Monthly Archives: February 2013

You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai, Taiwan 2011)

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Why don’t we see more Taiwanese popular cinema? Most cinephiles in the West at least know about Taiwanese New Cinema and its highest profile auteurs from the 1980s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. The more adventurous know Tsai Ming-liang but after that we are stumped. Cornerhouse in Manchester has come to our rescue. They have previously shown one of the more recent Taiwanese blockbusters Cape No. 7 and last week, as part of the Chinese Film Forum programme, they showed You Are the Apple of My Eye. Felicia Chan, one of the organisers of the forum, gave a ‘1 hour intro’ before the screening which provided some useful preparation for the screening.

Taiwanese cinema has seen an upsurge since the mid-2000s for a number of reasons. I suspect that part of the reason must be the relative decline in Hong Kong popular cinema and the emergence of mainland Chinese popular cinema – which now seems more open to other films from ‘Greater China’ – but with certain provisos. There is certainly a greater ‘exchange’ of films between all the East Asian film industries and You Are the Apple of My Eye has broken box office records across the region, with significant audiences in Hong Kong, the PRC and Singapore as well as at home. I’m not surprised by this, but my own inclination is to place the film in the context of the success of South Korean films in the region. The film I was most reminded of was My Sassy Girl, the smash hit romcom from 2001 that found eager audiences throughout East and South-East Asia, prompting at least five remakes, sequels or alternative versions in China, Japan, India and the US. I’m not sure the Taiwanese film is as wildly original but it is similarly appealing and with careful handling might succeed outside East Asia. The biggest problem might be that because the film approaches genre repertoires such as the high school film, teen romance etc. in rather different ways than standard Hollywood fare it will be misunderstood. I think it helps if you have a good grounding in East Asian teen horror/romance films or anime/manga.

The first resemblance to My Sassy Girl comes in the source material – an autobiographical novel. Giddens Ko, the director, has adapted his own novel and set the film in the high school he attended. He’s now in his thirties, I think and the film’s action spans 1995-2005. This already signifies an approach to the material very different to Western youth pictures which invariably focus on the final year, or even term/semester of a student career. The story is told in flashback beginning with preparations for a wedding and going back to high school at 16. We then meet five teenage boys, each delineated by a personal trait and two girls, the class ‘honours student’ and her best friend. Although only one boy, the author’s character, has any family seen onscreen, this is still a collective narrative – all the characters are still there ten years later. The other interesting feature is the inclusion of a real-life event, the earthquake of September 1999 (in which over 2,000 Taiwanese died). This reminded me of Aftershock (China 2010). Most of the East Asian films of this kind that I’ve seen focus on the young women, so it is interesting to see the five young men at the centre. There are a lot of masturbation jokes (or what in the Uk would be ‘knob jokes’) which all seem rather sweet instead of being offensive – partly because they aren’t used to denigrate women as sometimes happens in Hollywood’s ‘gross-out’ comedies. (These scenes reminded me of Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001).)

But I guess the central interest of the film and the main reason for its popularity is the long up and down romance between the central character and the ‘honours student’, well-played by Michelle Chen. I won’t spoil the narrative – suffice to say it’s affecting and the film’s resolution is not predictable. This romance was much less weird than the South Korean model in My Sassy Girl, but it pursued the same kind of romanticism. It was believable and I can understand why whole families in Taiwan have enjoyed the film, as Felicia pointed out in her intro.

You Are the Apple of My Eye was screened on an immaculate CinemaScope print with decent subs and it looked very good. I enjoyed it and would happily watch more. I hope Cornerhouse have less difficulty next time prising a print out of 20th Century Fox – and can somebody bring these films to the UK on a full distribution deal please?

Fox trailer with English subs:

Kai po che (India 2013)

(from left) Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Omi (Amit Sadh)

Why do Bollywood distributors make no attempt to sell their films to audiences outside the South Asian diaspora? Kai po che as a title doesn’t mean anything if, like me, you don’t know Hindi. I’ve learned since from a review that the title is “the war-call uttered during kite-flying in Gujarat”. The film is based on a novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, by Chetan Bhagat. I’ve read Bhagat’s five novels and enjoyed them all (his publicists promote him as the biggest-selling English language novelist in India) and I would have been immediately drawn to this film. Not only that but it is an Indian cricket film. Fortunately, sheer chance meant that I read a review so off I went to Cineworld without a second thought.

