Monthly Archives: October 2011

Nordic Noir, Noomi Rapace and Remakes

In a couple of months time, David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will hit cinema screens. I’m already on record as saying that this kind of instant remake (i.e. of a recent hit non-English language film) is pointless and I stick to that view. However, we can’t just wish Hollywood away. The domination of so many film markets by American product is a part of most filmgoers’ experience – and that goes for filmmakers too, both directors and actors who want to work internationally and Nordic facilities that want to attract international productions to their region. I’m not sure yet whether I will go to a cinema to see the Fincher film, but I am going to revive my interest in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy and a range of associated issues. The interest in Nordic cinema and TV in the UK shows no signs of melting away and next term I’ll be teaching a course on ‘Nordic Noir’. The furore over the remake (the European jibes about Anglos who won’t read subtitles and the American jibes about ‘cheap’ European films) is evident on the comments on YouTube for the trailers. I guess that I am going to have to see the Hollywood film, which was shot in Sweden, just to see what it does differently. Here is the Sony trailer for the remake with the original trailer for the Swedish film below:

 

 

 

On October 7, a film called Babycall opened in Norway. It stars Noomi Rapace (the ‘original’ Lisbeth Salander) in her first post-Millennium role as a mother who takes her young son out of Oslo away from a violent father. She buys a ‘babycall’ device to keep tabs on her son when he is in the flat but the device also picks up other children’s voices. Is her imagination playing tricks? I haven’t seen the film yet, but according to IMDB it has been picked up by Soda for UK distribution in 2012 and I’ll certainly give it a go – it sounds as if writer-director Pål Sletaune is working in a similar way to the Japanese duo Suzuki Koji and Nakata Hideo with Dark Water (Japan 2002). Here’s a Norwegian teaser (the release date was obviously changed) – it’s easy to get a sense of the film without English subs.

 

 

Before Babycall reaches the UK, Noomi Rapace will get much more exposure in her first Hollywood blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows in which she plays a European woman caught up in the struggle between Holmes and Watson and their deadly foe Professor Moriarty. This of course means that Ms Rapace has fallen into the clutches of Guy Ritchie. Here’s the trailer:

 

 

In June 2012, Noomi Rapace’s second Hollywood blockbuster appears in the shape of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, billed as a science fiction/horror film and talked about as Alien-related. Certain casting decisions suggest an influence of Danny Boyle’s approach in Sunshine with Benedict Wong in a small role and Michelle Yeoh allegedly up for a part at an early stage. Jude Law from Sherlock Holmes has a lead role.

Meanwhile the fascination with Nordic Noir continues with the first film to arrive in the UK adapted from the work of the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. Headhunters is a Nesbo crime thriller that doesn’t feature Harry Hole, the Oslo detective who has become the latest literary hero. Instead it is a story about a man who works as a ‘headhunter’ for businesses and operates a sideline in art thefts. In Norway, the film has already become one of the major hits of the year and it is currently screening during the London Film Festival with a UK release planned for April 2012 – and yes, the US remake via Summit, the independent behind the Twilight films is already announced. This marks the beginning of a long-term relationship between Swedish producers Yellow Bird and Summit which could yet see European productions of English-language crime dramas set in North America. Yellow Bird has already made the Wallander series in English for the BBC and as co-producer of the Millennium films and TV series it has worked with Scott Rudin to produce the Fincher take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Jo Nesbø looks like becoming the next Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson as a source for international crime thrillers. Harry Hole is much more action-driven than Wallander and much sexier than Mikael Blomkvist. Nesbø reportedly doesn’t like the Larsson comparison, but for filmmakers he has one major attraction – he’s still alive and is still writing (and he has a big back catalogue).

Here’s the Norwegian Headhunters trailer (no English subs yet):

 

 

Villain (Akunin, Japan 2010)

Yoshino (Mitsushima Hikari, left) is the giddy insurance clerk boasting to her workmates about the rich playboy she has met. Photo © Third Window Films

Villain is a Japanese crime film based on the novel by Yoshida Suichi (released in English translation in the UK in 2010). It was placed No 1 in the Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo‘s Top 10 of 2010 and released in the UK by Third Window – which earlier this year released Kokahaku (Confessions), No. 2 in the same chart. Villain gained several Japanese Academy Awards. We should thank Third Window for bringing these important Japanese films to the UK. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have attracted the audiences they deserve. This film had a single screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Asia Triennial Festival (which includes a film programme running through October and November) and I thought the audience was disappointing, despite a significant East Asian presence.

One of the problems associated with the film for UK audiences is its genre classification. Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the UK is too often assumed to be ‘extreme’ – horror, gangster/ultra violence etc. Villain is a crime film but as one IMDB poster puts it, it fits the Japanese notion of a ‘Howdunnit’ or ‘Whydunnit’ rather than a suspense thriller. In fact, this film is more a social drama centred around a killing. We discover who the murderer is halfway through what is quite a long film (139 mins). What interests us why the murder was committed, whether it was really murder in a ‘premeditated with intent’ sense and how the other people involved react to what happened. This makes it a little more like some of the South Korean dramas dealing with crimes such as Memories of Murder (Bong Jun-hoo, 2003) or possibly like some of Hitchcock’s work.

The victim is a young woman, Yoshino, who has left home and her parents’ barbershop to become an insurance clerk in the city and live in the company ‘dormitory’. As part of her attempt to have an exciting social life she attempts to flirt with a rich young playboy and also has casual sex with Yuichi someone she meets through an internet dating site. On the night in question she meets both men (by accident) and ends up dead on a mountain road. The playboy has a circle of friends but we don’t meet his family. The internet dating guy lives many miles away in Nagasaki (the story is set on the most southerly of the Japanese main islands, Kyushu). We meet his grandmother who has brought him up and later his mother who abandoned him. He also hitches up with another person he meets online, Mitsuyo, a lonely woman who works in a clothing store. The other major character is the dead girl’s father who seeks some form of revenge. I won’t spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess who did it. I did suggest that the whodunnit angle is not important. Whydunnit is the key to the film and we are offered a range of characters and situations which suggest that there are many ‘villains’ in society and that crimes and criminals are not always obvious.

The film is in some ways quite conventional – and perhaps ‘old-fashioned’. I think that this too might put off younger viewers in particular. The colour palette is quite subdued and the pacing is slow. Some of the acting styles are also perhaps not what we expect in a mainstream film – in a way, the film moves into quite a stylised mode in the last third, particularly in the playing of some of the older characters and of Yuichi and Mitsuyo. Allied to this is the score by the celebrated composer Joe Hisaishi. I barely noticed the music except on a couple of occasions when I thought “Oh, this is good”. This suggests to me that Hisaishi was doing exactly what the great Bernard Hermann said all film composers should do, which is to support the narrative.

The real question is what does the film ‘mean’? Why has it won so many prizes in Japan? The film’s director is Lee Sang-il, who is a ‘Zainichi Korean’ – someone from the established Korean community in Japan, i.e. living in Japan through several generations since the era of Japanese colonialism and the occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. There is a category of ‘Zainichi Cinema’ that has been identified in Japan – see the discussion in this review of an academic conference last year. However, although Lee’s first film Chong (2000) focused on Korean characters, his subsequent films have all featured Japanese characters and in interviews (see Midnight Eye) he has distanced himself from being categorised as a Zainichi director. Instead, his films tend to feature characters who might best be described as either ‘rebels’ or more generally ‘marginal’ in difficult social circumstances. Thus in Villain, the two most sympathetic characters are perhaps Yoshino’s father and Yuichi’s grandmother – both of whom fight for their dignity and for their children (the grandmother has brought up Yuichi). Other adults fall more easily into social types who are uncaring and exploitative – and therefore potentially ‘villains’ in the scenario mapped out here. Of the four younger people, Yushino and the playboy are broadly drawn types, very easy to dislike and without too many redeeming features. Yuichi and Mitsuyo, by contrast, are quite complex characters and their relationship in the second half of the film is perhaps the best element in the film. (My feeling is that Mitsuyo might be a few years older than Yuichi and if so this is quite important.)

In the bar after the screening I casually mentioned that in many of the Japanese novels (mainly crime novels) I’d read and in several recent Japanese films, ‘youth’ is nearly always a ‘problem’ and inter-generational conflict is there in the narrative. This position was strongly attacked and it was suggested that perhaps this was just a function of the novels that came into English translation and the films that got UK screenings – in other words, was I guilty of a Westerner’s partial view of Japanese culture? Of course, that must be a possibility. I can’t claim to have read or seen even a fraction of what is produced in Japan, but what I have engaged with is often the most important in terms of box office and critical commentary. See, for instance, the No 2 film of 2010, Confessions. The reason I latch onto this potential reading (i.e. about ‘troubled youth’) is not to denigrate Japanese culture but because something similar has been a feature of both British and American literature/films at various times and because Japan offers an example of a rapidly ageing population profile. In fact, the ‘ageing of Japan’ is much faster than in any other advanced economy. I don’t necessarily agree with all the analyses of what this means for Japanese society, but it is a significant factor, especially in relation to the stresses of education and pressure to conform that seem to provide the narrative conflict for so many Japanese horror/high school/youth pictures etc. These themes are not directly applicable to Villain, but it is a film that makes you think.

UK trailer (which includes part of the scene where the victim’s father meets his daughter’s ghost at the site of the accident):

Films From the South #16: Final Thoughts

The Films From the South Festival closed on 16th October. I was there for the first five days out of eleven, so more of the festival actually took place after I left. Yet, I felt that I got a good overall view of how the festival worked.

One of the interesting aspects of Films From the South is the complete absence of Hollywood and any of the trappings of studio cinema. The only ‘stars’ on show are the directors of some of the key films in the programme. Oslo is a relatively small city and most of the festival venues are within walking distance of each other. The festival staff are mostly young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Festival director Lasse Skagen introduced many of the films himself. Overall, it’s a friendly and intimate celebration of the best of cinema from the South and I would recommend a visit to anyone interested in the diversity of film culture outside Europe and North America.

In the 15 posts that I made from the festival, there is one obvious omission – any films from Africa. There were in fact seven films in the programme listed as ‘African’ but for various reasons I couldn’t get to any of these screenings. Four of the seven were made by Europeans or Americans working in Africa, two were South African, one a documentary and the other an English-language action-comedy. The exception was Riva! (writer/dir Djo Munga, DR Congo 2010) the crime drama that has already been released in the UK. My observation is not intended as a criticism of the festival (or of European filmmakers working in Africa), but just recognition of the overall difficulty of getting access to popular films from across Africa faced by all festivals. The diversity of other films on show in Oslo is to be celebrated

The scene before the opening night of the festival at the Vika Cinema with a red carpet ready for the appearance of director Nadine Labaki to present 'Where Do We Go Now?'.

Awards

The Nadine Labaki film Where Do We Go Now? won the Audience Award, which was no surprise since it is a very audience-friendly film. The other awards went to films that I wasn’t able to see but I’ll definitely be looking out for. The prize for the Main Competition, the ‘Silver Mirror’ went to the Argentinan road movie Las Acacias (dir Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain 2011) – earlier this year it won the Camera d’or at Cannes. The FIPRESCI Critics prize for the best film in the New Horizons section went to On the Edge (dir Leila Kilani, Morocco/France/Germany 2011). Finally, the best documentary in the ‘Doc: South’ section went to Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (directors Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama, Egypt 2011) – clearly a timely choice that made an impact on the jury. It’s good to see that two out of the four prizes went to women.

I very much enjoyed my time in Oslo and thanks must go to Ingrid Stolpestad, Pia Jensen and Kristian Takvam for their help in getting tickets and answering my questions. I learned quite a lot about cinema in Norway during my stay so look out for some further postings.

