

Norwegian Wood (Japan 2010)

Naoko (Kikuchi Rinko) and Toru (Matsuyama Kenichi)

I wasn’t sure about this film. I’d caught a whiff of indifference from some reviewers and I didn’t have strong expectations (I’d carefully forgotten some of the important contributors to the film).

When I came out of the screening I had the strong sense that I’d just seen one of the films of the year. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen for a long time and there was something about the tone and the sensuous feel that made me think of some examples of classical Japanese Cinema (in particular Ichikawa Kon’s Kokoro (1955) – also a literary adaptation). But when I got home and started reading through the reviews and the comments on IMDB I was dismayed by some of the negative responses and by the assumption that I couldn’t understand the narrative if I hadn’t read the book from which the script was adapted. I also found myself in agreement with the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw – something that happens only rarely. So what is the cause of this confusion?

Norwegian Wood is an adaptation by writer-director Tran Anh Hung of the 1987 Japanese novel of the same title by Murakami Haruki. The novel was inspired by the Beatles song which reminded Murakami of the late 1960s in Japan (supposedly when he heard it in an airport building). Its central character is Watanabe Toru who in the late 1980s begins to reminisce about his time as a young man starting university in Tokyo in the midst of the late 1960s student unrest. He carries with him the memory of the tragedy that befell his best friend in high school, Kizuki. One day he bumps into Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend from home. They begin a relationship but it goes dramatically wrong on Naoko’s 20th birthday. Over the next year, Toru struggles to maintain something with Naoko, who he loves, and to fend off the more assertive Midori who is pursuing him. An older student offers to give him a ‘sentimental education’ in the bars and love hotels of Tokyo, but otherwise the politics of the time and even the conventions of university life pass him by. In his spare time, Toru mainly works in a record shop and the fish market in order to maintain his modest lifestyle. As well as the two younger women, Toru also comes across Reiko, a (slightly) older woman who is Naoko’s companion.

I guess the problem for some audiences will be the slowness of this film – and the seemingly aimless life of Toru. The film is 133 mins and devotees of the book think that a lot is left out. Personally, I can cope with the slow pace if I have something to look at and to listen to. Jonny Greenwood’s score seemed very effective but I’ve since seen criticism that towards the end of the film it becomes too overwrought. I didn’t think this at the time but on reflection that might be true. The score includes three tracks from the German rock band Can.

I need to read more by Murakami but I sense that his novels are usually ‘disturbing’ in some way – or perhaps ‘unsettling’. Certainly the frank discussion/presentation of masturbation in the film seemed jarring/unsettling for the time period. Research suggests that this might be a Murakami trait. Masturbation as such isn’t disturbing of course except in the sense of how it operates as a taboo subject in polite society and in this way it marks Murakami’s ‘cool’ appeal to a mass readership much younger than he is. It goes along with his insertion of Western popular culture into Japanese stories. In the end that may be what becomes the focal point of the film – the questions about its ‘Japaneseness’. Tran is a Vietnamese who grew up in France in France and his cinematographer is Mark Lee Ping Bin, the acclaimed Taiwanese and long time collaborator with Hou Hsaio-hsien. He also shot Tran’s previous film. With Greenwood this makes an interesting trio of interpreters of Murakami’s story. Mark Lee’s other famous credit is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love, a similarly ‘globally-produced’ love story – though one in which desire is never consummated, unlike the situation in Norwegian Wood. I wonder who will be first to think about putting the two films into a single double bill?

Reception

The film opened in Japan in December 2010 and lasted five weeks in the Japanese Top 10 with a box office take of around $13 million. For what is essentially a ‘specialised film’ that isn’t bad. On the other hand, Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami a celebrity amongst young people in Japan and the novel has sold millions in Japan and worldwide. It’s two stars are also well-known.  In the UK the film was released on just 33 screens by Soda Pictures. All we know is that it took £92,ooo on its first weekend – the 4th best screen average that week, but only on a limited release. It is now sneaking round a few more arthouse cinemas. I suspect that those who have read the book will finally catch up with it on DVD – which is a shame as it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I’m pondering reading the novel and considering if I can find an excuse to show it on a cinema screen again. If you get the chance I urge you to take it.

Official UK trailer from Soda Pictures:

Source Code (Canada/France/US 2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michele Monaghan as commuters – are they a couple? She knows him, but he doesn't know her.