Kai po che is adapted and directed by Abhishek Kapoor, whose previous success was Rock On!, a film I found to be ‘OK’ but which I know was very popular in India. (Weirdly, Kai po che is exactly the kind of movie I said that I wanted to see rather than more Rock On!s.) With Kapoor and Bhagat as attractions the film has been eagerly anticipated in India, even though there are no major stars in the film. As far as I can see it is proving to be a winner of sorts after only a couple of days on release.

The story is set in Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat. It spans a period of ten years or more and the film narrative is mostly concerned with a flashback to 2000-2. Three young men are attempting to set up a retail business. Govind the maths genius is the sensible one, Ishaan the cricketer is the dreamer and Omi is the one with contacts – notably his uncle who is a local Hindu nationalist politician and the controller of the local temple properties. He agrees to lease the trio a shop space. The narrative drive comes from the different aims of each of the three leads – which represent the alternative goals/dreams of middle-class Indian men: success in business, politics or sport. (The importance of family is, of course, central to the plot.) Govind wants to make a success of the business, but he also falls for Ishaan’s sister Vidya, who he is attempting to tutor in maths. Omi finds himself, against his will, sucked into supporting his uncle’s political ambitions. Ishaan at first is unenthusiastic but then very taken by the amazingly talented 12 year-old Ali who comes to play cricket at the shop’s nets and eventually to accept Ishaan as a coach (Ishaan has played cricket at ‘district level’). This relationship will be one of the triggers for a crisis in the narrative, since Ali’s father is a political campaigner for the local Muslim party in opposition to Omi’s uncle. There are two other major dramatic events which will threaten the strong relationship between the three young men, the prospects for their business and the future of Ali as one of India’s great cricketers – but I won’t spoil the plot.

Amrita Puri as Vidya

Amrita Puri as Vidya

The adaptation changes the original story in several ways. One whole section is removed and some of the outcomes are attached to different characters. Chetan Bhagat is credited as one of the scripting team so I assume that he approves (whereas his relationship to 3 Idiots is more contentious). The excluded section is the trip the trio make to Australia but that would have been an extra budget cost and it isn’t essential to the story. Bhagat’s presentation of his stories is quite unusual – more like the idea of short stories being ‘told’ to an audience – in his case told to the real-life novelist Chetan Bhagat. This prologue and epilogue device has been cut and overall the narrative has been streamlined and made more ‘feelgood’. I’d have liked to see the original story on screen but I understand why it has been changed in this way. The pluses still remain. The three central characters are quite ‘real’/ordinary middle-class young men and it’s good to see a different city environment (beautifully presented). The performances are very good and the direction and editing deliver an engrossing and coherent narrative drive in just over two hours (running times vary in reviews but the UK certification agency says no cuts in the 125 mins). There is only one ‘song sequence’ – a day out on the coast when the three young men have a ‘bonding session’, including a leap off a cliff into the sea, possibly the only really cheesy moment in the film. I can’t really comment on the rest of the music in the film, which I confess I didn’t really notice.

Ali, the cricket prodigy, (centre) played by Digvijay Deshmukh alongside Amit Sadh as Omi

I think this is going to be an affectionately-remembered film in India and it adds one more title to the emergence of a new kind of popular cinema which is more realist, more interested in social issues, but still ‘popular’ in appeal. If you are close to a multiplex I’d urge a visit – why not avoid the tedium of the Oscars and go see something more interesting?

Rave review in The Hindu

Hitchcock (US 2012)

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlet Johannsen (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Hitchcock. It isn’t any kind of rigorous analysis of the man or of filmmaking as a process and it has one major miscalculation in the script from my perspective. But for what it is – essentially a romantic comedy drama (definitely a Hitchcock category) about a long-married couple – I think it works very well and I laughed many times as well as once feeling quite emotional. In other words, my reactions were rather different to those I experienced with The Girl.

