Monthly Archives: September 2014

Spring in a Small Town (Xiaocheng zhi chun, China 1948)

Yuwen and Liyan

Yuwen and Liyan

Spring in a Small Town has attained almost mythical status in the history of Chinese Cinema. It dates from the brief period between the end of the Sino-Japanese war and the final victory of the Chinese Communists and the foundation of the PRC. The studio Wenhua was a small company formed in 1946 but Fei Mu (1906-51) was an experienced Shanghai director who had made melodramas with the major star Ruan Lingyu in the early 1930s. He was also very interested in Peking opera and open to ideas from Western filmmaking. Production of Spring in a Small Town was possible only because Fei was prepared to work with a small budget and a limited cast of just five actors for only a few weeks during a forced break from his major production of the opera film Eternal Regret – China’s first colour film with the leading opera star Mei Linfang.

Fei was interested in the possibility of making a new kind of film based on a script by a 26 year-old writer Li Tianji. His approach was to attempt to find a way to balance realism and romanticism and to to do this by exploring aesthetic ideas. These are discussed in detail by David Der-wei Wang in a paper titled ‘A Spring That Brought Eternal Regret: Fei Mu, Mei Lanfang, and the Poetics of Screening China’ (2013). The film lasted only a few weeks in Shanghai cinemas. It was then suppressed by the PRC officials charged with overseeing Chinese cinema post-1949 and its reputation was only kept alive by some of those Shanghai filmmakers who migrated to Taiwan and Hong Kong. (Fei Mu himself went to Hong Kong, but died soon after arriving.) The film was also shown in Taiwan. The PRC officials condemned the film for ‘petty-bourgeois decadence’ and ‘ideologogical backwardness’ creating a ‘narcotic effect’ on audiences. (This para draws primarily on Chinese National Cinema by Yingjin Zhang, Routledge 2004). Spring in a Small Town was not properly seen again until the 1980s in China and has been unavailable in the UK for many years but has now been released in a restored version by the BFI. It is now hailed by Chinese critics as one of the greatest films in Shanghai cinema and indeed one of the best films in Chinese film history.

I was not disappointed when I finally saw this in the cinema. I’d only seen short extracts before, although I was familiar with the remake Springtime in a Small Town (2001) directed by the 5th Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Ironically the remake marked Tian’s return to favour with the Chinese authorities after his earlier critical film The Blue Kite (1993). But although I was familiar with the outline story of Spring in a Small Town, I wasn’t really prepared for the treatment of the script or the intense emotional power of the film.

As I suggested in discussion of Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, 1948 is a pivotal year in global cinema with many films set in the ‘rubble’ left by the preceding years of war. In that sense, Spring in a Small Town is related to Rossellini and De Sica’s work in Italy and to Ozu, Kurosawa and the other Japanese masters, even if none of the filmmakers were themselves aware of the similarities. It isn’t a neo-realist film as such, except in the sense of having little in the way of budget or indeed facilities – and therefore limited choices in terms of techniques. Fei Mu chose a distinctive approach with long takes and a panning, moving camera covering dialogue rather than cross-cutting. Each scene ends with a fade to black. The tension that the camerawork evokes is compounded by the approach to sound. I don’t know if this was intended or whether it is the result of restoration using damaged source materials but it appears that the sound has been post-synched. Apart from the dialogue, music/songs and certain sound effects, the film is silent – i.e. there is no ‘atmos’ or ambient sound and quite long periods without sound at all. Allied to this, there are lengthy narrated passages by the female lead.

The story is relatively simple. In 1946, after eight years of war and its immediate aftermath, a Shanghai doctor Zhang Zichen returns to his home town ‘somewhere in rural China’ (it was actually filmed in a town not that far from Shanghai) to visit his old friend Dai Liyan. He is taken aback to discover that his friend is ill with tuberculosis and heart disease and that he has been married for several years to Zhou Yuwen, who was once Zhang’s own love interest. The Dai family home, once wealthy, has been damaged by war and the one family servant left forlornly attempts to rebuild the garden walls. Liyan’s young sister, 16 year-old Xiu, is the one lively element in the household. (No other inhabitants of the town are seen but Yuwen frequently walks along the ruined walls of the town.) Zichen and Yuwen have an obvious erotic attraction and the narrative tension is built around developments which bring them together and then keep them apart. Liyan is energised – and disturbed – by his friend’s arrival and invites him to stay. He then has the idea that Zichen might marry Xiu.

The complex network of desire and fear creates the intensity of melodrama, but without the usual outlets of expressionist camerawork or musical score it is sometimes their absence that helps to create emotional power. One outlet for the usual excess of melodrama is costume and this is developed around the outfits designed for Yuwen, including an opulent cheongsam/qipao and an array of scarves and combs. I was amazed to see what looked like seamed stockings (several shots focus on her feet and ankles). By contrast, Xiu is mostly dressed simply. The effects of the costume are accentuated by lighting – candles being used when electricity in the town is cut off). There are at two songs in the film, both of which surprised me. One is a folk song that seems to reference a Kazakh man (which I could understand if the film was later than 1948, but perhaps Russian songs had already reached Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s?). The other referred in some way to whips on the body (!) according to the subtitles. If memory serves it is the young sister who sings the songs (and dances on another occasion).

The romantic triangle has within it the seeds of potential tragedy but I won’t spoil the plot (the film is available on video in North America). Less clear-cut is the sense that the narrative also explores a metaphor about the state of China in 1948. Zichen tells Liyan that he has worked in many parts of the country during the war and now he is in Shanghai. He is always in Western dress while the other three (and the servant) are dressed traditionally. He is ‘modern China’ visiting the ruins in the countryside. By contrast Liyan has done nothing during the war except preside over the decline of his house and the household seems to exist out of time (and almost out of place). After 1948 the film gradually became the focus for a nostalgia about China especially for overseas Chinese. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (HK 2000) with its passionate but repressed non-affair and Maggie Cheung’s breathtaking costumes strikes me as at least one film drawing on that nostalgia (Wong’s family had migrated from Shanghai soon after Spring in a Small Town was produced in Shanghai).

There are several academic essays on this iconic film. As well as Zhang and Wang discussed above Susan Daravala’s (2007) ‘The aesthetics and moral politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town‘ in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1:3 offers several useful arguments. She argues that Fei’s approach aims to be:

the avoidance of the theatricality and suspense that made viewers concentrate on the narrative to find out what happened next. He wanted instead to engage them by putting the focus on psychological description, which would be more likely to produce a self-reflexive, thoughtful response in the audience . . .

Daravala also compares the film with David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (UK 1945), also a melodrama in which a married woman has an affair with a doctor that is not consummated but displays erotic tension. Both films have the voiceover of the woman.

After I finished writing this I read Noah Cowan’s essay on the film, ‘Love Among the Ruins’ in Sight and Sound, July 2014. It’s a useful summary of the various takes on Fei, his ideas and this specific film and might be the best piece to read first. There is certainly a wealth of scholarship to explore – more than I have briefly covered here. But you should watch the film first and be amazed.

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, Norway-Sweden-Den-Ger 2014)

as Lars

Stellan Skarsgård as Lars

Kraftidioten got very good reviews at the Berlin Festival in January but has been released by Metrodome on just 25 screens in the UK. That’s a shame because it is an enjoyable black comedy with a star cast offering great entertainment value. The film’s Norwegian title refers to the ‘power idiots’ who operate in part of the Norwegian north country (represented generically rather than precisely in a snow-covered mountain landscape with occasional trips to the city which looms out of the snow like Oz). The ‘idiots’ are two groups of gangsters controlling the local drugs trade. Unfortunately, one group has incurred the wrath of an upstanding ‘citizen of the year’ played by Stellan Skarsgård as the driver of giant snow-clearing trucks. Provoked beyond his tether by the murder of his son this character proceeds to ‘eliminate’ gang members one by one until he finds the real culprit – thus the English title. Each ‘disappearance’ is marked by a simple death notice.

The chief idiot is a Norwegian gang leader from a local crime family. He’s a pony-tailed vegan living in a show house stuffed with designer monstrosity furniture who compounds the initial idiocy by wrongfully attacking the Serbian gangsters who control the other half of the market. The film is marketed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘comedy’. It is extremely violent but there is plenty of dry and dark Nordic humour, which I think should appeal in the UK. I’ve read at least one comment from elsewhere which thought the film was a serious drama.

Alongside the Swedish star Skarsgård the starry cast includes Bruno Ganz (Swiss) as the Serbian gangster leader and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Katrine from Borgen) as a divorced wife (otherwise this is a very male film). The international casting reflects the usual co-production arrangements of the three Scandinavian countries with Germany. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to both Tarantino and the Coen Bros films, especially Fargo. There is something in these comparisons and they may well have influenced Danish scriptwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland – two highly-experienced creatives. However, much of the humour strikes me as Norwegian/Swedish, drawing on representations of a welfare society and the familiar discourse of ‘new immigrants’ in Scandinavia. Skarsgård’s character’s Swedish identity is highlighted when he is praised for being the best kind of Swedish immigrant. In contrast, the Norwegian gangster insists that the Serbians are actually Albanians. The nearest comparison I could make is with Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film was a big success in the UK and if you enjoyed it, you should enjoy the slightly drier and more comedic scenes here. I should add though that this is slightly less of a thriller and its relatively slow pace stretches to 116 minutes.

