Monthly Archives: August 2012

Take This Waltz (Canada 2011)

Michelle Williams in TAKE THIS WALTZ, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So, my third ‘Best Movie of the Year’ and the score is Canada 2 Hong Kong 1 – I wouldn’t have predicted that in January. (See Monsieur Lazhar and A Simple Life.) Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. I was bowled over by writer-director Sarah Polley’s Away From Her in 2006 (and she acts as well – it isn’t fair is it?) and Michelle Williams is arguably the finest actor of her generation. In the space of a year she made Meek’s Cutoff, My Life With Marilyn and Take This Waltz. Three very different roles, all nailed with precision. I thought I also caught a trace of a Canadian accent in this one.

On the other hand, there appears to be a host of gainsayers for Take This Waltz. Reading reviews, user comments and bulletin board posts on IMDb reveals a tirade of, I’m guessing, mainly men, (possibly young American men?) and audiences generally who apply a moral stance on romance which seems to blind them to what is actually on the screen. Fortunately there are plenty of others who see the film more clearly for what it is. What it isn’t is a romantic comedy – not even an indie, ‘alternative’ rom-com. Instead it’s a romantic drama with some comic moments. It might be a melodrama but I need to think about that. I shed a tear in the last ten minutes but not a flood. Having never seen a Hollywood ‘bromance’ or indeed a Seth Rogen film before, I didn’t have the preconceptions that some audiences may have held. (Rogen, by the way, is Canadian and this was his first Canadian film.)

Outline

Michelle Williams is Margot, 28 years old in August 2010 and married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen). They are happy in their domesticity. She writes (after a fashion) and he, more specifically, writes cookbooks – entirely about cooking chicken. It’s an interesting premise. On the one hand the film is quite gritty and real about relationships – on the other it’s a romance fantasy taking place in a sweltering Toronto summer of primary colours. It’s quite tricky keeping these two ideas in play at the same time and that may be the reason that some audiences misread the film completely.

On a trip to Louisbourg in Nova Scotia to write notes for a tourist guide, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) who turns out to live across the street from her in Toronto. She’s never noticed him before, but she falls for him immediately. She and Lou love each other and they have an intimacy, but the passion has gone and they don’t talk to each other. There are other potential problems as well. Margot and Daniel clearly have an erotic charge between them. Will they allow it to become real rather than imagined? How will Margot deal with her relationship with Lou?

Margot’s world

The narrative focuses completely on Margot and Michelle Williams is hardly ever off the screen. She acts with every inch of her body and wears an array of shorts and sundresses that have been described as ‘vintage’ and ‘cutesy’. I’m no judge of fashion but they certainly look traditional. I’m not sure that they are flattering but they are oddly sexy in the way that she wears them. Her face is wonderfully malleable – and it’s shown as hot and sticky, embarrassed and happy and often stunningly beautiful. The care and attention given to the presentation of suburban ‘Little Portugal’ in Toronto and the mise en scène of Margot’s house is just as striking as the costume design. It’s matched too by the camerawork from Luc Montpellier (who also shot Away From Her) and the soundtrack of folk/indie/Americana. It’s a very affecting soundtrack – and strikingly Canadian, both in the origin of several tracks and the overall feel/tone. The film’s title is taken from a Leonard Cohen song based on the poem ‘Little Viennese Waltz’ by Federico Garcia Lorca and Polley has said that she played the song incessantly while developing her script for the film.

Commentary

There are many interesting aspects to the film, both in terms of how it creates meanings and the kinds of controversies it has created for different audiences. One such controversy is the nudity in a scene in which Margot and her sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) are showering after an ‘aquatic aerobics’ class. Sarah Polley shoots the scene mostly in long shot and both women are naked – as are the other women in the class, of different shapes and sizes and ethnicities, but mostly older. The bodies on display are those of ‘ordinary’, ‘real’, not Hollywood women, none self-conscious and all in different ways, beautiful. At one point Geraldine asks herself, out loud, “Why do I shave my legs, who is it for?” Another, older, woman comments that “What is new will become old.” All this seems to be part of the lesson that Margot isn’t learning (yet). It’s a crucial scene and not gratuitous. No one would bat an eye if it appeared in a European film but in puritan North America it may be a problem. There is a montage of sex scenes later in the film, again in long shot, but in the UK the film has been given a ’15’ Certificate which seems about right. IMDb shows that in Quebec and British Columbia the film is certificated 13 and 14 respectively, yet in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario (Polley’s home province) it’s an 18 and in the US it’s an ‘R’ .

