Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Influence of the American Western

shane

Alan Ladd as ‘Shane’

This Day School explored the popularity of the American Western as an influence on filmmakers around the world. The case study ‘classic Western’ was Shane (US 1953) – a popular film embodying some of the most important ideas and values found in the American Western.

The aim of the day was to focus on the themes and story structures of the American Western, focusing on the work of two structuralist critics from the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Kitses and Will Wright.

The day was also intended to prepare the ground for a second day school that will look at Westerns produced outside the US. Watch out for details of the follow up.

The notes for the day can be downloaded as a pdf here: Western Day School Notes

An Introduction to Latin American Cinema

Las acacias

Las acacias

This Day School followed the screenings of The Second Mother and Güeros earlier in the programme. The day explored themes and approaches to filmmaking across Latin America with a full screening of Las acacias (Argentina/Spain 2011).

These three films from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina represent the output of the three biggest film industries in the region but there has also been an upsurge in the smaller industries of Chile, Columbia and Venezuela in the last few years as well as films from Ecuador and Uruguay. Cuba remains important as the home of the principal Film Festival in the region in Havana as well as a possible training and education centre for Latin American filmmakers. In many cases, local productions are made as part of co-production deals with Spain. The existence of a large and growing Hispanic market in the United States is also an important factor for many productions.

Latin America, alongside East Asia is one of the parts of the world where film audiences as well as the number of local productions are growing. The day will try to distinguish some of the main genres and themes of recent Latin American Cinema as well as discussing Las acacias in detail as an example of a film from a first time filmmaker that impressed festival audiences all around the world.

The notes for the day school can be downloaded here as a pdf: Latin America Day School Notes

Introduction to the work of Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is one of four Iranian filmmakers who have helped to establish Iranian art cinema with audiences across the globe. (The others are Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi and Mohsen Makhbalmaf with his other family members.) Panahi stands out because he has remained in Iran and taken on the government censors with hard-hitting films. As a result he has been arrested and has faced severe restrictions. His earlier films were heavily influenced by neo-realism but since his ‘house arrest’ he has had to develop new ways of making films. The tragedy is that although the films have won prizes at international festivals, it has proved very difficult to put them in front of Iranian audiences.

This one hour ‘illustrated talk’ will explore Jafar Panahi’s career, looking at extracts from his films and providing the background knowledge to gain most from his 2003 film Crimson Gold, screened in full.

Crimson Gold

Crimson Gold is scripted by Abbas Kiarostami and based on a real set of events involving a pizza delivery man in Tehran. Beginning with a dramatic incident, the film then explores why events turned out that way and in particular how the pressures within Iranian society affect many ordinary Iranians.

Jafar Panahi Filmography

Taxi Tehran (2015)

Closed Curtain (2013)

This Is Not a Film (2011)

Offside (2006)

Crimson Gold (2003)

The Circle (2000)

The Mirror (1997)

The White Balloon (1995)

The notes from this introduction can be downloaded here: IntrotoJafarPanahi.pdf

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong 2011)

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.

There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.

At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey).

The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.

Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.

Trailer with English Subs: