Monthly Archives: August 2011

Super 8 (US 2011)

"Look to the skies!" A Spielbergian moment for Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard. © Paramount Pictures

When the closing credits began to roll on this film, my main thought was “Why go to all this trouble not to say anything?”. The short film that actually appears in the credits is in some ways more interesting than what precedes it. J.J. Abrams appears to have made a Spielberg tribute film. It’s well-made and engaging most of the time with good performances by the young actors at the core of the narrative – but it doesn’t add up to anything. On reflection the final third of the film is a bit of a mess as the plot doesn’t make much sense and I didn’t really understand why some things were happening. But by then I didn’t really care.

The story rehashes bits of Close Encounters and ET with elements of Alien and Poltergeist, Minority Report and probably several other Spielberg-related films. Set in the Summer of 1979 (three Mile Island is mentioned on a news report) it places a group of young teens making a zombie picture (referencing George Romero’s early Living Dead films) who witness a train crash close to an isolated town. But this is more than just a crash and soon the US Air Force are in town cleaning up the mess and starting to behave suspiciously. You can pretty much invent the rest of the plot from there. The boy and girl at the centre have both lost their mothers and have to live with inadequate fathers. The boys ride round on chopper bikes as in ET etc. I stress that it is well done and Abrams seems to have gone as far as selecting the most appropriate filmstock and colour grading to mimic the 1970s/80s films set in small towns. Unfortunately he is as sentimental as Spielberg so it doesn’t get beyond a film for 12 year-olds and those who wish they were 12 again – nothing wrong with that and I hope they enjoy it. It’s also much longer than it needs to be. Pruning the action sequences would make a tighter leaner film.

Of course, there is no reason why a genre film shouldn’t aim for being simply entertaining but it does need a twist or a new element to create ‘difference’ with the ‘repetition’. I couldn’t find the difference here and after all the hype (and the big budget spend) I was hoping for something more. While I was watching Super 8 it occurred to me that there was another film set around this period with a pair of protagonists of about this age. Let the Right One In has quite a few strengths that J.J. Abrams could learn from. I also thought about Monsters with its beautiful gas station scene on a budget of peanuts. Abrams also has a gas station scene that works pretty well but I’m guessing he spent a lot more. The Korean movie The Host borrows some of the same tropes as Super 8 but also offers a critique of the family and of Korean domestic politics and foreign policy. Super 8 is being touted as the ‘intelligent’ blockbuster of the year which doesn’t bode well for Hollywood.

Holiday Camp (UK 1947)

1947 was the year after the high point of cinema attendance in the UK and arguably the highest ever admissions figures per head anywhere. A UK population of around 50 million clocked up over 1.5 billion admissions – that’s over 30 visits per year for every man, woman and child. Holiday Camp was one of the most popular films of the year so it stands as an important document in terms of a shared experience of filmgoing if nothing else. Perhaps because it led to a later series of comedy films about the adventures of a working-class family, ‘The Huggetts’, it has been overlooked as an important social document of its period. Just like the later ‘Carry On’ series in the 1950s and 1960s it provides study material for the changing mores of British society.

This first film featuring the Huggetts was produced by Sydney Box at Gainsborough, one of the most successful British studios during the war and in the immediate post-war years. (But Gainsborough was shut down by Rank in 1951 as part of the company’s re-organisation). From an idea by Godfrey Winn and written by Sydney and Muriel Box with Peter Rogers (who went on to produce the Carry On films), Holiday Camp was also a first feature for director Ken Annakin, then a young man from East Yorkshire who must have known about the film’s main location.

The film was shot on location at Butlin’s Filey Holiday Camp with interiors at Gainsborough’s Lime Grove studios in London. Filey, on the Yorkshire Coast south of Scarborough, had a newly-built camp that was taken over by the RAF early in the war. When it opened in 1945 the new camp began to attract large numbers and had its own railway station. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, holiday camps were very popular offering an inexpensive holiday for families and groups of young people. Accommodation was in chalets and all catering and entertainment was on site and included in the price. The film offers a number of interlinked stories featuring the members of the Huggetts family and some of the other characters they meet.

The film begins with the arrival of the ‘holiday special’ train at the camp’s own railway station. I was immediately struck by the similarity to the opening of another Gainsborough Picture Millions Like Us (UK 1943) in which young women from all over the country arrive at a hostel where they are billeted in pairs for the duration of their training and subsequent factory work making aircraft parts. The star of that film, Patricia Roc, makes a fleeting celebrity appearance in Holiday Camp as herself judging the camp beauty contest. Arriving by train at a camp also has much darker connotations of course and although these aren’t raised in the film, references to wartime and austerity are never too far away. The young Huggett boy (Harry) finds himself in a chalet with a young sailor (Jimmy Hanley) who has just been jilted and who reacts by making himself ill eating all the chocolate bars he had saved for his girlfriend. Rationing was central to people’s lives at this point and the ‘waste’ of food in this way was shocking. Fortunately the sailor meets the Hugget’s daughter Joan (Hazel Court) who was widowed in the war and has a small boy who seems to disappear conveniently (the camps provided baby-sitting services). ‘Ma and Pa’ Huggett are played by Kathleen Harrison and Jack Warner. Though their banter is mainly played for laughs they are also allowed a poignant scene on a cliff-top.

Flora Robson appears in her traditional role as Esther, a spinster who becomes involved in ‘saving’ a young middle-class couple who find themselves ‘in trouble’. He is a would be great musician who is playing the piano in a camp ballroom and she is a genteel impoverished girl living with her stern aunt (Beatrice Varley) who has come to the camp to be with him. Robson has loved and lost as a young woman in the 1914-18 War and she is deeply disturbed by the ever-present voice over the tannoy giving camp announcements – giving rise to a comment about being in a prisoner-of-war camp. Is this the voice of the man she lost? The announcer is played by Esmond Knight who in 1947 also joined Robson in the cast for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. The meeting between Esther and the announcer ends with an interesting sequence in which we see the camp’s mass parade – a celebration of the collectivist spirit that is often represented in the wartime propaganda films such as Millions Like Us. Esmond Knight’s speech in this sequence makes me think of the J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1945). The parade sequence is one of several shot in Filey (the camp in the film is called ‘Farleigh’ – I’m not sure if this was intended as a joke about an affected pronunciation) which are blended into the studio scenes quite well.

The final major character is played by Dennis Price, like Robson somewhat typecast, as a ‘bad egg’ – clearly masquerading as a Squadron Leader but with a hard edge that occasionally comes to the surface. This is a familiar character from the period along with the two card sharps but overall I thought that this was the weakest narrative thread and its eventual outcome unbalanced the closing of the film. Although billed as a comedy, Holiday Camp is perhaps better described as a comedy drama. It’s not difficult to see why the producers decided to spin-off ‘The Huggetts’ for later films and a radio series, but their family adventures are only part of what Holiday Camp has to offer. In some ways its mix of elements prefigures the successful soaps on British TV from the 1960s.

For the mass audience of the time Holiday Camp was certainly a star-studded affair. As well as the main cast, the film includes Charlie Chester as himself on stage in the camp theatre and Gary Wilmott, again as himself, as compere of the beauty contest. Future stars are in small roles such as Susan Shaw as the girl who wins Harry and Alfie Bass as a ‘red coat’. The 15 year-old Diana Dors is in the background of one scene making a strong impression on the dancefloor.

Holiday Camp is being screened in Filey on September 23rd as part of a festival of ‘Made in Yorkshire Films’.

The opening of the film:

. . . and a short by the ‘Butlins Photo Service’:

World Without Thieves (Tian xia wu zei, China/Hong Kong 2004)

Andy Lau (in the ridiculous wig) and Rene Liu as the con artists meet the naïve young man

This is the third film by Feng Xiaogang that we’ve reviewed on the blog and it stands up well alongside Assembly and Aftershock. Like those films, it is a ‘big’ genre film with major stars and an ‘uplifting’ tone. In some ways it proves to be the closest to a Hollywood film that I have seen from East Asia – yet there are elements in the film that are distinctively Chinese and which I’m not sure I fully appreciate.

I think that generically this is a romance thriller crossed with a heist movie (there is no heist as such, but many of the elements of a film like Ocean’s 11 are utilised), mainly staged on a long train journey from Tibet back towards Beijing. The romance couple are a pair of consummate con-artists and skilled thieves played by the major stars Andy Lau (as Wang Bo) from Hong Kong and Rene Liu (as Wang Li) from Taiwan. (Lau and Liu are both pop stars too – of ‘Cantopop and Mandopop’ respectively.) At the beginning of the narrative they are in the process of falling out after another successful con that has won them a BMW. She wants to quit and focus on her pregnancy, he wants to carry on. Her decision is confirmed by a visit to a Buddhist monastery, after which she befriends a young man returning to his village in the East with his savings from 5 years of work. He naïvely believes that there are no thieves in China and indeed announces on the train that he is carrying the money. She decides to try to protect him from thieves – and this probably means thwarting her erstwhile partner. On the train there are various characters in disguise including a gang of thieves led by ‘Dr Li’ (played by the famous Chinese actor Ge You) and a police detective. The main part of the film becomes a four-way battle of wits and trickery plus spectacular action between Andy Lau’s character, the thieves and the police with Rene Liu attempting to protect the hapless young man and his money.

I love train movies and this one includes many of the familiar elements of chases through corridors, dining car, private rooms etc., false identities, overheard conversations etc. It also introduces an extra dimension utilising the space beneath the carriage roof and the ceiling of individual compartments – and of course the carriage roof itself as the site for fights. The train sequences feature several confrontations which Feng films in the exaggerated style familiar from martial arts films but here they are performed in the confined spaces of the train. These scenes – as well as the ‘Scope photography of the train in the landscapes of Western China – provide the spectacle in the film. However the real story of the film is the relationship between the central couple and the promotion of a kind of family solidarity which is constructed via the warring ‘parents’, the pregnancy and the attempt to protect the boy (he’s a young 21) and his money. This makes the film recognisably a family drama to match Aftershock. Lau and Liu work well together for me. Both stars are in their 40s and I found their squabbling and occasional glimpses of real feelings to be believable.

The ideological work of the film includes an attempt to portray Tibet as an integral part of China and an enthusiastic celebration of the new railway line as a prestige achievement. The crime scenario draws on what I understand to be a common occurrence of theft on Chinese Railways. The marked difference from Hollywood action films perhaps comes in the relatively slow pace of the beginning and end sequences of the narrative and the use of music – classical strings rather than the more rock/techno-flavoured scores of American action films.

Feng should be better-known in the West. His films are an antidote to the more scholarly action/costume films of Zhang Yimou or the indie/arthouse style of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke. It is Feng’s films which are likely to carry elements of Chinese popular culture into the future global blockbuster films. The description of him as ‘the Steven Spielberg of China’ has more than a grain of plausibility in reference to representations of a kind of middle-class Chinese life (however that class status is achieved).

(There is one mystery. IMdb lists the Chinese version as a few minutes shorter than the ‘International’ version – yet the Chinese version includes a pre-credit sequence showing the con by which they acquire the BMW. Does anyone know what was cut from the rest of the film for the Chinese release?)

Fire in Babylon (UK 2010)

The triumphant West Indian team celebrating a wicket by Michael Holding at the Oval

This is a highly enjoyable film. It couldn’t really fail as a nostalgic celebration of arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But it’s a good watch for all audiences – whether or not you remember the West Indies Test team of the 1970s and 1980s. There is actually relatively little about cricket itself as a game, but a great deal about what it represented as a political and cultural force for Caribbean people in the period.

The documentary covers the years between the humiliating test defeat of the West Indies in Australia in the winter of 1975-76 up until the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984. This was the period in which Clive Lloyd led a team which was transformed from stereotypical ‘calypso cricketers’ into a honed squad of invincibles, in the process forging a symbol of a unified West Indian identity across the disparate countries of the Caribbean and bolstering the struggle against racism and colonialist hangovers.

The events are carefully narrativised so that there is a conventional story arc. So, the success of the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup in London in 1975 is not included. They beat Australia twice in the one day competition and that wouldn’t have been a good starting point. Instead we get to see them pulverised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. I’d forgotten this and it was quite a shock. Indian commentators have noted that the film also misrepresents the next series they played against India. But apart from these manipulations the story is told in a straightforward way using archive footage and talking heads. The latter are often photographed in a stylised way, in a studio or on location in the Caribbean. As well as the cricketers themselves, the ‘interviewees’ include the great Bunny Wailer and several highly entertaining supporters. Interspersed are performances from a mento band, reggae stars like Tapper Zukie, archive footage of Bob Marley and, my favourite, a song by Short Shirt, the Antiguan calypsonian in the most outrageous costume I’ve seen in a while – I can’t begin to describe the exact colour of his hat and shoes! The impact of these interviews/performances filmed in HD video and with pulsing graphics using the African colours of green, red and gold  is all the greater because of their juxtaposition with the archive video footage on a big screen using digital projection.

The strength of the film is its clear connection between pride in cricket and pride in African heritage, emphasised by the comments of Bunny Wailer. It’s always been a sensitive area to comment on the sporting prowess of Black athletes because of the danger of ‘reducing’ Black achievement to physique rather than an overall appreciation of skill and intelligence. The film avoids this, I think, by its careful linkage of the US models (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics etc.) with Clive Lloyd’s leadership and the fantastic individual stars of this great team. How could you not respond to the beauty, grace and power of Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’) surely the most aesthetically pleasing as well as the most lethal sight on a cricket pitch? What could top the sight of Viv Richards ducking bouncers and then sending the next ball to the boundary rope? The filmmakers have chosen the interviewees carefully so that we meet the most articulate and inspiring members of the team. Richards is a commanding presence, Andy Roberts is dry and deadly and Gordon Greenidge (who came to live in England aged 14) is the most dignified. Importantly there is one player whose presence in the documentary cuts through the possibility of too much simple idolatry on behalf of the audience. Colin Croft, one of the four bowling greats, accepted the money to join the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983 when the apartheid regime attempted to discredit the sporting boycott of South Africa. Croft survived the subsequent ban and shame to return as a respected commentator today – but many of the others on that tour had their careers, and indeed their lives, destroyed by the critical backlash. This part of the story, in which West Indian cricketers who were paid very little in comparison with modern stars were tempted by a chance to lift themselves out of relative poverty, is matched by the story of the Kerry Packer circus – ‘World Series Cricket’ in the late 1970s which saw Clive Lloyd’s team at odds with its own administrators in a bid to get better pay and conditions. The two stories underline the politics of international cricket.

The film works well politically. The focus on Australia, England and South Africa is justified in putting across the symbolism of the defeat of racism and colonialism. English cricket suffered from poor administration and the influence of the ‘backwoodsmen’ who still seemed to feel that they were running the Empire. The decision to make Tony Greig, a South African, captain of England at this time was outrageous. During the desperate days of overt racism in the 1970s and 1980s, most people I knew supported the West Indians unreservedly and to see Michael Holding dismiss Greig twice at the Oval in 1976 is one of my most cherished memories. (For those who don’t know cricket, I should point out that most of these West Indian test cricketers also played county cricket in England and they were heroes to UK crowds as well.)

The film was directed by Stevan Riley, a young British guy who has clearly impressed Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd and gained access to the right people. I hope the film gets seen in the Caribbean and persuades more young people to get interested in cricket so that the Test team can be rejuvenated. It’s great too to hear all the music again and it must be time for more films from the region. Go and see this film or get hold of the DVD – it’s pure joy. I’m off to dig out  some Linton Kwesi Johnson whose dub poetry is used in one clip.

Official trailer:

Nader and Simin: A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran 2011)

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi)

When a film wins the Golden Bear at Berlin, it is usually a good bet that it will be serious and challenging – but not necessarily popular. A Separation doesn’t disprove the Berlin prediction but it has been very popular in France as well as at home in Iran and it is currently in IMDb’s Top 250 titles. Written and directed with enormous care and skill by Asghar Farhadi and blessed with excellent performances all round (winning acting prizes) this is a film that on one level works as a domestic drama (rather than a family melodrama) and on another as a legal drama (which some critics have labelled a thriller). In a similar way, it offers universal story elements about family life but also elements that are distinctly Iranian – or rather ‘non-European/Anglo-American’.

I’m not going to describe the plot in detail. Suffice to say the film begins with Nader and Simin in front of a judge (who we don’t see but who’s ‘point of view’ we are forced to adopt). Simin wants to leave Iran and take their 11 year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader refuses to leave because he must stay and look after his father who has Alzheimer’s. The judge tells them that they must both agree to the divorce and that they should go away and sort it out. Simin then decides to leave the family apartment and go to her mother’s. Termeh decides to stay put. This is the ‘inciting’ incident in the narrative. Without his wife in the household, Nader begins to realise that getting carers for his father during the daytime (when he is at work and Termeh is at school) is going to be an issue. When he does hire a woman from the suburbs to come to his apartment the problems become real. It’s important that the audience is alert throughout all the early stages of the narrative because what happens later depends, as a legal dispute, on tiny pieces of information revealed in these early scenes – and I’m not going to claim to have remembered them all!

The intricate plotting across just over two hours never lets up in intensity. It is presented via a simple and clear aesthetic with hand-held camerawork that operates fairly close to the characters in the confined spaces of rooms, offices, stairways etc. and a couple of roadside locations. There is no musical score – only dialogue, sound effects and direct sound. The great strength of the screenplay and characterisation is that there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ as such. In the true humanist sense, we are able to recognise that everyone has their good and less good sides – with the possible exception of Termeh who is forced by circumstances into impossible situations that she tries desperately to resolve. Termeh is played by the director’s own daughter.

The film has a terrible fascination, partly because of its universality. Tehran is in many ways no different to London, Paris or New York. Alzheimer’s is an issue with older relatives everywhere in the developed world (I’m assuming that it is a different kind of problem in poorer societies). The social class divide is just as important in Iran. Nader is a bank employee with some kind of responsibility. Simin’s profession wasn’t clear to me, but this is a middle-class household with working professionals. The would-be carers face a long commute across the city and they desperately need the money.

The religious issues in the film did not strike me as important in the ways that other commentators have suggested. All the women in the film cover their hair, but the woman carer wears a full chador. She is also concerned about what is ‘allowed’ in a strangers’ (i.e. non-family) household, but overall I thought that the moral questions – about truthfulness and fidelity – were presented in such a way that they were relevant whether or not the characters were devout Muslims. The film does in many ways invite us, the audience, to ask what we would do in the same circumstances.

The Iranian judicial process as presented in the film reminded me very much of the way a not totally dissimilar incident is handled in Tomás Gutierrez Aléa’s Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba 1968). I felt for the investigating judge listening to the case and trying to be fair to all sides. The Iranian system is presented as thorough but somewhat inflexible in its process. It appears to treat plaintiffs and defendanys on an equal basis but there still seems to be a bias towards the middle-class who can more easily get ‘respectable’ people to vouch for them.

I have enjoyed many other Iranian films with more obvious ‘issues’ and political discourses but I enjoyed this film because it was so ‘ordinary’ in its story elements, but so extraordinary in its presentation. Not to be missed!

If you enjoyed watching A Separation, check out our reviews of Farhadi’s earlier films Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly – not yet available in the UK but out on DVD in the US.

Press Notes available here.

Artificial Eye trailer (Spoiler Warning: the trailer gives much more plot detail than I have included above):

The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, France 2010)

The ship repair yard at Bijela – a photographer's dream?

Watching this film was an unusual experience. At times it felt like a character-driven drama and at other times a high quality genre film. It wasn’t until later that I realised that I’d seen the previous film by director Eric Lartigau, an interesting twist on the romcom Prête-moi ta main (France 2006) titled I Do in English. I enjoyed that film and I think I enjoyed The Big Picture – certainly I was engrossed by it and was surprised when the ending came.

It is difficult to outline the plot without spoilers, but I’ll try. The English title isn’t immediately helpful. The French title translates as something like the ‘The Man Who Wanted to Live His Own Life’ and this is more useful. Paul Exbon (Romain Duris) is a highly successful lawyer running a top practice in Paris with his older partner Anne (Catherine Deneuve). He has wealth, an attractive wife and two small children who he adores – but all is not well at home or in his head. Then a series of events overturns his comfortable world. The only way out seems to be to flee France for the Adriatic and to adopt a new identity. The ‘instigator’ of all this trouble is a man Paul detests, an unsuccessful professional photographer who taunts Paul because the lawyer only takes photographs as a hobby – he doesn’t have the guts to go out and try it as a living even though he has the talent to do so. So when Paul flees he attempts to become a ‘real’ photographer. But his talent shines through and when journals and galleries start to take an interest he knows his identity will be uncovered – thus the English title, I guess. (The photographs used in the film were taken by various Magnum photographers I think.)

The main factor that attracted me to the film was the presence of Romain Duris in the lead and as usual he gives a great performance, more than justifying his billing. I don’t really understand how he does it. This time he is in curly hair, stubble and generally dishevelled chic mode – but still with the Cuban heels. Why is that chipmunk-like face with its cheesy grin so manipulative? I don’t know, but Duris is a natural talent and you can’t really keep your eyes off him.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by Douglas Kennedy. He appears to be an American writer domiciled mainly in Europe where his reputation is high in France. His 2007 The Woman in the Fifth has also been adapted as a thriller, this time by Pawel Pawlikowski with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ethan Hawke and scheduled for its première at Venice in September. I think that we are going to hear a lot more about him. (His earlier novel The Dead Heart was adapted as Welcome to Whoop Whoop, a British-Australian comedy which suffered from the injury to its director Stephan Elliott in 1997.) Kennedy has also written travel literature, something of an advantage for writers of ‘international thrillers’. The Big Picture (which was the original title of the novel) introduces the coastline of Montenegro and in particular the heritage city of Kotor and the ship repair yards at Bijela. I found these fascinating and they give this film a different feel.

Deneuve and Duris – pin-ups for different generations?

I think what marks this film out as something more than another generic ‘international thriller’ is a tight script, effective cinematography and editing and the performance of Romain Duris. It’s a thriller in the sense that an unsettling tone runs throughout and I was genuinely concerned about what the central character was going to do. I didn’t read too much about it beforehand and the two moments of violence are both handled well – I found them unsettling and shocking. Critics are referring to it as an ‘existential thriller’ and this is where the confusion arises. In this interesting review, the British trailer for the film is accused of making it look like an art film.  Overall The Big Picture is definitely worth exploring for an evening’s entertainment and the kind of well-made film that boosts the reputation of the French industry. In France it opened at No 2 in the chart grossing over $3 million but failing to dislodge the blockbuster Little White Lies – that’s a shame because it’s a far better film than Guillaume Canet’s ‘comedy’. If I have one complaint about The Big Picture it’s that Catherine Deneuve is on screen for only a few short scenes and Neils Arestrup similarly has only a brief time to impress. The other factor that’s getting some interest is the score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine. I wasn’t sure that his worked in the early part of the film, but by the end I was on side. A final piece of trivia – the director looks a little like Duris as he’s presented in the film and he’s married to Marina Foïs who plays Sarah Exben, Paul’s wife.

Poetry (Shi, South Korea 2010)

Mija (Yun Jung-hee) follows the instructions of her poetry teacher to really 'see' an apple. (Image courtesy Kino International)

Once again, the UK gets a prizewinner from Cannes after a long wait – Poetry won the 2010 Script Prize. It was well worth the wait, so thanks go to distributor Arrow. We caught it in the comfortable surroundings of Chapter Arts in Cardiff. Poetry was written and directed by Lee Chang-dong, a novelist and scriptwriter/director who in 2003-4 acted as Minister for Culture and Tourism in South Korea. This long film (139 mins) is thoroughly absorbing and undoubtedly one of the major releases of the year – especially as it comes from what I presume is a small independent Korean operation.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Mija is 66 but still looking after her teenage grandson Wook in a semi-rural district outside Seoul. The boy’s mother is attempting to find work in South Korea’s second city, Busan (some 300km away). When Mija visits a doctor for a minor ailment he thinks that she has early onset Alzheimer’s and refers her to a Seoul hospital. But she then discovers that Wook is involved in a serious incident through his membership of a group of schoolfriends. The parents of the other boys want to pay to hush up the scandal. Mija has no money and gets by through her pension and part-time earnings looking after an elderly shop-owner who has suffered a stroke. Feeling hemmed in by her problems Mija seeks release through a new interest in poetry after enrolling in a local class and she takes her teacher’s words to heart. He asks all class members to try to write one poem by the end of the course and Mija is determined to do so.

Commentary

I’m a big fan of Korean Cinema though I’ve seen fewer Korean films in the last few years as the ‘Korean Wave’ has receded a little in terms of international distribution. The opening of Poetry seems very familiar with children playing by the river and a stunning mountain landscape. I was reminded of Memories of Murder (2003), a different kind of film but sharing some elements. Lee Chang-dong, in the press notes (available here), has said that the idea for the film came to him when he was watching television in a Japanese hotel room – one of those late night programmes when beautiful images of landscapes and soothing music are supposed to help you go to sleep. His idea was to explore the need to write poetry as a response to desperation.

Mija is played by Yun Jung-hee who was a famous Korean film actor of the 1960s to 1990s but who hasn’t appeared in a film since 1994. Her presence will certainly mean something to older Korean audiences. As Mija, Yun is presented as slightly eccentric in floral outfits with her hat and precise ways. Although her situation is quite desperate she maintains an outward appearance of calm and beauty – in contrast to her monosyllabic and slobbish grandson.

It should be clear from the outline above that this is a potentially rich and rewarding story – although I haven’t perhaps ‘sold’ it thoroughly because I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure. The film was released a few weeks ago in the US and it has already provoked a fair amount of comment, especially in terms of what is taken to be the resolution of the narrative. Lee Chang-dong has admitted that he intended the film to be ‘open’:

“Like a page with a poem on it, I thought of a film with a lot of empty space. This empty space can be filled in by the audience. In this sense, you can say this is an ‘open’ film.” (from the Press Notes)

If Lee is inviting us to ‘fill the blanks’ there are several different ways in which we can do this. The screening at Chapter was part of a project called ‘Cardiff sciSCREEN’ in which various local academics contribute responses to a discussion about the film which is then open to audience involvement. If you want to know more about this, there is an interesting website here (which includes a useful Korean view of the film). I think that this is a great idea but I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion and I’m rather more concerned to discuss the film ‘as film’ rather than to engage in the wider debates about dementia and poetry. I’d like to emphasise as well that the film is rewarding for audiences without a specific interest in dementia or poetry. In fact, the narrative for me seemed to raise dementia as an issue but then let it subside from prominence in the narrative – Mija is in the very early stages of forgetting simple words but she copes well when she can’t remember a word. We, of course, feel for her at these points but she is driven by concerns that are more immediate.

What then should we say about the film narrative? At one level the film focuses on the ways in which Mija has been isolated as a woman within Korean society. When we see her in different situations we see her struggling to ‘speak’ (i.e. both literally and metaphorically) when she is in ‘male’ spaces (though, as we’ve noted, she’s determined and does get there). From what we learn of her past, she has suffered from neglect and perhaps abuse by men and her relationships have been with women. Her family is now an absent daughter and an unhelpful grandson. The younger women that she meets are seemingly more confident and less troubled about ‘isolation’ – but it is clear that the problem hasn’t gone away.

One of the features of the Korean films that I have seen is often the way in which seemingly straightforward genre films also deal with important social and political issues. Poetry is in some ways a conventionally ‘realist’ social drama and its social commentary is quite subtle. Mija would have been born in 1943/4 – before the end of the Japanese control of Korea – and most of her life has been lived before the accelerated growth of South Korean economy and contemporary culture since the 1980s. I think that this is evident in her encounters with the men in the film. She has the utmost respect for her poetry teacher (who seems a lovely man with unlimited patience – although he is saddened by what he sees as the decline of poetry) but she at first mistrusts the policeman who belongs to a poetry group because his behaviour is boorish and bawdy. But she is told that he has been sent to the sticks from Central Seoul because he exposed corruption. He’s really one of the good guys whereas the smooth-talking men who are the fathers of Wook’s schoolfriends are representative of the new culture. It’s worth trying to think through this critique of Korean culture as you try to puzzle out why Mija behaves in the ways she does. The visual style of the film is also subtle. Mija is sometimes shown in extreme long shot in relation to the river and the mountains and she travels everywhere by bus (I hadn’t noticed before that Korean bus drivers follow the Japanese model and wear white gloves). In the landscape and on the bus she is again ‘isolated’ – i.e. there is space around her. This is a contrast to her ‘hemmed in’ isolation in her meetings with men but I’m not sure that I’ve figured this use of space out yet.

There is quite a lot of poetry in the film – several short pieces are ‘performed’ in class and at social readings. I’ve heard several people say that the film narrative itself is like a poem, but I confess I don’t know what they mean by this – enlighten me, please! Anyway, you should go and see this. It would make an interesting (but very long!) double bill with Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) which has many similar plot elements but a completely different approach. I read in a Senses of Cinema essay that cinema audiences in South Korea are primarily made up of women – young women I assume. If this is true it would be interesting to know what they made of the film. Its box office run in South Korea was interesting, opening on 192 screens for a No. 7 slot but a screen average below $1,000. It then improved in weeks 2 and 3 – a sure sign of good word of mouth – before dropping out of the Top Ten after four weeks with a gross of $1.08 million. So far it has done pretty well in the US and I hope the word of mouth builds here too.

Here’s the US trailer with English subs:

and when you’ve seen the film, try this review (which contains spoilers) from a Bangalore writer with an interesting perspective.