Hitchcock is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. The book was published in 1990 and it has taken 12 years to get to the screen. The film focuses on the marriage of ‘Hitch’ and Alma Reville and his struggle to make the film that he wanted to make for his own artistic reasons – but which eventually turned out to be his biggest money-spinner. Scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin sticks fairly close to what I assume is the material from the book except for two inventions. The first is a recurring nightmare that Hitchcock has about Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the real life model for Robert Bloch’s story of Psycho. There was too much of this for me and I think the idea of Gein ‘haunting’ Hitchcock could have been done differently and certainly more economically. Secondly, McLaughlin invents a close writing relationship between Alma and the screenwriter Whitfield Cook. Cook did indeed have a relationship with the Hitchcocks and in the 1940s he wrote an unsuccessful Broadway play in which Patricia Hitchcock featured as a teenager. In 1949-50 he worked at various times with Alma on the scripts for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These are the last two mentions he gets in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I don’t think it really matters that McLaughlin resurrected Cook as a ‘player’ in 1959. I take it that Alma was having one of what I suspect were many little spats with Hitch and that Cook is offered here as a diversion for her before she gets back on board with Psycho.

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

My feeling is that the film was very well cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as respectively Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are very good. All the other supports are good too especially Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s PA and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Hopkins, for me, ‘inhabits’ Hitch more successfully than Toby Jones – but then the script is more friendly than in The Girl. It requires Hopkins to be more playful and he enjoys himself. The crunch for most audiences will come with Helen Mirren’s performance as Alma. Clearly, she is too tall and too glamorous. I’m not intending to  be mean to Alma, but in 1960 women over 60 rarely looked as svelte as Ms Mirren. Several people have echoed the line about Mirren suddenly becoming (her best-known character) Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect whenever she has to act decisively. I can see this, but I have to be honest and say that it didn’t occur to me at the time. I accepted that she was Alma and I’m pleased that she was seen to contribute so much to the production of Psycho. Everything I’ve read suggests that Alma was a very bright woman who knew the industry well. I was pleased to hear the dialogue line when she reminds someone that when Hitchcock started working in the industry, he was her junior. I was able to forget that Mirren didn’t look like Alma and I enjoyed her verbal exchanges with Hopkins.

The real problem is not with the film but with the distribution and promotion and the audience expectations. In the US this was a ‘small film’ with a budget of $15.7 million (I’m using this Hollywood Reporter article for background). It was given a limited platform release in November 2012, presumably to have a stab at Oscar nominations. It only managed one technical nomination but Mirren and Hopkins got acting noms from several other awards panels. In the UK, however, it got a full ‘saturation’ release to all multiplexes – a big mistake in my view since I think this is a conventional genre film skewed towards older audiences who will probably be entertained much as they have been by other titles with similar ingredients. I was more entertained by this than by The King’s Speech or The Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hitchcock has got little to offer to audiences under 35 and many of the references in the parts dealing with Paramount in 1960 will mean nothing. Does anybody under 50 remember much about Jerry Lewis now?

The major problem that the producers had, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, is that they couldn’t use any material from Psycho itself because Universal, who own the rights (Psycho went to Universal when Hitchcock joined Lew Wasserman in buying a stake in the studio following MCA’s purchase) refused to have any dealings with the Hitchcock production. This was because Patricia Hitchcock, who still controls the Hitchcock estate, didn’t want to support a film about her parents. Universal still have an interest in some of Hitchcock’s best-known films and didn’t want to offend his daughter. All Hitchcock’s TV shows had been made for Revue Studios, owned by MCA and subsequently part of Universal. All of this means that Hitchcock is ‘light’ on many aspects of the filmmaking process in those Revue Studios where Psycho was shot. Consequently, the film will probably disappoint hardcore fans. But if you just want to watch something entertaining, I think the film is fine. I should mention the director Sacha Gervasi, a Brit previously known for directing the heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Canada 2008). I thought he supported his actors well and the film looks good in what Jeff Cronenweth has referred to as a bright Technicolor look created by shooting on a ‘RED Epic’ digital camera.

Chinese Film Forum, Manchester January 2013

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on 'Inseparable': The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on ‘Inseparable’: The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

The Chinese Film Forum was established in Manchester in 2009 as a research network involving the universities of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford, the Chinese Art Centre , the Confucius Institute and Cornerhouse Cinema. The network is supported by a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The second symposium entitled: ‘The Creation and Circulation of Chinese Identities in and through Cinema’ was held at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester on January 29-30 with an associated screening of Memories Look at Me (China 2012) by Song Fang at Cornerhouse. (Just as good on a second viewing.)

The first symposium in March 2012 had covered the distribution and exhibition of Chinese and Asian films in the UK. I thought it was a very successful event generating plenty of discussion and I signed up for the second event without any hesitation. The programme this time included a total of 24 papers arranged in 9 panels. In the event, one presenter had to withdraw but the panels seemed to form themselves into quite logical groupings of papers in the main. The keynote paper at the end of the first day was delivered by Chris Berry (Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London). He stayed on to introduce the film screening and to contribute to discussions the following day.

With so many papers, I’m not going to attempt to report on them all, but an overall comment would be that compared to last year’s symposium this one was more wide-ranging, raising several different issues. However, because of the structure of the panels and the good organisation of the event, each panel produced a focused discussion and there was a clear sense of extending the reach of Chinese film studies rather than simply hopping from one issue to another. As one of the Forum’s leaders, Felicia Chan of the University of Manchester remarked, it was good to see that the participants had selected areas of research that stretched far beyond previously safe areas such as the work of auteurs well-known in the international film market. So, I found myself jotting down film titles and actors/directors to investigate further that ranged from stars of popular mainland cinema to Tibetan and Korean directors working in China, Chinese-American and Italian films (with Chinese characters) and popular Taiwanese films.

Chris Berry’s keynote explored ideas about female characters who are trapped between tradition and modernity – the ‘double bind of modernity’. His starting point was a Paul Willemen paper ‘Detouring through Korean cinema’ (included in The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader edited by Chen Kuan-Hsing and Beng Huat Chua, Routledge 2007). In the paper Willemen reflects on his time in South Korea in 1997 and his attempts to understand what he calls ‘blockage’ in Korean culture (i.e. the struggle over ideas about ‘modernity’ and whether resolving this problem could help South Korean Cinema to become more successful in a global context). He then tried to relate this to the propensity for many South Korean films of the 1970s and 1980s to end in freeze frames – literally preventing characters from ‘moving forward’. Berry stressed the importance of comparative film studies and suggested that it would be useful to ask why Chinese films don’t end in freeze frames. He observed that a woman in a ‘public space’ is an image of ‘modernising China’. He then traced back representations of female figures representing the possibility of modernity to Cai Chusheng’s New Women (1935) with Ruan Lingyu in the lead role. He introduced a range of contemporary films, none of which I have seen unfortunately but some I will certainly look up. I confess that I missed aspects of this analysis, partly because I was reflecting on some of the other points that Chris Berry made. For example, à propos of narratives about single women in urban China, Berry suggested that a third of the huge Chinese work force could now be considered ‘mobile’. In her closing remarks Felicia Chan said that Chris Berry had been the perfect guest speaker and indeed it was impressive how during each panel discussion he asked questions, made observations and afterwards was generally accessible to delegates. I’m sure that this was useful for many of the younger film scholars presenting their papers.

I found all the panels useful, but I’ll just comment on two or three that really piqued my interest. I picked up several ideas about contemporary mainland filmmaking and questions of control and censorship. Chris Berry pointed out that 50% of Chinese films are now privately-funded but enter the mainstream film industry via the state censors whereas the other 50% avoid/evade (?) the censor and presumably find other means of distribution. He also suggested that a commercial film like Feng Xiaogang’s World Without Thieves could virtually cover its production costs through product placement. I had noticed the prevalence of Western brands in recent Chinese films but I wasn’t aware of how widespread, or how lucrative, product placement was. I’m also grateful to Anthony McKenna for an insight into the importance of Han Sanping, the Chair of the state-controlled China Film Group, who wields considerable power as the ‘middle-man’ of Chinese film. Han is able to make links between government and commercial filmmakers in terms of the blockbusters that constitute the contemporary version of a ‘main melody film’. McKenna’s paper focused on the films made since the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a period in which censorship has tightened with pressure on possible dissenters and when ‘historical event blockbusters’ have attempted to create consensus in the domestic market. Han has had a crucial role in the production of films such as The Founding of the Republic (2009) and also in attempting to ensure that these films engage international audiences and project ‘acceptable’ forms of ‘Chineseness’ overseas.

One issue that popped up in discussion during more than one panel was the ‘categorisation’ of ‘Chinese’ films. I was a little surprised by what seemed to be a passionate debate about whether particular films could be called ‘Chinese’. This occurred during Corrado Neri’s fascinating discussion of Inseparable (China 2011) – a film written and directed by Dayann Eng, a Chinese-American who trained in the US but then went to Beijing and has so far made three films in China. Inseparable is a ‘comedy drama’ about a young man (played by Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu) who fantasises about helping people with his ‘superpowers’. He finds a mentor in the form of a mysterious American played by Kevin Spacey. Wholly financed and produced in China, the film has both English and Mandarin dialogue. I would say that this was a Chinese film and I’m intrigued that anyone would want to categorise it differently – but then it is precisely the kind of filmmaking that this blog is interested in.

Hui M. Chan presented a paper entitled ‘Limehouse and its Haunted Nostalgia’ which considered representations of Chinese characters and Chinese communities in early and silent cinema. This included work on the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong who arrived in the UK in the late 1920s and featured in Piccadilly (UK 1929). The presentation asked us to think about films that were “about us, but not for us”. I was intrigued by the references to British cultural life in the 1910s and 1920s and in particular the promise of what work on Chinese representations in the UK might uncover. I was also reminded of the important discussions in the previous symposium about the difficulties faced by Chinese-British filmmakers.

Other panels discussed films and aspects of production that I have not previously had access to. One such panel discussed popular film in Taiwan so I’m pleased to be able to flag up that the next offering from the Chinese Film Forum will be a special screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester of You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu ha, Taiwan 2011) showing to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film (a teen ‘coming-of-age romance’) will be preceded by a ‘One hour intro’ to Popular Taiwanese Cinema by Felicia Chan.

The Chinese Film Forum will be holding a conference in the Autumn – so look out for announcements, or better still subscribe to the forum here.

Many thanks to all the organisers of the Forum, including Felicia Chan, Andy Willis (University of Salford) and Robert  Hamilton (Manchester Metropolitan University), to all the panellists and chairs and to our hosts the Chinese Arts Centre.

Five Broken Cameras (Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands 2012)

The 'no-man's land' where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

The ‘no-man’s land’ where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

Five Broken Cameras is an engaging and well-made documentary. It’s affective in making us feel the emotions of the filmmaker who was compelled to complete it and it deserves the praise it has received and the audience interest it has attracted. The events it portrays are shocking and in a civilised world they would be one of the catalysts for change. But we don’t live in a civilised world and as yet there seems little sign that enough people in a position to change things have the courage to carry out changes.

Five Broken Cameras is a certain kind of documentary and that may also be part of the problem – though it shouldn’t necessarily be so. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The cameras of the title were each used by a Palestinian farmer to document the theft of his land by Israeli settlers illegally occupying territory in the West Bank to the west of Ramallah from 2005 onwards. The film doesn’t attempt to fill in all the history or to run through all the questions surrounding the Occupation of Palestine and the building of settlements which contravene international law as well as being (as in this case) illegal under Israeli law. Instead, it appeals directly to the viewer in terms of the obvious suffering of the Palestinians when they try to resist the bulldozers which uproot their olive trees and the Israeli soldiers and police who attack them with tear gas, arrest them and occasionally kill them during attempts to squash their protests.

Emad Burnat, the farmer at the centre of the film and the co-director (as well as the principal cinematographer, using the five cameras) was himself wounded and arrested and recorded the arrest of each of his brothers and the death of one of his comrades in the village during their protests. The co-director, writer and co-editor of the film is Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who trained partly in Paris and who lived in the Palestinian village of Bil’in for three months in 2005 when Emad began filming. But just as the film doesn’t elaborate on the history and politics of the situation, it also doesn’t explain/explore the Israeli support for the village protests – i.e. the Israeli activists who fight against the Occupation. They are shown and occasionally referenced but not in any detail. The same goes for the international supporters who travelled out to the West Bank to show solidarity. I’m not suggesting that there is anything sinister in this, but that it adds to the overall feeling that this is a very ‘personal’ film about a man and five cameras (each of which is damaged during the filming or deliberately smashed by Israeli soldiers). I suspect that this ‘personal’ approach has helped the film reach a wider audience, especially in North America, and it has been nominated for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Oscars. What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.

Emad states at the beginning of the film that he is a ‘fella’ – a peasant attached to his land. The rough land which supports only olive trees and a few sheep/goats has been the property of the families in the village since before anyone can remember. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees or the sheer vandalism of setting the trees on fire, even before the barbed wire has staked out the land grab by the settlers, is contrasted with the almost comical tree-hugging of one of the villagers. This is one of the most affecting shots in the film. The destruction of Palestinian olive groves is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Occupation alongside the Dividing Wall.

The one absolute plus of the film is that it celebrates the resistance over five years of the whole community in Bil’in. I’m sure that’s what stayed with the sizeable audience in the cinema. I hope the film wins the Oscar, if only because that will help more people to see the film. The more exposure that these stories get, the more chance we have of putting pressure on the Israeli government. There is one scene in the film in which we watch someone from the Israeli security forces deliberately shoot a protestor in the leg from only a few yards away. I wonder if the offender was brought to justice?

Above the Street and Below the Water (Over gaden under vandet, Denmark 2009)

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Missing Borgen already and need a fix of Sidse Babett Knudsen? This UK DVD release offers an enjoyable family melodrama with a star-studded cast and some comic scenes. It’s presented in CinemaScope framing and acts as an almost ‘real estate porn’ promo for life on the Copenhagen waterfront. The strange title refers to the close proximity of three couples living around one of the more attractive canals in Copenhagen city centre.

Sidse Babett Knudsen is Anne, an actor preparing for a performance as Ophelia in a new production of Hamlet in the waterfront theatre. She is married to Ask (Nicolas Bro – the Justice Minister in The Killing 2). The marriage isn’t going well and he is having an affair with Bente (Ellen Hillingsø), a drama critic separated from Bjørn (Anders W. Berthelsen – the shipping magnate in The Killing 3). Bjørn is now drinking away his time and living on his boat moored on the canal where he is overlooked by Charlotte (Ellen Nyman) who works as a counsellor and who is currently listening to Anne and Ask fight  through her sessions. Charlotte is married to Carl (Nils Ole Oftebro), the director-manager of the theatre where Anne is to perform her Ophelia. Carl appears to be a ‘serial shagger’ of any passing woman who might be amenable. As well as these interconnections, the children of Anne and Ask and Bente and Bjørn are also in contact – and are seemingly more ‘sorted’ than their parents.

I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s slight but has several redeeming features, not least the chance to see Sidse Babett Knudsen in a very different role. She is flustered, forgetful and liable to lose it. She’s also 10lbs overweight and unable to get into her dress as Ophelia and she looks positively ‘raddled’ – a far cry from the perfect Birgitte in Borgen. She’s also brilliant. (Her son in the film is played by the very young Emil Poulsen who repeats the role so successfully in Borgen). All the cast are very good and the director Charlotte Sieling (with plenty of experience directing episodes of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen) makes sure it moves at a good pace. I’d starting watching it late at night thinking I’d just fit in the first 30 minutes – but I watched the whole film because I got caught up in it. If you don’t like the intertwining narratives of soap opera or the coincidences of melodrama, this won’t be for you – but plenty of us do and this is a very good example of the genre. It’s definitely worth seeking out on rental or download.

What Richard Did (Ireland 2012)

Richard (Jack Reyner) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Richard (Jack Reynor) and Lara (Roísín Murphy). photo © Element Pictures

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what Richard did, but actually the film is about what happened afterwards. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is set amongst the gilded youth of a South Dublin middle class community (or should that be upper-middle-class?). In the summer before he starts university, Richard seems to have it all. He’s been one of the stars of the rugby team at a prestigious school. His parents own a beach house in Co. Wicklow and he drives his own Golf. He’s the leader of his group and in some ways a ‘father figure’ at 18, looking out for younger guys (and girls) – he’s the kind of guy who can reassure other guys’ parents. If their son or daughter is with Richard, they’ll be fine. But when Richard meets Lara, he starts to change.

What Richard Did is a taut and suspenseful study of one young man’s summer and the effects of a moment of madness – which in itself is almost banal in its familiarity in a film involving 18 year-old boys. Far more sinister is what happens afterwards and the way in which privilege allows characters to erase certain kinds of social distress and to ‘move on’. On the other hand, human compassion probably means that we don’t want Richard to have to live with what he has done. We are more likely to be wishing for a way out, no matter how complicit that might make us feel. The film is very much about social class, but the early indications of the potential damage that class difference can create are presented in quite subtle ways. Later, when the boys of the rugby team ‘bond’ by singing the school song in a formal setting it is very disturbing. One review mentioned the omerta, the ‘code of silence’ in Southern Italy and that seems a good call, except that there is no ‘community’ as such to fall back on.

Lenny Abrahamson has already proved himself as adept in creating important fictions about different sectors of Irish society in Adam & Paul and Garage. What Richard Did is just as good as the earlier films. So far I’ve only come up with two slight problems. As in Garage, there is a narrative moment early in the film that you later realise has hinted at the narrative dénouement. This is a feature of Hitchcockian thrillers and the like and there is nothing wrong with it – in fact it can add immeasurably to the pleasure of unpicking the narrative to see how these ‘pre-markers’ fit in. But What Richard Did otherwise doesn’t seem that kind of film. Abrahamson’s skill seems to be in creating a narrative that is open to several different forms of interpretation rather than being some kind of puzzle game. My second complaint is purely practical. For the first twenty minutes or so I had great difficulty following the dialogue. Later in the narrative, the problem faded away. Perhaps my ear gradually tuned in? More likely, the language register changed. The screenwriter Malcolm Campbell attempted to go for the most authentic representation of the speech of these South Dublin teens after sitting in Starbucks with them and jotting down words and phrases during his research. As an Irish student blog puts it:

[The film’s] only flaw on the international table is its huge dependency on south-sider and Dublin slang. It’s brilliant and fits the film, but it keeps it anchored to the island.

The film has been sold in Europe where it will be subtitled and I wish I’d had the benefit of subs. I understood the tone of the exchanges between characters in the early scenes but I missed the nuances and therefore I didn’t pick up on the development of Richard’s interest in Lara and its repercussions as quickly as I would have liked. But in a way, my struggle to hear the dialogue is in keeping with other aspects of Abrahamson’s approach. He gives very little background on Richard’s family and none on Lara’s or those of Richard’s other friends. We do get to meet Richard’s father played by Lars Mikkelsen, but the Danish side of the family isn’t explained as such (Richard’s family name is Karlsen). Mikkelsen’s father is a mysterious character and his performance adds to this in a pivotal scene in which he talks to his son in a way that we guess he hasn’t done before. I’ve seen one negative review of the Mikkelsen casting, but everyone else has praised it. His presence makes us think about Danish dramas and What Richard Did for me stands up to the best of that very strong tradition of Nordic film drama.

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard's father © Element Pictures

Lars Mikkelsen as Richard’s father photo © Element Pictures

The rest of the cast is excellent too. Three of the principals were themselves at school in Dublin when Abrahamson found them, with the boys coming from Belvedere College and Gonzaga College, Jesuit private schools that are two of the most highly-regarded in Ireland. But the film stands or falls on the casting and performance of Jack Reynor as Richard. He is astonishingly good in embodying the child-man who is forced to learn about himself so painfully. In certain close-ups the ‘fuzz’ of hair on puppy fat or the quizzical look makes him seem a younger teenager (see the image below). At other times his athletic body and broad shoulders make him a man. He performs his role to perfection – though the outstanding direction by Abrahamson and very effective cinematography (by David Grennan) must share some of the praise. Reynor has gone on to appear in other Irish films but he has also been snapped up by Michael Bay for Transformers 4. I desperately hope he survives that experience intact.

Richard's occasional younger face. © Element Pictures

Richard’s occasional younger face. © photo Element Pictures

What Richard Did is a ‘must-see’ film. As I left the screening one of my colleagues suggested that it was almost like an Eric Rohmer film. I think I contested this but the more I think about it, the sense of a ‘moral tale’ becomes more palpable. Perhaps it is also (as the director hints) in some ways allegorical about Ireland after the crash of 2008 with a moneyed class who have so far avoided the pain suffered by the majority?

Official website (with screening dates in the UK and Ireland)

Watch online via Artificial Eye/Curzon Cinemas in UK

Download from Virgin, HMV etc. in UK

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Hannah McGill’s review of the film in Sight & Sound (February 2013) makes several assertions that I’m not sure about (her summary is incorrect in at least one respect). She says that both Lara and Conor are Catholic and from a lower social class than Richard who she asserts is Protestant. In fact she says that Lara is Catholic ‘by heavy implication’. I must have missed something here. I didn’t see too many overt religious references. I assume that most of the characters are Catholic (and Richard’s school). Richard’s Danish father is more likely to be Lutheran but I took the Karlsens to be a largely secular family. Can somebody help me out? (There is also a useful background piece on the film in the same issue of Sight & Sound.)