The second ‘controversy’ appears to concern morality. Outraged commentators see Margot or Daniel decried as ‘marriage wreckers’ and characters with whom an audience can have no sympathy. Alternatively, Margot is ‘stupid’. I genuinely find these comments bizarre. The film is presumably not mainstream because, in fact, there are no good guys and no bad guys – and the ending of the film is ambiguous as to how Margot feels about what has happened. This is the strength of the film. Michelle Williams is so good at presenting Margot to us that we feel she is just like someone we know. OK, she still has plenty to learn about being in a relationship, but we all do at such a tender age. This is a great humanist movie – and probably a melodrama (music, coincidences, ‘excessive’ colours, use of symbols are all there – you’ll notice just how important the Buggles song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ is.) When Margot and Lou go out to the movies on their fifth wedding anniversary, they go to see arguably the most celebrated film in Canadian cinema – Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971). Ms Polley knows her cinema.

There is a ton of stuff on YouTube about the film including clips and interviews. This is the best trailer, I think:

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyun Han Chuanqui, China 1981)

Song Wei (Wang Fuli) and Feng Qinglan (Shi Jianlan) (right)

This melodrama by the great Chinese director Xie Jin was a big popular success in its home market in 1981 – but also a film criticised by younger critics and filmmakers as being old-fashioned. Xie was one of the major artists to attract the wrath of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution but this film goes further back in Chinese political history and tells the story of the wrong done to a ‘good man’ in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. (Xie himself in this interview says that he got a lot of positive feedback from audiences and the film didn’t cause any problems.)

The central character in the story is Song Wei, who as a young woman is part of a team sent to the remote Tianyun Mountain region in the mid-1950s to explore the development possibilities of the region. She works hard and gradually falls in love with a geologist, Luo Qun. Wei is then sent to a school for political officers in the Chinese Communist Party. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958 Luo is falsely accused along with another member of the team – both had tried to prevent mistakes being made in local projects. The local political chief Wu forces Wei to give up contact with Luo and she ends up marrying Wu and leaving the district. Twenty years later, Song is Wu’s deputy in the administration of the region, having recovered from persecution herself during the Cultural Revolution. A young woman approaches her with a story about Luo who eventually married Song’s close friend Feng Qinglan from the original team – one of the few people who stood up for him. Wei has lost touch with them but she reads a long letter from Qinglan and determines that the administration should finally bring Luo back from exile (in which he works as a cart driver). Her actions inevitably cause conflict with her husband but when she learns that Qinglan is ill she is determined to find her.

Qinglan takes a sick Luo Qun home to care for him.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that this is a film made in 1980. It feels more like a 1930s or 1940s melodrama. Modern audiences might find it difficult to take but I love 1940s melodrama and I revelled in the expressionist moments in the film. Xie uses all kinds of devices associated with classic melodramas from a rich musical score to violent weather, mirrors and smashed objects, ‘excessive’ editing transitions and so on. The narrative proceeds in long flashbacks as Wei learns about what has happened to Qinglan and Luo Qun. At one point they seem to speak to each other as Qinglan asks a question in the letter that Wei is reading and Wei answers out loud.

Although the story is ‘political’ in its attempt to show how important it is to re-instate those who have been falsely accused, Xie’s presentation of the story manages to weave the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ together, so Wu’s reluctance to reinstate Luo is to a significant extent fuelled by his fear about losing Song Wei to her former lover.

Everything I’ve seen by Xie suggests a director happiest telling women’s stories in a style he has made his own which marries classical Hollywood, socialist realism and Chinese melodrama traditions. You can view the whole film (the resolution isn’t great but it’s watchable) on this Chinese cultural agency website: http://video.chinese.cn/en/article/2009-10/09/content_72253.htm

A Simple Life (Tao Jie, Hong Kong 2011)

One of the most garlanded films from East Asia in 2011 has finally made it into UK distribution – and it immediately goes into my Top 10 of 2012 releases. A ‘simple tale’ this may be, but it is exquisitely made and packs a mighty punch both in the emotions it arouses and the subtle commentary it makes on contemporary Hong Kong society – and on the power of nostalgia. It’s a star-laden production from the leads to the cameo appearances and the creative talent behind the camera. Ann Hui is the doyenne of HK directors, Andy Lau is the superstar of Chinese cinema and Deanie Ip, a significant figure herself in the 1980s, has come out of retirement to win the acting prizes. The film looks terrific thanks to Yu Lik-wai (best known for his work with Jia Zhangke) and the minimal piano score by Law Wing-fai is perfect.

A Simple Life is in some ways a nostalgic film – or at least a film about how memories inform the last few months of a powerful relationship in a middle-class Hong Kong family. I recommend the film’s quite beautiful website with its explanation of the role of the amah in Hong Kong households. I’ve deliberately chosen the nostalgic poster above to illustrate this.

I take the amah to be a colonial legacy (similar to the ayah in India). The amah was a maid cum nanny, often recruited as a young teenager, who would pledge herself to a family in which she would gradually assume charge of the children as and when they were born. She wore a uniform of black pants and a white blouse. Under British colonialism, the amah would serve in both the coloniser’s homes and those of the local middle-classes. The bond between amah and child would be very strong and would carry through to adulthood. A Simple Life is based on the real world experience of producer Roger Lee. In Susan Chan’s script Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, the amah of Roger (Andy Lau), the last remaining Hong-Kong based member of a family in which his mother and siblings (now with children and later in the narrative, even grandchildren of their own) have migrated to California. Ah Tao has been ‘in post’ since she was a young teenager – over 60 years. Roger is an accountant in the film industry, often away on business. One day, on his return from Beijing, he discovers that Ah Tao, now his housekeeper, has had a stroke. He decides to acquiesce to her wish to retire and live in a care home and when she leaves hospital, he takes her to one that he has found, owned by an old and rather disreputable friend (played by the Hong Kong actor-director Anthony Wong).

Roger finds himself maintaining his close relationship, visiting Ah Tao and taking her out. Her decline is gradual but inexorable but in the process she develops relationships with several of the other residents in the home. The home itself isn’t too bad and it is in the local area that she knows and wants to remain in. Ann Hui chose the district herself as a location for the shoot. It is quieter than the more bustling streets well-known to film lovers. Hui was one of the pioneers of a form of social film with a realist aesthetic during the period of the Hong Kong New Wave in the early 1980s and A Simple Life feels very ‘located’. The film offers us a commentary on the realities of social welfare in Hong Kong and on the new system of ‘service’. Roger remains impassive when the charges for ‘escorts’ (the carers who take the residents out for hospital trips etc.) which clearly delineate the Filipinos, Mainlanders and ‘Foreigners’ etc. (I confess that I didn’t grasp all the details but the sociology is interesting). This is confirmed when we see the interviews for a new ‘maid’ to help out in Roger’s flat – the candidates are clearly not prepared to consider the kind of work the amah did. Status is important in Hong Kong and some of the funniest moments come when Roger, because of his casual clothes, is mistaken first as an air-conditioning maintenance man and then as a taxi-driver. In the home, Roger describes himself as Ah Tao’s godson. There is a whole discourse about service and social class bubbling beneath the surface of the exchanges in the home. The older residents probably recognise the real relationship but the younger staff and visitors take it at face value.

Deanie Ip and Andy Lau, the amah and her erstwhile charge, in a cafe eating steamed fish and vegetables.

The irony is that I’ve read that Andy Lau really is Deanie Ip’s godson (although she is only 14 years his senior). This and other relationships on the set infuse the film. Many of the actors and crew have worked together before dozens of times going back to Ann Hui’s earliest work. The directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung play versions of themselves. In an interview, Hui points out that most of the female leads in the film have won a Best Actress award. The film seems as much about validating and celebrating the history of Hong Kong cinema as it is about the amah system.

In the end, however, this is a family melodrama and when the whole family celebrate the first birthday of Roger’s great-nephew (a child who is now American-Chinese-Korean), I was forcibly reminded of scenes in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) and the stories of extended families coming together. A Simple Life uses both the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) as foci for the presence/absence of family and the importance of social interaction. Although the film is, I think, technically a melodrama, it is marked by the absence rather than the ‘excess’ of expressionism in music or mise en scène. Everything seems restrained and low-key – meticulous rather than colourless though. If there is excess it is in the detailed focus on rituals like cooking and eating. The emotional attachment between Roger and Ah Tao is expressed through the food they make for each other – and how they talk about it. Chinese culture surely revolves around the pot! When we discussed the film after the screening I think one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way in which Roger handled the inevitable death of his amah. How he behaved seemed to demonstrate a real difference between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese attitudes towards a ‘death in the family’. His actions seem far less sentimental than actions in a similar Western film – but they don’t detract from what we know is his deep emotional attachment to his amah. On the other hand, Deanie Ip says that she thinks Roger could have done more for his ‘Tao Jie’ and she feels it was a very difficult role for Andy Lau. I must see the whole film again, but especially the last third. I realise that there are large chunks of back story that are not explored – unless I missed a cue. Has Roger ever had a wife or a lover? How important was the heart surgery he had some time earlier? In many ways Roger seems like as much of an anachronism as Ah Tao in his flat with few of the accoutrements of modern living.

I’ve seen reviews of this film in the Western press which refer to its long running time (118 mins) and dismiss it as a ‘crowdpleaser’ for older audiences – i.e. not the kind of film to interest ‘real’ cinephiles. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a wonderful film that will reward attentive audiences.

Here’s a trailer with subs:

And a link to an interesting blog from Singapore remembering the amah in that culture.

Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Japan-Taiwan 2003)

Yoko and Hajime (centre) on one of several train journeys.

I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.

The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.

I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.

This is the ‘real’ railway shot that Mark Lee frames (more poetically) but even in this Creative Commons photo from Wikipedia it looks magical.

Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.

Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the child to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.

The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).

Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.

Contre toi (In Your Hands, France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna Cooper in her classy apartment

This is an odd little film finally getting a release in the UK, presumably based on the central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas – a major attraction for UK arthouse audiences. However, I’m not sure that word-of-mouth will make this a hit. The English title doesn’t help the film. ‘In Your Hands’, I realise is possibly a play on the phrase describing the responsibilities of a surgeon – ‘Your life in their hands’? Scott-Thomas plays Anna Cooper, a surgeon specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who is abducted one evening and kept in a locked room by a rather wild but very pretty young man. My limited French doesn’t run to idioms, but I’m guessing that the French title might translate as something like ‘Against You’. This would be a better title since the main narrative question is “How much ‘against’ her captor will Anna be?” or perhaps how close, literally ‘against’ him, she might become? (I read afterwards that the director did want the English title but its French translation had already been used.)

Writer-director Lola Doillon sets up these questions from the beginning since she first shows a frightened and bewildered Anna escaping from the house where she has been held and a little later sat in a police interview room seemingly telling her story in flashback. So we lose the suspense of whether the captor will murder Anna and instead we wonder about what kind of relationship might develop between the two since we remember the so-called Stockholm syndrome. The narrative does have a twist which I won’t reveal but I suspect many audiences will guess correctly. (The captor’s name, I understand, is the same as the person who first described the Stockholm syndrome.)

The narrative didn’t really work for me. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but it’s possible that some (female?) audiences will identify with Anna. There is an emphasis on her loneliness as a divorcée without children and seemingly few close friends. In terms of the male gaze, this does feel like quite an intimate film with Scott Thomas almost never off the screen. There is something almost erotic about her careful dishevelment. Somehow she still looks elegant and poised even after she has supposedly not washed or changed her clothes for a couple of days. I think the problem is more with her captor played by Pio Marmaï – the narrative would have worked better for me if he had been older and/or less pretty.

I suspect that my main interest in the film was as an example of French cinema’s seeming ease of access to directing for women as writer-directors. I’m not sure that this qualifies as ‘auteur cinema’ but it is a second film by Ms Doillon, whose parents are in the industry – her father is a director and also a teacher at FEMIS. I also read that she is married to the high-profile director Cedric Klapisch (who is thanked in the credits). With those kind of connections perhaps it is not too difficult to put together a budget. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the actors but I don’t think the script offers enough. The film is only 81 minutes long but it felt longer. It did in some ways remind me of a far more interesting film, À la folie… pas du tout (France 2002) with Audrey Tautou, written and directed by Laetitia Colombani – a director of a similar age whose second feature didn’t make it to the UK.

Circumstance (US/France 2011)

Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh (left) and Sarah Kazemy as Shireen

Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.

The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.

At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)

At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.

On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.

Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.

An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style: 

Fires On the Plain (Japan 1959)

Tamura decides to do without boots in one of the film’s lighter moments.

What is an ‘anti-war film’? A straightforward question perhaps if we accept that the single purpose is to promote the idea that war is always a bad thing. But that is in itself a contentious statement. Audiences often reject invitations to go along with a film’s perceived intention. They are more inclined to find their own pleasures in what is presented. It would be wrong too to think that there is only one kind of anti-war film. Fires On the Plain is one of several films I’ve considered for an event supporting the release of Nadine Labaki’s new film Where Do We Go Now?

