Monthly Archives: February 2014

Boomerang Family (Ageing Family, South Korea, 2013)

Eating together is a defining part of the Boomerang Family's daily life.

Eating together is a defining part of the Boomerang Family’s daily life.

Boomerang Family was shown at Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester last week as a screening for my Projecting the World evening class. I hoped that it would be an opportunity to watch a ‘mainstream popular film’ from South Korea – and I think that is what we got.

The film’s title in the UK refers to that increasingly familiar concept of adult children returning to the family home when something goes wrong. Here the returnees are a ‘failed’ movie director and a twice married divorcée with her 15 year-old daughter. They join their older brother, who has not been long out of prison, living in their mother’s small apartment. The film has been variously described as a comedy, ‘black comedy’ and comedy-drama. In the early stages of the narrative it isn’t clear where the story might be heading. Although their sister is gainfully employed and seems to have a future and the possibility of a new relationship, the two brothers seem rather aimless. At this stage, the main interest is in the sibling rivalry now rekindled and the film resembles a familiar UK sitcom idea about a dysfunctional family.

Gradually the individual narrative strands for each family member develop separately and then come together with family secrets slowly revealed. The film has been critiqued for ending up as yet another Korean crime drama (still with comedy elements) but I think that the script is quite careful to give each strand its place in the final resolution. There is, however, a disturbing moment when we do wonder if this has become a very dark drama rather than just black comedy. I was relieved that it pulled back as I found myself engaged by the various family members.

I enjoyed the film’s music but I would have to agree that overall the visual style of the film is not distinctive (unlike many South Korean films I have seen). The film is an adaptation of a novel and I understand that the director Song Hae-sung is known for his focus on performances. The film is well-cast and all the performances are indeed strong. I thought at first that the film wouldn’t work for me, but I found myself being drawn in and alongside the performances I think it was the sense of realism and the use of local culture that engaged me. I’m not sure how many DVDs Third Window will sell in the UK, but I’m grateful to get the chance to see the film and it’s very useful to have mainstream films like this on release in the UK.

Derek Elley’s review for Film Business Asia gives more detail and background.

Here’s the Third Window trailer:

Jack Strong (Poland 2014)

jack_strong

At this dire time of the year with foreign language films still as scarce as hen’s teeth around here, it’s a relief to turn to the occasional Polish release via distributor Project London and the multiplex chain Cineworld. Jack Strong is currently on release in 17 multiplexes across the UK and Ireland just a week after its Warsaw opening and it offers great entertainment plus a new perspective on the Cold War spy thriller for UK audiences.

The film deals with the real-life story of a Polish army officer who was so concerned that Poland would be destroyed in any war between NATO and the Soviet Union that he decided to provide the Americans with secret Soviet planning papers. Code-named ‘Jack Strong’ he operated under cover for several years before his situation became ‘critical’.

This isn’t a ‘biopic’ as such since the story begins when Colonel Ryszard Kulkiński is already one of the brightest military planners in the Polish Army. He first becomes concerned after the success of the Soviet planning of the ‘clear-up’ after the Prague Spring in 1968 in which he played a key role in Poland’s contribution. But the decisive moment is when he talks with colleagues who were on the ground in Gdansk in 1970 when Polish troops fired on shipyard workers. He becomes increasingly convinced that he is threatening the future of Poland through his work with the Soviets. He isn’t a traitor, he’s a patriot saving Poland from the hell that the Soviet military will lead it towards.

Unlike the heroes of many spy stories Kulkiński lived with his family who were unaware of his activities. Inevitably this created tensions with his long hours and occasional disappearances. These scenes of family life and the procedural aspects of his job in the Polish military headquarters form a major part of the film’s central sequence alongside the usual tropes of the spy film such as the passing of messages etc. These realist touches work very effectively in building up to the thrills of the closing scenes. The film is also bookend with scenes in which an older Kulkiński tells his story. I won’t spoil the narrative any further. We know from the beginning that he survived the initial crisis but we don’t know how the story ends or who is actually asking him questions.

The film is very well made and presented in CinemaScope. It looks good and the performances are excellent. I can’t fault it in terms of entertainment and I learned a lot. Kulkiński worked with the Russians in Vietnam (as a military attaché in the early 1960s?) and the extra earnings from this helped him to acquire a car and the means to go sailing.

I imagine that this must be a big budget film for Poland. The director Władysław Pasikowski is a veteran of action cinema and the star in the title role, Marcin Dorociński, is one of the most critically and popularly celebrated of Polish actors.

I imagine that the film will stay in cinemas a second week so check out the Polish Film Institute website to see where it is playing. Weirdly the film was part-financed by Vue Distribution in Poland but its UK partner company in the UK isn’t taking the film. Bravo to Cineworld – but they don’t seem to have advertised the film – presumably relying on Polish media. This is a shame because I know UK audiences who would go to see this as a spy thriller. (For anyone outside the UK baffled by all of this, the 2011 UK census revealed that Polish is now the first language of over 500,000 people in England and Wales.)