It’s turning out to be a good season for intelligent and well-crafted science fiction/speculative fiction. Following Monsters and The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code again offers a cerebral SF movie with a strong romance element – although very different from the two earlier films.

The only surprise for me was that the movie cost so much. Box Office Mojo suggests $32 million – I wonder how much of that went to Jake Gyllenhaal? Or perhaps it was all those aerial shots of Chicago? I wonder how much of it was CGI? The budget is interesting because this is an independent film with no Hollywood involvement. A Brit director (Duncan Jones), an American story (from Ben Ripley) and a largely French-Canadian crew (in Montreal) worked for a couple of independent production companies and the film has generally been released by independents. Business has been pretty good with $63 million worldwide so far and only three major territories (North America, Russia and UK/Ireland) on the release slate. One explanation for the film’s genesis is that Gyllenhaal was attached to the script for some time without a director being signed up. He saw Moon and suggested to the producers that they should hire Jones.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a US helicopter pilot in Afghanistan who wakes up on a Chicago commuter train not knowing what is going on when the woman opposite (Michelle Monaghan) calls him ‘Sean’ and appears to know him well. Eight minutes later there is an enormous explosion. Stevens blacks out and wakes again in some form of capsule. Is he part of an experiment in a simulating experiences or is he dreaming? He talks to a ‘controller’ who explains more about his brief . . . and sends him back to the same train at the same time. This cycle will be repeated several times.

Genre

This fits the ‘speculative fiction’/science fiction definition pretty well. The plot depends on the possibilities of developing technologies concerned with direct connection to electrical impulses in the brain. In that sense, the ideas are familiar from decades of SF. Many SF film fans have complained that the film isn’t ‘original’ in terms of its ideas and I’m sure they are right. The ideas could be argued to be ‘Dickian’ in origin – i.e. similar to those of Philip K. Dick in several of his stories. However, what is original – or at least, less familiar – is the genuine interest in relationships. You can see why Gyllenhaal would have thought that Jones could direct the script after he had made Moon since the mixture of SF, limited ‘action’ sequences and relationship dilemmas in that film is repeated here. I think we really do care by the end of the film what happens to each of the characters and how Stevens’ decisions affect them.

Another genre repertoire that is important is the ‘puzzle film’. At first I thought we were going to get a version of the Rashomon narrative – perhaps as in the Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run) mode, but I think that Source Code is slightly different. Those narratives require a repeated presentation of the same events from the viewpoint of different characters (i.e. potential ‘unreliable narrators’). In Source Code, the events change each time since Stevens learns a little more about what is going on and attempts to change what happens in the eight minutes. But he doesn’t do this by ‘time travel’ so much as gaining intelligence from the past that could help to change the future. The narrative has a final twist that suggests that he also does something else – but I won’t spoil how the narrative enigma evolves over the course of the film. I suspect that many in the audience will want to watch the film a second time to check out their own understanding – I certainly will as I’m not sure I’ve got it right.

The restricted narrative space also makes this a ‘train thriller’. The obvious connection here is to Hitchcock and North by Northwest, not only in the on board train meeting (see the still above) but also the scenes in the station washroom. It’s great to see American films returning to trains – always more interesting than car chases for me. (I went straight to the Chicago Commuter Train website to check out the system – it looks impressive.) The thriller also has a contemporary feel because of the intimation of a terrorist threat – and the assumptions that creates.

Vera Farmiga as the 'Controller' and Jeffrey Wright as her boss.

Reception

There were stories in the first couple of weeks on release that this film was too clever for its own good – that some audiences weren’t bright enough to ‘get it’. This is nonsense of course. The film has reached beyond the fans of Moon I think to pick up mainstream SF fans and others. Some haven’t enjoyed the film but most have. The box office doesn’t lie and Source Code has ‘legs’ – at least in the US and UK. The weekly drop in audience numbers has been much lower than for comparable Hollywood SF films.

Like Moon, Source Code has a limited number of main characters (five) and only a few locations. Casting was clearly important and I think it works very well. Gyllenhaal is slightly unconventional for a leading man/action figure (although it may be just because I still tend to think of him as Donnie Darko) – has he always had that slightly manic eye, horribly reminding me of Tony Blair? But what most intrigued me was that I took Michelle Monaghan to be the same age or younger than Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga to be the ‘older woman’. In fact Monaghan is three years older than Gyllenhaal and just three years younger than Farmiga. Clearly she acts/dresses ‘younger’ but I also wonder if the uniform and her authority makes Farmiga look/feel older?Either way it’s good to have decent roles for women in SF.

Here’s the trailer (WARNING: it gives away more of the plot than this review):

The Eagle (UK/US 2011)

The 'Seal People' – from somewhere in the West of Scotland. That's Tahar Rahim under the white powder.

A beautifully photographed film with good central performances, The Eagle seems to lose its way in the final third. After being engaged fully up to this point I suddenly realised that I couldn’t imagine how the story could end without some kind of implausible outcome – and, of course, that is what we got. That’s a shame but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the film.

The Eagle is an adaptation of the first of the famous historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was written in 1954 and has since garnered a legion (sorry!) of fans both young and old. I didn’t read it as a child, but I think I’ve always known about the stories and this particular title. The premise is simple and concerns a Roman legion that appears to have disappeared somewhere in the North of Great Britain (i.e. the largest of the ‘British’ Isles) around 110 AD. The ‘lost legion’ brings dishonour to the family of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion who vows to find the lost standard of the legion and what happened to his father in the hope that this will restore his family’s honour. In the first part of the film he proves his valour in Britain but is injured and it is only later that he sets out north of Hadrian’s Wall with only his British slave Esca to search for ‘the Eagle’, the large bronze bird which topped the standard.

The problem for the script is that the original story appears to have included a great deal of detail about the routines of Roman military life. The film goes for a downbeat ‘realist’ look (which is nevertheless ‘stylised’, especially through lighting) photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle for director Kevin Macdonald. This isn’t the Roman world of the Hollywood spectacular or even of Gladiator (a film I thought was let down by its over-use of CGI).  Macdonald made his name as a documentary director and at times life in the fort felt like a documentary reconstruction – but there wasn’t enough narration or graphics (save the odd scroll map – in English) to help us ‘see’ how the Roman occupation worked. I think that the film falls between two contrasting aspirations. It isn’t an all-out entertainment film with bloody action and military plotting, but it also isn’t credible as a historical film about a specific period. It opts instead for the other conventional narrative of the son wanting to redeem the reputation of his father, so what we get is a character-driven film about heroism and honour. Perhaps a bit more attention to Kurosawa’s similar historical films might have helped?

Politics are very important in the presentation of the story. In a Guardian feature, it is conceded that Sutcliff’s novel was written when the UK still had an empire and somehow she felt able to side with a Roman character who seems to have a very ‘liberal’ relationship with a British slave. Since I didn’t have a classical education, the Romans for me are just imperialist invaders and I automatically side with the ‘Ancient Brits’ and especially the Celtic peoples of the North. Director Kevin McDonald has emphasised the possibility of this reading by casting Americans to play the Romans. This is an interesting ploy which reflects a more realistic view of which identity represents contemporary imperialism. Just an aside, but it is interesting that the Germans, the French under Napoleon (?) and the Americans have tended to adopt the eagle but the English have usually favoured a lion or John Bull – a way of refuting Roman influence? Anyway it is a nice change to have the Americans as the educated bad guys and the Brits as the guerilla fighters. It was an interesting idea too have the young Frenchman Tahar Rahim (from Un prophète) as a Celtic warrior but he’s hardly recognisable under the warpaint. The other quirk in the casting is that Mark Strong, a British actor, has to adopt an American accent to confirm that he is a Roman.

The ‘star’ of the film is supposedly Channing Tatum who is quite likeable but for me the completely wrong physical shape for a Roman legionnaire. He’s almost square in shape with a thick neck and upper torso that I presume comes from gym work but just looks wrong. Jamie Bell on the other hand looks wiry but muscular. I had my doubts initially but he convinced me over the course of the film. Besides the cinematography itself, the other ‘star’ of the film is the landscape. Budget considerations were presumably the reason why both Scottish and Hungarian locations feature with added CGI. Though it is possible to see differences between the three, overall I was impressed with the way landscape was used.

I haven’t yet seen Neil Marshall’s earlier take on the same story (Centurion, 2010) but it would be interesting to compare the two films. With the appearance of Valhalla Rising last year, action stories set in the British Isles seem to be in vogue. Perhaps somebody should think about a new ‘Hereward the Wake’ film – but not in the mode of Ridley Scott’s strange Robin Hood please.