Fires on the Plain is almost the polar opposite of the other famous anti-war film made by the husband-wife team of director Ichikawa Kon and writer Wada Natto. The Burmese Harp (1956) is a film which explores loss and defeat in Burma in 1945 but does so with optimism and humanism and which sees the possibility of Japanese soldiers returning home for a new life. Like the earlier film, Fires On the Plain is a literary adaptation, but this time the theme is the brutality of war and the ultimate degradation of the human spirit. It’s not an easy watch but its status on IMDB (with a score of 8.1) suggests that it continues to make an impression on audiences in North America. The DVD is not available in the UK and must be imported from Criterion in the US or Korea. The Criterion release has several ‘extras’ and an essay by Terry Rafferty on the label’s website.

Outline

The first few weeks of 1945, the last year of what the Americans term ‘The Pacific War’, see the Japanese occupation force of Leyte in the Philippines reduced to a rump by the much stronger American forces who are moving through the islands on their way to a possible invasion of Japan. The forlorn hope of the Japanese survivors is to reach the town of Palompon where a ship may be waiting for them. To get there they must march across rough terrain during the rainy season and avoid the Americans who occasionally attack but who are otherwise too busy preparing to move to other islands to bother too much about these soldiers ‘left behind’. We infer from what happens that the Japanese Occupation of Leyte had itself been brutal in the treatment of the local population who are now not going to help. Starvation is the likely outcome for the Japanese who scramble to find a few yams left behind in the fields after harvest.

The central character is Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji), a slightly older draftee who we see spurned by the hospital and by his own field commander. He has TB but the hospital has no room for him and his commander does not want another mouth to feed. He finds himself wandering towards Palompon, often alone but also meeting up with small groups of Japanese soldiers with the same intention. The film’s title refers to the pillars of smoke that Tamura often sees in the distance. He believes that they are smoke signals sent by Filipino guerillas and he avoids them. Other Japanese tell him that they are just fires lit by farmers to burn corn husks. By the end of the film we cannot be sure what it is that Tamura sees – or what sense he makes of it.

Commentary

I found the film quite difficult to get into at first, but gradually the narrative took hold. By the end it was difficult to tear myself away from the screen. Ironically, for all the brutality and degradation, the film is actually very beautiful. Shot in rich black and white ‘Scope by one of Ichikawa’s regular contributors Kobayashi Setsuo, it includes beautifully composed ‘figures in a landscape’ as well as close-ups of the ‘everyman’ face of Tamura. Funakoshi Eiji manages to be quite handsome, very miserable, bemused and tortured with equal facility. Ichikawa began his career as an animator and he was also interested in graphics. The strong visual imagery and especially the widescreen compositions are to be expected. (The landscapes were actually shot on the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo in a region used by Kurosawa for his jedaigeki films – but I was convinced this was the Philippines when I watched the film.)

As an anti-war film, Fires on the Plain raises several issues. It doesn’t explain the events which led up to the situation or offer us any kind of back story – there is no attempt to suggest who is ‘responsible’ for what happens. There is a suggestion that Japanese officers have perhaps a better chance of survival, but really we only see what happens to a group of Japanese soldiers – some individuated but others not. The Americans come out of the film quite badly I think with attacks on the straggling Japanese soldiers when they are clearly not a threat to anyone. Having said that we only see the Americans from the perspective of the Japanese (who, it is suggested, think that the Americans will always kill them rather than take prisoners).

The more inhuman the behaviour of the soldiers becomes the more ‘humanist’ is the effect of the film. In one famous sequence, Ichikawa offers us a darkly comic moment when one of the dead soldiers answers an aside by Tamura and this is followed by a little sketch in front of a static camera that borrows directly from Chaplin’s little tramp. Be warned though, things get much worse though a little later on. How much of what we see is ‘real’ and how much is the product of delirium and despair is for us to judge. The only hope that you can take away from a film like this is that somehow the human spirit will survive. But I think it is clear that war will charge a very high and unacceptable price to prove the point.

Checking the release of the film in the UK, I discovered it was a Compton release – a distributor associated with X Certificate films in the early 1960s. At that time Japan was the source of the ‘extreme’ cinema of the period (as it was again in the 1990s) and I’m reminded of the most gruesome, yet most humanist, war film I’ve seen, Masumura Yasuzo’s Red Angel (1966).

If we are going to have ‘canons’ of films that we recommend to students, I’d certainly place Fires on the Plain on that list. Here’s a tiny snippet to whet your appetite: