Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro, Mexico-Spain 2013)

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

This terrific film comes to us with a glowing recommendation from Ken Loach. Its writer-director Diego Quemada-Díez began as a camera assistant on Loach’s Spanish-set Land and Freedom (1995). His work in different roles in the camera department has featured in two further Loach productions plus films by Spike Lee, Alejandro Inarittu and Fernando Mireilles among others. What he has learned from close contact with these leading directors is evident in this his first feature-length film.

‘The Golden Dream’ is about America, though the direct translation of the film’s title is the Golden – or ‘Gilded’ – Cage and it may refer back to a well-known Mexican song and later film about migration to the US. The current film has been described as a ‘poetic road movie’, though it is for much of the time a (freight) train movie. It takes three teenagers on a journey from Guatemala into Mexico where they attract a fourth traveller a young ‘Indian’ in Chiapas. The group includes a confident young man who makes himself leader and a similarly confident young woman who binds her breasts and cuts her hair to pass as a boy. After a setback, one of the original trio heads home but the others continue ‘jumping’ freight trains that they hope will take them all the way north to the American border and eventually to Los Angeles. Inevitably they will have adventures, suffer great losses and learn things about themselves. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll simply say that not all of them get to America and the other adjective to go with ‘poetic’ used in the synopsis is ‘severe’.

The poetry is in the images. This is a photographer’s film in the sense that meaning is carried more by the images than the dialogue. It’s not that I remember many specific images as such (even though many are striking), just that the story seems to flow so smoothly. The credited cinematographer is María Secco.

The three teenage leads are very good indeed (none have film experience as such, but all are ‘performers’ in some form of community arts) and the story is not romantic or sentimental. The travellers experience both the warmth and solidarity of the rails – and the violence and duplicity of those who prey on them as migrants. I enjoyed the musical performances in the film as well – these add to the quasi-documentary feel and the chief lesson learned from Loach is the strategy of filming the story ‘in sequence’ and briefing the cast only about the events of the day’s shoot in advance so that the actions/re-actions feel natural rather than ‘performed’.

Peccadillo Pictures distributes the film in the UK. It’s certainly worth seeing on a big screen if you can find it:

This film would make a very good companion piece to Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001), a rather different form of ‘road movie’ discussed in some detail in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book.

Lilting (UK 2013)

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Naomi Christie and Ben Wishart in Junn's room. Note also the graphics for the title.

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Vann (Naomi Christie) and Richard (Ben Whishaw) in Junn’s room. Note also the graphics for the title.

This film is a gem – a total justification of micro-budget filmmaking and public funding for cinema. Made for £120,000 under the Microwave scheme from Film London, the capital’s screen agency, it achieves more than most films on twenty or thirty times that budget. The Microwave scheme puts first-time feature directors through ‘micro-school’ involving a mentoring process with established practitioners including director Clio Barnard in this case. The process is explained in the Press Notes. Other Microwave films discussed on this blog include Shifty (2008) and Ill Manors (2012).

Lilting is an example of a diaspora film as discussed in The Global Film Book and particularly in Chapter 4 as an aspect of British ‘national cinema’. It’s unusual in dealing with Chinese characters in the UK since there have been relatively few films to do this and they haven’t had much exposure. Director Hong Khaou’s family left Vietnam for the UK when he was eight, having already moved from Cambodia after Pol Pot came to power. Hong’s mother has never learned English and this issue of assimilation is central to Lilting, although the story is not autobiographical as such. Lilting offers us Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese woman who now finds herself in her sixties in a care home in East London. She speaks six languages, but not English, and she is resentful of her son Kai and jealous of his ‘best friend’ Richard who may be the reason that she can’t live with her son. She is unaware that Kai and Richard are lovers. When Kai dies in an accident Richard in his grief attempts to connect with Junn. He persuades Vann, a young British-Chinese woman, to act as a translator and pays her to assist Junn in making contact with Alan, another of the home’s residents. Eventually, however, Vann finds herself with the difficult task of enabling Junn and Richard to deal with their grief and speak through her to each other.

The strengths of the Microwave scheme are in the mentoring process which focuses on script development and the practicalities of shooting very quickly on a limited budget so that ideas have to be thought through carefully and preparations made accordingly. There is little scope for reshoots. It helps to have A List performers and Hong hit paydirt with his ambition in approaching Ben Whishaw to play Richard and the great Hong Kong action star Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn. In the role of Alan, a rather seedy old man, Peter Bowles offers an ironic performance for UK audiences (Bowles was a major TV star of the 1980s playing a gentleman ‘cad’ in sit-coms and more recently a major star of West End theatre). Given these stellar performers on screen it is remarkable that the first time screen actor Naomi Christie does so well as Vann – a tribute to both the actor and the director.

Cheng Pei-pei as Junn

Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn

Partly no doubt because of the budget, most of Lilting takes place indoors – in the care home, in Richard’s flat and in cafés. The care home has décor that is supposed to remind residents of the 1960s and the look of the film is important, achieved through art direction/production design and the cinematography of the Polish-born NFS graduate Ula Pontikos, adding another ingredient to the cosmopolitan feel of the depiction of London (Hackney, Dalston etc.) Hong has said in interviews how much he loves this aspect of London. I was also intrigued to note that he lists Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999) as one of his favourite films – I’m with him on that. Like Winterbottom, Hong manages to suggest the realism and authenticity of the locations while at the same time utilising expressionist devices to convey the emotions of characters. One of his techniques is to seamlessly insert flashbacks into a scene – as if in the same shot so that Kai seems to be still alive and part of the conversation. For Junn and Richard their grief means that Kai is still alive in their thoughts. I’m not sure exactly what the title ‘Lilting’ is supposed to indicate. It refers in the dictionary definition to “singing or playing, especially merrily, or vaguely and absent-mindedly” (Chambers). That doesn’t seem quite right in this context but clearly it does refer to something found in the flow of dialogue in English and Mandarin that Vann must exchange between Richard and Junn. In his excellent Sight and Sound (September 2014) review Ashley Clarke refers to the editing technique described above as:

. . . a smart use of form to keenly evoke that strange, hard-to-communicate time in the aftermath of a bereavement, when the departed person remains a palpable presence despite their corporeal absence.

I’ve noted in another interview (which stupidly I forgot to note down) a suggestion that this ‘presence’ of the deceased character is an aspect of East Asian film culture. Hong replies that his family has a shrine to his father in their home and I think it is the case that the film does enable an exploration of grieving which opens up a discourse across cultures. Clarke’s review also tells us that the script began as a stage play but without the LGBT dimension. The film does, I think, manage to make that work too as a gentle reference to cultural difference. Vann is a sensible and sensitive British-Chinese who provides the bridge – perhaps she creates the ‘lilt’?

This is one of my films of the year and I urge you to seek it out. It’s still playing in cinemas and is available online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Here’s the Artificial Eye trailer that suggests at least some of the film’s qualities:

How to Steal 2 Million (South Africa 2011)

Jack (Menzi Ngubane) and Olive (Terry Pheto) in the gallery. Partly, he wants to show her what he gained from going to the 'third best school in the city'.

Jack (Menzi Ngubane) and Olive (Terry Pheto) in the gallery. Partly, he wants to show her what he gained from going to the ‘third best school in the city’.

It’s difficult to see any African films in the UK so I was pleased to be sent a copy of this ‘neo-noir crime thriller’ by its North American distributor Traverse Media. The film is available for download on iTunes and other streaming services in North America. There are fairly regular US and UK productions shot in South Africa and released internationally. Usually, however, the lead roles are given to black actors from the US or UK. I often avoid such films because I suspect that they are inauthentic in their representations of South Africa. I accept that this may be unreasonable, but there it is. How to Steal 2 Million has a star cast drawn directly from film, TV and stage actors in the country. Its writer-director Charlie Vundla was born in the US and trained in film school there but grew up mostly in Johannesburg where he now lives.

This is a classy production with an experienced crew and some heavyweight contributions including an effective musical score from the internationally-renowned Trevor Jones (born in Cape Town but mostly working in the UK and Hollywood). The technical achievements and the performances are very good and whatever it cost the money was well spent. Charlie Vundla in the EPK/Press Pack (see the official website) tells us that there were two initial ideas that were merged – a hostage drama in a house that goes wrong and a noirish tale set in an unnamed South African city. What eventually emerged as a script is a familiar and conventional neo-noir. The central character is Jack, newly released from prison and attempting to go straight. He’s a man of honour, the classic ‘criminal with a code to live by’. Of course, things don’t work out and he falls back into a deal with his ex-partner, Julius, the man who stole Jack’s woman. He also becomes involved with a new woman, a streetwise hustler played with verve by Terry Pheto the young star of Tsotsi. The plot has the number of twists and turns to be expected in a noir and the loyalties of the characters are called into question because the central narrative involves various family and marital relationships with the prospect of betrayals.  The version of the film I saw, from the US, was only some 85 mins. The South African version appears to have been more like 109 mins. That perhaps explains why the ending seems rushed. I’m intrigued as to what has been cut as 20 plus minutes is quite a chunk of screen time. Still, I can only comment on what I’ve seen.

A striking image of Jack during the film's finale.

A striking image of Jack during the film’s finale – the two images in this posting demonstrate the film’s use of a restricted colour palette.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the subdued colour palette with its predominance of greens, blue-greys, browns and purples. As in all the best noirs the action is often staged at night in dimly-lit bars or in daytime in desolate locations. I found both the cinematography and editing to be very effective. The film’s use of locations is purely ‘generic’ in that there is no attempt to represent the city in any way which would identify it as a ‘real’ place in South Africa. Instead we get the bars, gambling dens, back alleys and car parks of the generic city and the suburban road of big houses for the wealthy with gates and armed guards. The meetings of the criminals take place in anonymous places such as a zoo and an art gallery – although these might have some kind of symbolic meaning. The finale offers us what appears to be a windblown slagheap of sand or dust – again, quite effective as a backdrop for a lone figure in long shot. Jack lives in a run-down room, Julius in a swish apartment. The only other ‘personal’ feature is the aged car that Jack drives (which reminds me of the car Bob Hoskins drives in Mona Lisa (UK 1986)  after his release from prison). The one distinctive setting that I think I remember from Tsotsi is a view over the city from a hilltop where the Terry Pheto character meets her mother. The impact of this sequence was rather lost for me because of the use of very shallow focus, quite dramatic here with the effect that the city virtually disappeared in the blur.

The strength of the film for me is in the performances with nearly all of the cast very experienced actors from South African television. Menzi Ngubane as Jack is terrific and Rapulana Seiphemo as Julius is a worthy opponent. These are the kinds of actors who could appear in international films in lead roles, not just secondary roles. The one established actor on film and in the theatre is the veteran John Kani who I’m fairly sure I saw on stage in London in the 1970s. Kani, along with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona was one of the main sources of our understanding of apartheid South Africa in that period. How to Steal 2 Million is an interesting and well-made crime film. I just wish that it gave us slightly more of the distinctive flavour of the society in which it is set. The dialogue is a mixture of English and at least one local language. As in most global films I see these days from Africa or Asia, characters easily slide from one language into another, often in mid-sentence. I had no difficulty following either the accented English or the subtitles. I can’t find any references to which local languages are being spoken – can anyone help? I’d certainly watch something else by this director and cast and I’d like to see this film get a wider release. It won four awards at the 2012 ‘African Movie Academy Awards’ for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Terry Pheto) and Best Editing. The AMMAS are held in Nigeria and mostly feature films from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and other parts of anglophone Africa, offering a contrast to the screenings at FESPACO in Ougadougou. I hope a UK distributor will think about bringing some of the winners to the UK.

South African cinema is briefly discussed in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.