Guardian editorial commenting on The Eagle

Official US trailer for the film:

Aftershock (China 2010)

The young Fang Deng with her adoptive parents

Aftershock was the biggest box office success in modern Chinese Cinema when it was released in June 2010. It was still some way behind Avatar but nevertheless marked the rapid expansion of Chinese exhibition in 2010 which saw more than four new cinema screens opening every day. Most of these new screens are digital and 3D compatible. Aftershock was also released on IMAX screens in China.

This major release came from Feng Xiaogang – dubbed by some commentators as the ‘greatest entertainer in Chinese Cinema’ or ‘the Stephen Spielberg of China’. Feng came out of Chinese TV to establish himself in the late 1990s as one of the most successful directors of ‘Chinese New Year’ movies. These are popular romcoms with broad humour all designed to make audiences feel good over the holiday season. This recent film sounds much more grim and anyway it was a Summer release. However, although the title refers to a tragic event, most of the movie is concerned with the long aftermath up to almost the present. This proves to be an emotional journey with a poignant ending that left many of the students on our Chinese Cinema weekend school in tears – but ultimately satisfied. Based on a novel, the English language title doesn’t really convey the personal, emotional force of the story. The tagline is better “23 seconds and 32 years” – or how a moment of horror can affect families over decades.

In 1976 the Tangshen earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded in China, devastated a major city and caused in excess of 240,000 deaths. In 2008 the rebuilt city decided to commemorate the dead and to part-finance a movie about the story of one family caught up in the destruction. The Fangs are a young couple with twins aged 6. When the quake happens (during the night) the parents are unable to reach the children who are sleeping. Father is killed by falling masonry and the children are trapped in the rubble. In the frantic rescue period, Mrs Fang is told that because of the dangerous state of the building the rescue team can only get one child out – the other will be buried alive. The frantic mother is eventually forced to decide in favour of her son (as tradition demands?). The little girl hears her mother give her decision to the rescuers. But later when the boy has been saved and the bodies are being taken from the rubble the concussed girl wakes up and is taken to an army rescue centre where she refuses to tell anyone what has happened. Eventually she is adopted by a childless PLA couple. Over the next twelve years she is brought up by the army couple in another city unknown to her mother and her brother who create a new life for themselves in rebuilt Tangshen. It is fairly clear that at some point brother and sister will meet again (i.e. because we know the conventions of a melodrama). It would happen sooner but the girl, Deng, is unwilling to speak about her mother and her adoptive parents assume that she is an orphan (or that they cannot find her parents).

Feng Xiaogang doesn’t attempt anything new in what is a conventional melodrama. Having said that, this is a powerfully emotive film. The CGI earthquake scenes are effective, the actors are well-directed and give convincing performances. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the narrative, the real interest for viewers in the West is the representation of Chinese social history and particularly the emergence of the ‘New China’ over the past ten years. There are relatively few direct references to the great political changes in China in the period even though the earthquake occurred just before Mao’s death and Deng enters university just before the Tiananmen Square protests. Instead we can see the changes expressed through the economic circumstances of the characters. The film opens with the excited purchase of a fan to combat the stifling heat – and ends in a world of shopping malls and BMWs. My slight disappointment with the narrative is that the twins both ‘get on’ quite well so that the story focuses on the new middle class. Deng goes to university to take medicine – which is not so surprising since her parents are relatively privileged as PLA soldiers. But her brother is seen to have real entrepreneurial spirit and despite his lowly background – with a single mother trying to raise her child after losing her home – he becomes a successful man in the New China. Partly, I suspect, this success is required by the narrative so that Feng can use product placements to help fund the film – BMW, insurance companies and other brands all feature prominently.

Because the film is a family melodrama, it is interesting to focus on the family relationships. Here traditional and modern China meet head on. There are two cases of mothers being almost forced to give up their sons to the care of their husband’s mother (i.e. to follow tradition). Resistance to this threatens the younger woman’s chance of working and building her career so she is torn between parenting and working to ‘consume’. Somewhere in the mix is also the pressure that the ‘one child only’ policy put on Chinese families during the 1980s in particular.

This kind of film offers an interesting case study for scholarly work that hasn’t really started yet – comparing the ways in which Chinese and Indian Cinema have represented the economic and social changes in their societies since the 1980s. Traditionally India has been more ‘open’ during national emergencies so that an equivalent natural disaster such as this 1976 earthquake would have been widely reported and aid would have been accepted from overseas. In China the government controlled the release of news and aid was only internal. At the end of Aftershock there is another quake in China but this time it is reported internationally – and now there is a Chinese diaspora, especially in North America, who are there to help (just as the South Asian diaspora responded to the Pakistani floods of 2009). Chinese Cinema is not yet at the point where the presence of a large overseas market is a major factor in domestic film production as it is in India but Aftershock is a possible indicator of how things might develop in the future.

Aftershock did get a UK release, but only a nominal one in order to promote the DVD release. It is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Here is the official HD trailer – which focuses unsurprisingly on the CGI earthquake scenes. But don’t be misled – the other two hours are the most important bits of the story:

And here is a useful background article on Feng Xiaogang. We did review one of his earlier films, Assembly, but certainly now I’ll be looking out for Feng’s work as it becomes available in subtitled versions.

What War May Bring (Ces amours-là France 2010)

Ilva (Audrey Dana) with one of her lovers, Horst, a German officer (Samuel Labarthe)

Back in 2007 UK independent distributor Revolver had a big hit with the French thriller Tell No One. Since then they’ve tried to repeat the process with varying degrees of success (i.e. the romcom Heartbreaker). Revolver’s initiatives are to be welcomed if only because they are looking at ‘popular’ French product that the more art-orientated independents ignore. What then to make of this DVD release of the 43rd film by Claude Lelouch? I mention the ’43rd’ tag only because Lelouch himself tells us this in his voiceover that accompanies the credits. We also learn that he’s been in films for 50 years. He’s something of a forgotten figure in the UK, remembered mainly for Un homme et une femme which was an international smash hit in 1966 – and an Oscar winner. Twenty years later he offered a less successful sequel but apart from that his films haven’t been particularly successful in the UK. In France his critical reputation has never been high but his films are usually well-produced and often with big stars. Somebody has been watching those 40 plus films, so Lelouch appeals to certain audiences. His last big hit was Hommes, femmes, mode d’emploi in 1996 and What War May Bring lasted three weeks in the French box office Top 20 in September 2010 making around $2 million.

Revolver are trying to sell this film as a ‘war epic’ and indeed there are some action sequences of the D-Day landings and the final allied push into Germany in 1945, but primarily this is a story about a woman who “loves too fast”. This quote from the film might have provided a better title (the French title is not easily translated, but the original English title ‘What Love May Bring’ would have worked). The woman in question is Ilva who arrives in Paris as an 18 year-old refugee from Italy in 1936. Ilva’s mother marries a cinema projectionist but then dies a few years later. The film’s narrative is actually presented as one long flashback and it follows Ilva through the war years and into the postwar world. She loves ‘quickly’ and dramatically five men against the background of war – and cinema. The cinema scenes are beautifully rendered and a character clearly intended to be Lelouch himself appears as a small Jewish boy being sheltered by the projectionist and his daughter (this is a rather wonderful ‘live-in’ cinema with an apartment in the same building). The same boy appears as a grown-up film student in the 1950s, like Lelouch travelling to Moscow to shoot footage secretly and provoking a bizarre montage of seemingly all the love stories in Lelouch films which is inserted into the narrative! In fact the film is stuffed with these kinds of inserts and jokes about the history of cinema as well as posters and dialogue references to important films. Lelouch would like us to think that this is his tribute to cinema – his response to Truffaut amongst others – as much as his own experience of it.

There are several pluses in the film. Audrey Dana as Ilva is always watchable and holds the film together through her performance. She looks right for the part, ages convincingly and I could certainly believe that the male characters would fall for her. As well as the magical scenes set in the Eden Palace cinema (very effective screenings of classics like Le Jour se Leve and Hôtel du Nord in a beautiful cinema) there is music running throughout the film offering a history of French popular and romantic music – some of it composed by Francis Lai who has worked with Lelouch since the 1960s and some by Laurent Couson who plays a pianist and one of Ilva’s love interests in the film. The DVD looks great in CinemaScope. IMDB suggests that much of it was shot in Romania and there are certainly some epic sequences which reminded me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Great War story A Very Long Engagement (2004). However, . . . I’m not sure that it works as a whole. Lelouch presumably sees this as his swansong. The publicity tells us it has been 10 years in the making. The cast and crew include several members of the extended Lelouch family. The story is written by Lelouch with Pierre Uytterhoeven also with Lelouch since the 1960s and Anouk Aimée (star of Un homme et une femme) has a cameo role. The tone swings between war, sex/romance, comedy and music. I hadn’t realised that Lelouch is from an Algerian-Jewish background and he draws on this for the elements of the film that seem to refer to the recent surge in films exploring the French Jewish experience of German Occupation. But these elements are only marginal to the central story, as are the plotlines dealing with the Resistance. Lelouch tends to lose the emotional impact of these narrative threads in switching to add something else to Ilva’s story (including an extraordinary sequence set in Texas). Researching the earlier Lelouch films suggests that this does seem to be his method – film narratives with lots of characters and romance relationships dependent on twists of fate. In a sense What War May Bring is essentially that – how some survive war and others do not all filtered through music, cinema and romance.

In short, if you are a Lelouch fan you should enjoy this. If you are simply a film fan you’ll be interested in the filmic references. Those intrigued by the idea of ‘popular’ French Cinema may find the film attractive and enjoyable in parts but not totally coherent and if you are a French film scholar you’ll find it to be a strangely fascinating generic hybrid with a rather absurd postmodernist edge as the ‘author’ inserts himself into the story.

The UK DVD/Blu-ray is released on May 2nd from Revolver. It will also be available for rent and online download.

The UK trailer can be downloaded here. It gives a good view of the battle scenes but not the central romance (and love of cinema).

Cannes Preview 2011: Women in the spotlight as directors

Nadine Labaki with a poster for her previous film, Caramel

Lynne Ramsay – back in the spotlight after too long away

It’s that time of year again. The line-up for the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival has been announced and it is an intriguing mixture of established and new talent that looks set to make 2011 a vintage year. Apart from the usual complaints – little from Latin America or Africa and possibly too much from certain European countries – what has caught the eye is the inclusion of six women directors in the two main sections.

The four films by women in the Palme d’Or section are:

Hanezu No Tsuki, dir. Naomi Kawase (Japan)

Sleeping Beauty, dir. Julia Leigh (Australia)

Poliss, dir. Maiwenn (France)

We Need To Talk About Kevin, dir. Lynne Ramsay (UK)

In the ‘Un certain regard’ section are:

Where Do We Go Now? (Et Maintenant On Va Ou?), dir. Nadine Labaki (Lebanon/France)

Hard Labor (Trabalhar Cansa), dirs. Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra (Brazil)

Of these, the films by Julia Leigh, Maiwenn and Juliana Rojas are all first-time feature films and we look forward to hearing about them when the festival gets underway. Naomi Kawase is an established Japanese festival favourite who hasn’t really succeeded in international distribution yet. She has been previously nominated twice for the Palme d’Or and won the Festival Gran Prix in 2007 for Mogari no mori. Perhaps this will be her year?

We are most excited by the new films from Nadine Labaki and Lynne Ramsay. Labaki’s previous film Caramel (Lebanon/France 2007) has been one of our most popular postings and we are still hoping for a UK release of Stray Bullet (Lebanon 2010) in which she starred.

Most of all, however, it is welcome back to Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay first got noticed (and a prize) at Cannes in 1996 with her first film school short Small Deaths. When she won again with another short Gasman in 1998, she was able to turn that success into two lauded features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). At that point she looked like becoming the UK’s premier ‘art director’ making films that are great to look at, intelligent, different, moving and with something to say. But then she discovered just how crass and cruel the film business can be. She worked for four years on preparation for The Lovely Bones, only for the project to be taken away from her and handed to Peter Jackson. But Ramsay is committed and determined and she has stuck to her principles. We Need to Talk About Kevin is also an adaptation of a successful book but this time Ramsay has been working with Tilda Swinton two tough Scottish women together, quite a combination. Fingers crossed it all looks as good as we all hope it does on screen. The story of the film’s production is part of this useful piece by Andrew Pulver on the DGA website.

BIFF 2011 #20: JH Engström Q&A

JH Engstrom in conversation with NMeM curator Greg Hobson (photo by Paul Thompson for NMeM)

JH Engström in conversation with NMeM curator Greg Hobson (photo by Paul Thompson for NMeM)

Following two earlier photography documentaries, BIFF offered a chance to explore photographic practice directly through a Q&A with the Swedish photographer JH Engström. For several weeks the National Media Museum had been showing an exhibition of photographs by Engström and his ‘mentor’ and later colleague and close friend Anders Petersen. The exhibition closed a few days after this Q&A, but there is a book of photographs available for ‘From Back Home’ – a substantial project concerned with presenting images of the people and places of Värmland in West Central Sweden. In conjunction with the exhibition, I’ve been offering an evening class on aspects of Swedish Cinema entitled ‘Home and Memory’ so I was very interested to hear from Engström in person.

The event as advertised included both photographers and a screening of a short film about the pair’s work. However, Anders Petersen was ill and unable to travel and so Engström showed his own film about Anders, A Film With and About Anders Petersen (Sweden 2006). He also showed a ‘rough cut’ of a slide presentation of photographs from his new project focusing on his own recent family life – an intimate portrait culminating in the birth of his child. I found the slide sequence to be filmic and very striking. The documentary on Petersen was also very engaging and took us into Petersen’s world of close contact with his subjects which enables his distinctive high contrast black and white portraits. I understand that Engström has trained as a documentary filmmaker and there was clear evidence of this in the way he presented his friend (who reminded me in some ways of the Swedish writer Henning Mankell).

JH Engström with Anders Petersen (left)

JH Engström proved to be an entertaining speaker with lots to say, often very forcefully. Since I don’t know that much about international photography culture I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but Engström is clearly a major figure and the small cinema was packed. We learned that Engström’s whole outlook has been influenced by his background. He lived in Paris as a boy and returned there as a young adult to be an assistant to photographer Mario Testino. Then he returned to Sweden to gain a photography qualification. This is when he first worked with Petersen. But eventually he found Stockholm to be too ‘organised’ and restrictive and for a time he lived and worked in New York where he produced work for a project called ‘Trying to Dance’ (2004). When he did return to Sweden it was to Värmland where he had been born and where he embarked on ‘From Back Home’ with Anders Petersen. Now based in Värmland he seems to travel widely to give workshops etc. (See his website for his background.)

One of Engström's images in the 'From Back Home' exhibition. This image seems to me to be rich in cultural meanings and it 'speaks' to me about 'home' and 'memory'.

The key word for Engström’s approach appears to be ‘intimacy’. There was discussion of what this might mean, but for me Engström demonstrates it very successfully in his work. He seems to have a loose and free approach – but of course he works very hard and very professionally to achieve his aims. He said that when he first worked for Marion Testino, he wasn’t interested in fashion but he was impressed by the professional approach that he saw. He works in both black and white and colour on different formats, but always analogue not digital. I gather from this that there is no rigid ‘technique’ to be applied. Rather, he goes with whatever feels right in capturing the feeling of intimacy. As he said – “photography is about everything except reality”. His first project was in fact concerned with ‘social documentary’ – creating images with members of a women’s shelter in Stockholm but his later work consciously moves towards less organised communities.

In relation to the discussion about ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ qualities in the work a perceptive comment from the audience suggested the idea of the photographer who oscillates between the ‘personal’ – being immersed in the environment and emotionally close to the human subject – and the observer who is ‘close’ but detached. I think I’ve got this right but certainly Engström himself thought that this was an interesting line of enquiry.

I was impressed by many of the ideas in this session. For instance, I was taken by aspects of Engström’s methodology. He said that in his projects, selecting and editing photographs for the book comes first and that this then informs what goes into the exhibition (and presumably how they are presented). The photographs themselves I found quite striking and in his new work I was interested in how willing he was to display both himself and his partner for the camera. He seems like a very confident and assured young man. When I first saw the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition, I was struck by how the characters in what were recognisably Swedish locales looked rather different from the stereotypes – or rather that they looked both distinctively Swedish and ‘not at all Swedish’ at the same time. This probably says more about my own lack of knowledge about Swedish culture. However, several of the students on our evening class on Swedish Cinema linked to the exhibition remarked on how at first the characters seemed unusual but that after we had watched films set in Värmland or adjacent counties they seemed very familiar.

Here’s a short YouTube clip taken during the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition’s stay in Angers (dialogue in French):

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