The UK Trailer (which does include some of the best moments, so don’t watch if you already know you want to watch the film):

Mystery Road (Australia 2013)

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father's Winchester rifle

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father’s Winchester rifle

This is one of the most interesting films released so far in the UK this year. Writer/director/cinematographer Ivan Sen sets out his intentions like this:

From the writing stage, I wanted Mystery Road to have a timeless, classical feel. A feel that was reminiscent of Hollywood films of the 60s and 70s which were more dialogue based and relied little on music and trickery. I wanted this film to have a quiet, almost trance like atmosphere, where the music became the words spoken from the characters. (Press Pack)

Sen refers to his film as a ‘murder mystery’ but I’m not sure that is the most useful descriptor of its possible categories/genres. It’s certainly ‘crime fiction’ and a ‘police procedural’ which explores the classic trope of the loner police officer seemingly up against not just the bad guys, but also the local community and his own police colleagues. The setting is an outback town in Western Queensland, a town with a significant indigenous Australian community. Jay Swan is himself an indigenous Australian (I’ll use ‘Aboriginal’ from here in since that’s the term Sen himself uses in the Press Pack) who has gone to the city to become a detective. He has returned to his home town and a spacious house on the ‘right’ side of town. His ex-wife and teenage daughter are still living on the ‘estate’ on the ‘wrong’ side. The crime fiction is flavoured like the recent Nordic variety with an exploration of the social issues of the outback communities.

Jay’s first big case is the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl (and a friend of his daughter). He soon becomes aware of the lack of co-operation he can expect from everyone. In many ways he’s like the new sheriff in the classic Western. According to the producer David Jowsey:

Mystery Road is a Cowboy Western film, and that evolved through determining the look and the attitude of the lead character. Aaron [Pedersen] was always going to be the lead in the film . . .  and Ivan wanted Aaron looking like a cowboy. He wears a cowboy hat, he slings a pistol and he’s wearing cowboy boots. Once that was established the film itself became a Western.

Having these clear signals means that there is none of the confusion (for me at least) found in Ivan Sen’s previous film Toomelah (2011). On that film, Sen worked with non-professionals and because he didn’t want a full crew to intimidate them he performed all the production roles himself. By necessity, this gave the film with its hand-held camerawork a rough look. Mystery Road by contrast gives Sen the cinematographer a full supporting crew (and the budget to include several aerial sequences) as well as a cast stuffed with Australian stars of film and television – including a cameo appearance by the veteran star of 1970s Australian cinema, Jack Thompson. They all do an excellent job.

The Western and procedural tropes are well-used. Jay’s role as the detective refers to the figure of the Aboriginal ‘tracker’ in earlier Australian generic narratives – often used ‘against’ his own people. This kind of ‘turncoat’ character also turns up in American Westerns with the Native American tracker or, more recently, the Native American detective (e.g. in Thunderheart (1992)). Further parallels can be found in African-American police procedurals such as Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994). The clearest Western references are in the iconography of hat and boots, the glorious landscape shots and in the almost intimate scenes between characters, shot in close-up, in bars, interrogation rooms and over fences. True to his intentions, Sen allows dialogue and camerawork to make the narrative ‘sing’ – though there are also sound effects like the howling of the wild dogs (real or imagined).

I’ve looked around for writing on the film and I came across this piece on ‘Ferdy on Film’ an American blog (but I think that the writer might be Australian). Roderick Heath offers a very detailed review of the film (perhaps too much detail if you want to avoid narrative spoilers) in the context of genre filmmaking in Australia. While praising many aspects of the film he finds the dialogue weak and argues that Sen can’t effectively marry a genre piece with something ‘artier’ – citing the obvious naming of locations amongst other flaws. (The body is found near ‘Massacre Creek’ off ‘Mystery Road’ and the film ends on ‘Slaughter Hill’.) I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s probably something to do with film reviews. I just accept the dialogue for what it is and similarly the use of names, visual clues etc. Heath gives an example of of weak dialogue:

Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when a rancher comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh.

The narrative point here is that we need to know various things about Jay’s background. Some of them we can pick up easily from what we see – Jay doesn’t drink alcohol for instance. This is re-inforced by a comment his ex-wife makes suggesting he used to drink heavily. The knowledge about Jay’s father could have been given via a photograph perhaps, but the dialogue exchange is quite subtle I think. The rancher is a racist who is quietly goading Jay, here pointing out that he knows exactly who Jay is – and implicitly pointing to a local hierarchy. Later in the exchange Jay will ask the rancher how much land he has – in order to point out that he has much to leave to his children whereas the locals like Jay’s father have little to leave to their children (except the Winchester rifle, a heavily significant bequest by Jay’s father to his son). I loved these quiet but menacing exchanges, but perhaps that’s just a personal taste.

Audiences across the world have learned how to read Westerns and American film noirs but these Australian outback narratives require cultural knowledge that is difficult to pick up except from similar films. Sometimes it’s the white Australians who seem the most mysterious. There is a sequence in Mystery Road in which Jay goes out to meet an old man who had filed a report about wild dogs near Mystery Road. These eight minutes with Jack Thompson don’t seem to have any direct bearing on the crime narrative (and the wild dogs are similarly not fully ‘explained’). Perhaps the Thompson cameo is just a character study that fills in the background? I was reminded of the eccentric figures who inhabit the wonderful Wake in Fright (Australia 1971) re-released in the UK in the last year. There is a tendency amongst critics to want to separate genre from ‘arthouse’ so that the lacunae of the latter should not ‘spoil’ the purity of the former. Personally, I like my genre films to have layers and to present puzzles that can’t be resolved in just a single viewing. Mystery Road is going to be worth seeing a second time and possibly a third. Thoroughly recommended, the film (from the small distributor Axiom) is only likely to stay briefly in cinemas where the big screen brings out the best from the cinematography – so see it now if you can.

Here’s a trailer but note that the music isn’t there in the film itself and the trailer over-emphasises the action. But it does give a good idea of the landscape!

Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret, Denmark/Sweden/Germany 2013)

An uncharacteristically 'sunny' image from THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikalus Lie Klas (left) and Fares Fares

An uncharacteristically ‘sunny’ image from KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left) and Fares Fares

This is the first adaptation of the crime novel series from Jussi Adler-Olsen. It’s a classy production written by Nikolaj Arcel, photographed by Eric Kress and starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Sonja Richter. (Richter and Kaas were leads in Open Hearts (2002).) Director Mikkel Nørgaard is making the transition to features after several TV series including Borgen. Everything works as it should but there is something lacking for me. Several commentators have suggested that the film looks like the first episode of a TV series. I can see this argument and it stands up when you consider that both of the series of Wallander adaptations included feature-length episodes that were released in cinemas. Perhaps if this had been a primarily Swedish rather than Danish production that is what would have happened here. But what do I know? This film adaptation was the major homegrown box-office winner in Denmark in 2013 and a second film adaptation is already in the works.

The crime narrative category here is the ‘cold case procedural’, which has already produced successful TV series in the UK and US. Adler-Olsen’s central character is Carl Mørck, a highly-respected and successful detective in Copenhagen who makes a wrong decision on a job and is ‘punished’/’hidden’ by his superior by being put in charge of ‘Department Q’ buried in the basement of police headquarters. The boss expects him to just file reports on cold cases but of course Carl starts to investigate them. He is assisted by Assad, played by the experienced Lebanese-Swedish actor Fares Fares. This is the character that gives the novels their unique flavour. Carl is sullen and resentful and never smiles but Assad is hard-working, sensible, pain-staking, conscientious etc. – but also cheerful and quite comic. The ‘banter’ between the two is engaging and, for me, is the saving grace of the novels. Some of the comedy comes from Assad’s less than perfect grasp of Danish and the cultural differences between the two.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

The cold case here involves a junior politician from the Democrat party in the Danish parliament. She disappears on a ferry trip when she is travelling with her brother who has a disability which affects his social skills. The police report is perfunctory and the assumption is that the woman committed suicide by jumping into the sea. What follows is an investigation that uncovers a story that is frankly not that unfamiliar if you’ve watched/read a reasonable amount of Nordic crime fiction over the last few years. (Some plot points are similar to those in Killing 3 and The Bridge 2.) Through a series of flashbacks that are intercut into the procedural we soon get to realise what is going to happen to Sonja Richter as the missing woman – and eventually why it is all happening now. This is certainly ‘Nordic noir‘ in the sense that it is very dark, both in its look and in the theme – yes, this is another narrative in which a man does unspeakable things to a woman. But this time there isn’t an avenging female investigator (the books have been compared to Stieg Larsson). The other feature of ‘Nordic noir’ is the focus on a social issue/critique. Or at least it is in the Swedish instance. The Danish stories seem slightly different but in the only novel I’ve read from this series the theme does include a critique of inequality. It also seems to have more complex plotting than Keeper of Lost Causes. I will watch the second film when it is released as it promises a more critical edge in discussing the Danish middle classes. I’m also interested in how the filmmakers develop Assad’s character (and the possibility of a third, female, member of the team).

Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book includes a case study on ‘Nordic Cinema’.

Crimes of Passion (Sweden 2013)

Crimes DVD

I was interested in the second of the six films based on the novels of Maria Lang made for Swedish TV channel TV4. The films are being broadcast by BBC4 in its Saturday night slot reserved mainly for European crime dramas. The first of the six last week was generally panned by the UK press. I confess that I didn’t get to the end. I found the first film very easy on the eye – a summer-house on an island near Stockholm in the 1950s – but the plotting of an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit was a tad tedious. I did however like the three central characters who are the focus for the whole set of films. I therefore approached the second film with my hopes still raised.

According to Wikipedia the first film was released in cinemas but subsequent releases went straight to DVD. I noticed immediately that the second film was presented in 16:9 whereas the first had been in CinemaScope (2.35:1). Fortunately the reduction in aspect ratio wasn’t followed by a reduction in narrative scope, I found this episode more interesting. The idea behind the six films is to present the central trio with crimes that are all ‘close to home’ – i.e. their social settings all involve the trio. The stars of the show are Tuva Novotny (Puck), Ola Rapace (Krister) and Linus Wahlgren (Eje). Puck is a doctoral student of literature. The first film opened with a lecture she gave on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Eje and Krister are both from a fictitious small town in Central Sweden called ‘Skoga’ – created by Maria Lang and based on her own small town Nora. Eje, a history academic is Puck’s fiancé and Krister is a Stockholm police Inspector. The basic premise of the stories is that Puck becomes Krister’s amateur assistant rather like Miss Marple.

The second film, ‘King of Lily of the Valley’ is set in Skoga with Krister and Eje invited to a wedding. It is also getting close to the time of Puck and Eje’s own wedding and she is with him. The Skoga bride never makes it to the altar and Krister and Puck set out to find her murderer. The press notes issued by the production company quote Maria Lang as aiming for “escapist entertainment with a problem to be solved. The tone is ‘light’ with some almost absurdist comedy and this is more important than heavy and serious social realism.” This has lead some UK commentators to compare the films to Midsummer Murders (very popular in Denmark, but I don’t know about Sweden?). I can see the connection, but it is important to remember that these stories were written in the 1950s, i.e. the period of Agatha Christie’s later Miss Marple stories. However, Puck is a very ‘modern’ figure, a proto-feminist in many ways. At the end of the second film she and Eje discuss what they want in marriage and she asserts that she isn’t sure that she wants children and that her career is very important to her. Eje, to his credit, seems genuinely to support her.

Researching the actors I noted that Tuva Novotny was the titular character in Slim Susie (Smala Sussie, Sweden 2003), an absurdist ‘crime comedy’ set in Central Sweden and a big local hit. I’m also reminded of Masjävlar (Dalecarlians, Sweden/Denmark 2004) also set in small town Central Sweden with some humour in an otherwise dark family melodrama and a young woman at its centre. I mention these links simply because there are several Swedish references in the films that refer to literature, rural cultures etc. that aren’t immediately apparent to UK TV audiences. The title of the second film refers to a poem by Gustaf Frödings, a nationally renowned poet from Värmland in Central Sweden. Skoga/Nora is by the looks of it a ‘heritage town’ with beautifully preserved residential houses and ‘quaint’ streets of shops etc. and the 1950s setting is easily evoked.

The first two films have been beautifully shot in summer settings and there is an obvious fascination in the clothes, hair styles etc. Mad Men meets Miss Marple is an obvious shorthand for what we see. I will watch the other four films mainly because of the three central characters and especially Ms Nuvotny who is not a conventional beauty but is still disarmingly attractive. I think it’s worth noting too that compared to Agatha Christie there is much more overt sexual action in these films as well as a sense of humour. Maria Lang must have been an interesting writer in her day.

This series is a useful example of ‘Global Television’ as discussed in Chapter 9 and of Nordic Cinema as discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.