Official website

Cineworld trailer:

American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013)

(from left) Meng (Deng Chao), Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) and Wang (Tong Dawei)

For the past few years at Chinese New Year, the Chinese Film Forum UK (CFFUK) has put on a screening of a new Chinese film. Often this has been a romantic comedy in the tradition of the Chinese film industries celebrating the New Year. This year’s offering at Cornerhouse turned out to be something rather different but still very entertaining and certainly stimulating in terms of thinking about contemporary Chinese culture. Cinema 3 was full for the screening.

American Dreams in China (which turns out to be a better title than the more accurate but bland translation as ‘Partners’) is a difficult film to classify. It might be a bromance or a melodrama with elements of disguised biopic. Certainly it is a comedy drama. The relative unimportance of the female characters in terms of romance narrative strands prevents it being a romantic comedy as the relationships between the three central male characters dominate the overall narrative. There are male-female relationships but these seem often to be more about how each of the three central male characters respond to their partners and what this tells us about how different they are to the other two male characters.

The story is based on an actual business success narrative in which a start-up Chinese private school (New Oriental) teaching English in Beijing grew to become a major player in the international market catering for students wanting to get a visa for studying in the United States. In the film the three young men who start their school have each had a different experience at university in Beijing (where they met in the 1980s) – and varying levels of success in applying for that elusive visa. The narrative works in flashback from the final sequence in the story so that we learn how the school (called ‘New Dreams’) was developed and how its founders came to be facing the leaders of their American competition across a negotiating table in New York.

The film is to some extent ‘personal’ as it is the first contemporary-set Mainland film from the very successful Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan. Chan himself studied at UCLA but returned to Hong Kong and worked his way up in the local industry. He has said that the story reminded him of setting up his own film company with other directors in 1990s Hong Kong. In some ways the new film links to the marvellous Comrades – Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) but the tone is rather different. (There is a scene in the new film which echoes one of the key scenes in Comrades when a couple meet again on an escalator).

Chan points out that there is a significant Hong Kong input to the production including cinematographer Chris Doyle and costume designer Dora Ng as well as other crew members. Hong Kong writer Aubrey Lam is listed as having worked on the original script but the shooting script seems to have been the work of two Beijing writers. This has helped fuel a controversy about how propagandistic the film now is. Certainly the film proved popular in China when it opened in May 2013 and it became one of the Top 10 films of the year with US$88 million at the Chinese box office.

Before the screening there was a separate introductory lecture by Dr William Schroeder, Lecturer in Chinese Studies at The University of Manchester. The lecture didn’t attempt to introduce the film itself but instead offered us useful background on both the current migrations of Chinese students to universities in the UK and the US and on the concept of ‘Dreams’ associated with Chinese nationalism. The Chinese president Xi Jinping started the great ‘conversation’ about the “Chinese Dream” in November 2012. As William Schroeder suggested the speech has been interpreted in terms of ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘renewal’, the re-establishment of China’s place in the world and the replacement of the US by China in terms of global leadership. This is to be something that benefits everyone, creating prosperity through co-operation and partnership and overcoming the shame felt in China about the losses to the West during the 19th century.

Clearly this is about ideological struggle but in quite complex ways and the entire discourse is riven by contradictions associated with the similarities and differences between the ‘American Dream’ and the ‘Chinese Dream’ that the film presents in interesting ways. (We also have something similar in the UK where all the politicians have adopted the term ‘hard-working people’ in identifying the rightful beneficiaries of government policies. Many of us are a bit fed up of this as it ignores the large minority who are unable to work for a variety of reasons. But the notion of being able to succeed if you work hard is at the centre of both the American and Chinese Dreams. The first is expressed in individualistic terms and the second should be more collectivist. Or is it?

I was struck by the fact that the one concrete thing that I learned about was the acronym IPO (Initial Public Offering) to describe the process of ‘going public’ as a private company. I find it ironic that I should learn this American business term from a Chinese film about a private education business. As if to pre-empt some of our possible readings of the film, Dr Schroeder (who is currently researching LGBT cultures in China as an anthropologist) introduced us to several of the ways in which the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is critiquing current Chinese government pronouncements. He argues that China should simply ‘stop dreaming’.

I’m not sure what exactly I take away from seeing the film and discovering something about the Chinese Dream but I definitely feel more able to engage in further investigations of contemporary Chinese culture and that must be a good thing. Here’s to the continued success of the CFFUK.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, France 1958)

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important pre-cursor’ to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.

Outline (no spoilers)

This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.

Commentary

ScoreLiftAscenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given its relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.

Louis Malle early in his career

Louis Malle early in his career

Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.

No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:

  • Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
  • the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
  • the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
  • Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.

These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including B policiers with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:

  • it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
  • it carries comments on contemporary society;
  • it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.

We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.

Reference

Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP