Daily Archives: October 14, 2011

Films From the South #11: Carancho (Argentine/Chile/France/S. Korea 2010)

Martina Gusmán and Ricardo Darin

Carancho is directed and part-written by Pablo Trapero whose 2002 film El bonaerense achieved a wide international release. It’s a mainstream crime thriller of the kind that Argentinian Cinema does very well and it stars the most recognisable Argentinian actor for international audiences, Ricardo Darin.

In Spanish, ‘carancho’ refers to various birds of prey and the obvious inference here is to vultures. Darin plays Sosa, a lawyer who has been driven to become in US terms an ‘ambulance chaser’ – someone who waits around for a motor vehicle accident and then tries to grab the business of any survivors or relatives who make a claim. According to some of the promo material there are around 8,000 deaths on Argentina’s roads each year. This is a staggering figure. As a comparison, the UK (admittedly one of the safest places in the world to be a road user) has less than 2,000 deaths from a larger number of road users – but the US is nearly as bad as Argentina. I mention this last point only because there is already discussion of a Hollywood remake.

The plot is fairly basic. Sosa seduces a new young doctor on the A&E team of the local hospital, Luján played by Martina Gusmán. She turns out to be not quite as innocent as she first appears. Sosa is in some ways a classic film noir male character – a good man forced to do bad things. He is trapped by the vicious system which allows crooked legal firms to cream off a fat commission on any compensation claim. He needs to find a way to break away from their stranglehold and this means doing some dirty deeds while still keeping Luján on side. I don’t really like medical dramas – especially the soaps set in casualty wards – and the only film I can think of that has some similar elements is Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), a good film but not very enjoyable to watch. I think I enjoyed Carancho more but I still averted my gaze from some of the gory bits.

The real question is why this film attracted investment from three co-production partners and a slot at Cannes in Un certain regard. It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller, with a downbeat ending, that is very well made but not that unusual/distinctive apart from the originality of the basic premise. I was intrigued to discover that Martina Gusmán was a producer before she was an actor and she is exec producer here. Her presence and that of Darin helps to lift the film, but I’d still put it alongside French polars such as the two Fred Cavayé films Pour elle (2008) and À bout portant (2010), the first of which has already been re-made. Such films have an originality in ideas that Hollywood needs to feed on. What will Hollywood need to change about Carancho? Probably it will need to make the ending more upbeat and the characters less seedy. A studio will also have to find an actor/star who can do what Darin does so effortlessly – sleaze plus sex appeal with several beatings to withstand and that little pot belly. He’s a great role model for middle-aged men!

YouTube trailer for the US market:

Films From the South #10: The Journals of Musan (Musanilgi, South Korea 2010)

Seung-chul (Park Jung-bum, right) meets the dog who will become his companion.

The quality of films coming out of South Korea continues to be very high. When I read the festival’s blurb on this title I did wonder if it was really a good idea to watch it as the last film of three in an evening session. But around ten minutes in I’d forgotten about my reservations. Park Jung-bum is the writer, director and lead actor in a bleak tale about a North Korean defector (from Musan) trying to survive in Seoul. The film is over 2 hours long and it’s his first feature. But Park was previously an assistant on the much acclaimed Poetry and some of that film’s magic has certainly brushed off onto his own début.

Jeon Seung-chul finds himself sharing a small apartment literally on the edge of Seoul (there is a ‘demolished village’ next to the apartment) with a rather more ‘worldly-wise’ defector, Kyoung-chul, who has already settled into the capitalist culture of the South. Seung-chul struggles to earn a living fly-posting but is physically attacked by rivals, whereas Kyoung-chul has developed a lucrative racket in charging other defectors from the North large sums to send money home via his uncle in China. Seung-chul’s attempts to get a better job are thwarted by the giveaway of his North Korean identity which comes from the ‘125’ code in his South Korean ID number. His only relief from the misery of work and the inhospitable apartment is his visits to a church where he develops an interest in an attractive young woman in the choir – who he doggedly follows across the city.

As my brief plot outline reveals, this is essentially a neo-realist idea with the two obvious references being Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. The former provides the hopelessness of the struggle for a proper job – often a process of one step forward and one step back. Like the old man in Umberto D, Seung-chul also seeks company from a dog – in this case a very appealing puppy. The neo-realist narrative idea is matched by a strictly functional camera style (shot on HD video).  Any danger of sentimentality is avoided by making Seong-chul a very human figure, someone who is sullen and stubborn as well as honest and hardworking. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot development so suffice to say, things go wrong for Kyoung-chul as well as Seung-chul and in the last third of the film there is more action and an important revelation about Seung-chul’s past in the North. Seung-chul eventually meets the woman at the church and for a moment I was worried that he was going to find ‘salvation’ as a church member. (I’ve no animosity towards organised religion as such, but the idea of ‘redemption’ in this scenario threatened to undermine everything that had gone before.) But this doesn’t happen and the woman proves to be as false and self-centred as most of the other characters that Seung-chul meets.

There is a very annoying programme on UK Radio 4 called ‘The Moral Maze’ in which moral questions are explored by a panel of ‘experts’. I’d like to sit them down in front of this film. Its humanism poses very difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. Seung-chul is not a ‘hero’ as such in the narrative. But it’s difficult not to feel for him and then to question yourself about how you might react if you met him. If you do manage to see the film, have a look at the various reviews and they will give you a flavour of what Park Jun-bum has stirred up in his representation of a character and a situation based, I think, on real events.

I hope the film gets a wide international release and I noted that its Korean backer is the same company, Fine Cut, which was involved in co-producing the Argentinian film Carancho. The character behind Fine Cut, Suh Young-joo has a long history in the South Korean industry and the new company is emerging as an interesting player in the international market for smaller independent films.

Trailer for The Journals of Musan:

Films From the South #9: About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran 2009)

The crucial moment in the narrative . . . when Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) flies a kite.

About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?

From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.

I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?

Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).

The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.

Shooting the scene featured at the head of this posting.

Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).

Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)

Trailer with English subs: