Daily Archives: August 27, 2013

King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, Norway/Pol/Ger/France 2010)

Stellan Skarsgard as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

Stellan Skarsgård as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.

Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.

An attempt at escape from the island.

An attempt at escape from the island.

The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . .  Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.

Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Japan 2011)

The house on 'Poppy Hill'

The house on ‘Poppy Hill’

The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.

Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokahama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokohama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

Umi and her sister venture into the boy's world of the 'Latin Quartier' building.

Umi and her sister venture into the boy’s world of the ‘Latin Quartier’ building.

The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.

The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.

The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.

Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.

Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.

 

Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/from-up-on-poppy-hill

Nayak (India 1966)

Andiram and Aditi meet in the dining car.

Andiram and Aditi meet in the dining car.

Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.

Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.

The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).

Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.

The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.

This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):

http://filmandbookclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/satyajit-rays-nayak-scene-by-scene.html