Films From the South #15: Virgin Goat (Ladli Laila, India 2009)

Kalyan Singh (Raghubir Yadav) and his goat Laila

There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.

The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?

The political rally with Laila now a political symbol.

I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.

Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.

Films From the South #14: The Bengali Detective (UK/India/US 2011)

The team investigate a possible murder scenario by the railway tracks.

Part of the ‘Doc South’ strand of the festival, The Bengali Detective was perhaps the most enjoyable film that I watched during my festival visit, perhaps because it is set in Kolkata, a fascinating city that I visited in 2009. At its centre is the head of a ‘Detective Agency’, Rajesh Ji. British director Philip Cox had become aware of the rise of the private detective agency in India over the last few years and he saw this rise as a symptom of the widespread concerns by ordinary citizens about the ineffectiveness of local police forces. He met many other possible candidates for the central role of the detective in the film before settling on Rajesh and it is clear from the off that he chose well. Rajesh is massively engaging – enthusiastic, intelligent, well-organised, determined – and someone who seems to care both about doing a good job and looking after both his clients and his staff. But Rajesh also has his extravert side – leading his team in martial arts exercise classes and then entering them in a dance competition. He also has a difficult family situation because his wife is dangerously ill with diabetes and he fears for the future of his young son.

The documentary cuts between the home life of Rajesh, his time in the office as manager of the agency, his motivational work with his team and three investigations which the agency is following. We see raids on wholesalers and retailers dealing in counterfeit hair products, an investigation into the deaths of three young men, seemingly killed in a railway accident but claimed as a murder by a relative and finally a classic case of tailing a married man and the report of his extra-marital adventures to his wife. The three cases are well-chosen in that they represent the range of concerns of Kolkata’s residents. The middle-class wife is upset but needs to know the truth. Counterfeiting is a major problem in India. The relatively poor trader who is caught is perhaps more of a victim than a criminal but this kind of activity harms everyone and Rajesh needs the income from clients as important as the shampoo company. The murder investigation leads to a meeting with the police who listen to the careful presentation of the investigation carried out by the team but who clearly aren’t going to speed up their own painfully slow enquiries.

Philip Cox, like Pål Hollender in Finding Ali seen earlier in the Festival, is a European director who is clearly aware of what he is doing in representing South Asia. Unlike Hollander he doesn’t appear in his own film and he is supported by local filmmaker Sounak Chakravorty who he met via the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Kolkata. They were able to shoot with two cameras and this provided the kind of coverage of events that with tight editing gives a wonderful sense of street life in Kolkata. The film really bowls along seemingly at a frantic pace but I found it coherent and satisfying. Camerawork and music are both very effective. I’ve seen a criticism that the action cuts too quickly between the potential silliness of the dance sequences and the tragedy developing at home, but I don’t agree. I think Cox maintains a close observation that isn’t judgemental and is respectful of Rajesh who certainly seems sincere whatever he is doing.

The film has been very well received at various festivals including Sundance and in an unusual twist, the ‘rights’ have been bought by 20th Century Fox in order to produce a fictional ‘remake’. I’m sure that this must have happened before but it seems an odd development to me. I can’t imagine how a fictional detective’s story could quite top this documentary. The sales agent is eOne and Channel 4 have some money in the production, I think, so it should get a wide distribution and I imagine it will appear on TV in most territories – but I’d recommend it on a cinema screen. The print we saw was projected from HDCam and looked very good.

Official website

There is an interesting ‘Director’s statement’ on this site: Native Films (Production Company) Website

Trailer:

Films From the South #13: Interview with Eric Khoo

I met Eric Khoo the morning after the screening of Be With Me and Tatsumi. He proved to be an engaging character and generous with his time. Rather than a formal interview, we had a discussion based around a few prompts I made. He said that he was familiar with Japanese Cinema in the late 1940s (e.g. Kurosawa and Ozu) and that he was aware of how similar some of the scenes from Tatsumi’s manga were to scenes from the films of that period – in fact it was the cinematic quality of Tatsumi’s work which was one of the attractions for a filmmaker. When we discussed anime, Mr Khoo said that he wasn’t that impressed by most anime, even those from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, except for perhaps Princess Mononoke and Ponyo because they at least seemed to have some real drama. When I pressed him he agreed that there was certainly something to be said for Graveyard of the Fireflies (Takahata Isao, 1988, Studio Ghibli) in which we see the terrible impact of the fire-bombing of Kobe by the Americans towards the end of the war. Not surprisingly the boy in this film is shown in similar ways to Tatsumi as a young teenager only a few years later.

I suggested that Be With Me had been seen by some critics as reminiscent of the work of the Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsaio-hsien and we discussed how some elements of the film, such as the ‘presence’ of the dead wife, drew on aspects of Chinese culture that might not be easily accessible to Western audiences. I asked Mr Khoo if he felt like a filmmaker of the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and whether he felt connected to the industries in the Three Chinas. He answered this by saying that really he didn’t have that much connection with these industries. He recognised that the Taiwanese industry had revived a little recently but didn’t think that there were many opportunities yet and he said that he thought the Hong Kong industry was dead with all the main players moving towards mainland productions. Obviously the mainland industry is booming but he thought it was very difficult to break into Chinese distribution. He followed this up by commenting on the state of Japanese Cinema. He was quite pessimistic and suggested that only older people went to the cinema in Japan. On the whole he was more interested in what was happening in South Korea. Later he revealed that his wife was Korean and his daughter was fond of K-pop. I queried whether the hallyu (the Korean wave’ of media products sweeping across East Asia) wasn’t running out of steam. He assured me that it wasn’t and that the influence was everywhere.

At this point the conversation moved on to my second question: did he see himself as a ‘festival film’ producer or did he think that it was possible to move into commercial film distribution? I realised later, when I had done more research, that this was rather a naïve question since Eric Khoo is already established as both a festival name and a successful producer of films in Singapore, including genre pictures. He feels that currently in Singapore there is a real opportunity to build an industry. He referred back to the industry of the late 1940s–1960s in colonial Singapore and Malaya when the Shaw Brothers and later Cathay-Keris ran commercial studios that were Chinese-owned with Malay actors and Indian directors and technicians. Recently, changes in local tax regulations have encouraged Singapore-Malaysian co-productions (see my earlier posting on Chinese-Malaysian productions). There is now a strong production base in Singapore but with only a small population (5 million), commercial filmmaking is limited – but add in the growing Malaysian film market (within a country of 28 million) and commercial production looks viable. Eric Khoo’s production company Zhao Wei Films has just completed a ‘military horror’ film 2359 which Khoo has executive-produced. (Singapore has conscription for national military service and there are a number of local productions which reference this experience for all young males.) 2359 opens in Singapore and Malaya next month. Horror is one of the most popular genres in the region with both Thailand and Indonesia producing horror films, some of which are also shown in Malaysia. As well as acting as Executive Producer on commercial productions like this, Eric Khoo has also helped the other Singapore ‘name director’ on the festival circuit, Royston Tan, make his films through Zhao Wei. We reported on Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) by Boo Junfeng, another film exec-produced by Eric Khoo, from last year’s London Film Festival.

'My Magic', Eric Khoo's 2008 film features a Singapore Tamil character. It played later in the Films From the South Festival.

Singapore and Malaysia together constitute a film culture with three different language bases. Eric Khoo’s 2008 film My Magic features a central character from the Singapore Tamil community and it did receive a release of sorts in India – although it was difficult to organise. What seems clear though is that despite the enormous presence of India and China as major players, there is space for a regional industry in South East Asia and that it is possible to straddle the different worlds of the international festival circuit and the regional commercial market. It would be good though if filmmakers like Eric Khoo could get wider distribution deals for their festival films and via DVD and online were able to get local genre productions into more markets. Let’s hope that Tatsumi leads the way.