Category Archives: Melodrama

Assassin (Taiwan/HK/China 2015)

Shu Qin is the assassin Nie Yinniang

Shu Qi is the assassin Nie Yinniang, who spends time observing from vantage points

Assassin is the kind of film that you don’t expect to understand after a single screening. As I left the cinema an audience member spoke to an usher who asked him what he thought of the film. “Well, it was very beautiful”, he said, “I didn’t understand it all, but that’s OK because I enjoyed the experience”. I feel much the same, except I thought I understood quite a bit of it until I spoke to my viewing companion and then started to read the reviewers who did understand it and who had actually discussed it with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (such as Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound February 2016). As I read more about it, the film made more sense but also revealed some of the aspects that I’d either missed altogether or seen but failed to make sense of. I do hope to watch the film again, although I’m not sure where. Assassin is not playing in many cinemas and I do worry about how StudioCanal are organising its distribution. In the meantime there are aspects of the film I’d like to discuss and I’m conscious that there is almost a ‘meta-text’ being constructed in the various discourses about the film both in print and on the internet.

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The story of Assassin involves a young girl Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) betrothed at 10 years-old to her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in Weibo, a province on the Northern edge of the empire. When a change in family policy prevents the marriage, the girl is taken to the imperial capital by her aunt who trains her as an assassin to serve the empire. Thirteen years later the young woman ‘fails’ to complete an assassination task and her aunt sends her back to Weibo with orders to kill her cousin, now the governor of the region and becoming a threat to the centre. The main part of the narrative deals with what happens when Yinniang clashes with her cousin.

Tian in his chambers

Tian in his chambers

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien hadn’t made a feature since Le voyage du ballon rouge, a co-production with France in 2007, when he completed Assassin in 2015 and then won the Director’s prize at Cannes. Before 2007 he made two other films which got distribution in the UK – Three Times (2005) and Café Lumière, (2003) both also co-productions with France and Japan respectively. Before 2003, Hou’s work was quite difficult to see outside East Asia despite his status as one of the most important auteurs in global cinema. (His earlier films in the late 1980s were shown in the UK but have not remained in print.) As a consequence, I suspect some of the reviewers faced with Assassin had little context in which to try to ‘place’ his Cannes prizewinner. To confound critics further, Hou had not previously made a film set in the far distant past, so when he announced his interest in adapting a 9th century tale from the Tang period and exploring the wuxia or martial chivalry genre, a lot of blind alleys seemed to open up.

Tian's wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

Tian’s wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

In many ways, approaching the film as a wuxia seems to me if not a ‘mistake’, at least a ‘problematic’ enterprise. For most viewers in the West, wuxia is only familiar through the work of a handful of filmmakers, most of whom are auteurs like Hou. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee and Hero by Zhang Yimou are the two most widely-seen examples of films with strong elements of wuxia and, even so, neither film is fully satisfying to Chinese fans of the genre. Wuxia implies a ‘period setting’ and a conflict which at its centre concerns the opposition of distinct groups or individuals who practice a school of martial arts – i.e follow a specific teacher and a code of honour. The action sequences will take place in what is known as jianghu. This term seems to have several meanings, but all of them suggest a different, alternate fictional world in which there are different ‘rules’ and identities and in which martial actions are directly linked to philosophical and spiritual questions. (A detailed discussion of jianghu and the elements of wuxia is included at the end of my notes on Hero.) Rayns (2016) suggests that the whole world of the Tang dynasty might be seen as jianghu in Hou’s envisioning of the period. What is certainly true is that there is a profound contradiction between Hou’s approach to the staging of the historical period and his use of certain familiar wuxia elements.

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

Wuxia narratives (popular in novel form as well as films –Hou seems to have remembered the novels of his youth rather than the films of the great Taiwanese master King Hu) feature the jianghu which can include super-powers for the warriors. This is famously represented by wire-work choreography that allows actors to fly or to leap up into a tree or on to a roof where swordfights can be staged in spectacular fashion. These warriors have sword skills that enable them to deflect arrows and athleticism to dodge flying blades. They can shoot arrows that split hairs etc. The jianghu also includes the possibility of the supernatural with ghosts and witchcraft. All of these elements are present in Assassin, but they sit alongside an intensely realist presentation of the ‘real world’. Hou’s inspiration for the some of the military scenes and also of the remote villages in Weibo is in the work of Japanese filmmakers and especially Kurosawa Akira’s approach to the production of Seven Samurai (Japan 1954). This approach relies on getting the historical details correct as far as possible:

I wanted to try my hand at the genre [i.e. wuxia] one day – but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in The Assassin refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama. All else aside, I have to think about my actors. Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent . . . Actually, the biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal. (Hou quoted in the Assassin Press Notes)

It’s possible to see the problems for some critics (and even more so for some distributors) in this apparent contradiction. Hou seeks out the realist presentation and eschews too much reliance on action – which for many fans is the major attraction of wuxia. Comparisons with Zhang Yimou’s wuxia films are interesting because Zhang too is interested in those ‘philosophies’, but where Zhang stages the narratives in often spectacular settings – large palaces, hundreds of extras etc. – Hou chooses much more intimate settings – small palace chambers, clashes between groups of a dozen or so warriors etc. Hou also selects to use ‘narrow’ screen shapes – Academy 1:1.37 for the prologue (in monochrome) and something slightly wider for the main film (I thought 1:1.66 but IMDB says 1:1.41, which I’ve never come across before) with at least one insert of 1:1.85. Hou also favours long takes featuring a static or a slowly tracking camera. He doesn’t create the sense of movement with the camera or edits – only with the moments of swift movement by the actors within the frame. For much of the time, the principal character Yinniang waits quietly in the shadows, observing the scene before she acts. As a consequence, some audiences find the film ‘boring’ or ‘uninvolving’. Against this, many scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. Hou travelled to remote areas in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to find the silver birch woods, mountains and streams that become the ‘authentic’ settings for his story. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese visual arts, I recognised the emotional power of the settings. The beauty of the settings is enhanced by Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography. A long-time collaborator with Hou, Lee uses monochrome and colour in startling ways creating a palpable texture for images featuring rain and mists. I was sat quite close to the screen and sometimes there was a high level of grain in the image and at other times the image seemed processed. There were also some very subtle shifts of focus in some of the long shots of figures moving through landscapes. As far as I can tell, Lee shot most of the film in 35mm (except perhaps for the monochrome prologue – on 16mm?). It’s frustrating that I haven’t as yet found any further details online. The interior mise en scène is just as meticulously constructed with costumes and sets designed by Hwarng Wern-Ying. Again the historical detail is more important than any melodrama excess but Yinniang often observes from behind curtains, gauzes etc. which match the mists in the exterior scenes.

A long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

A skewed long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

Thinking about Assassin in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou, I remembered that Hou had been one of the producers of Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film that intrigues between the wives/concubines inside a war-lord’s house – itself a carefully constructed setting. Zhang also sought out new and spectacular settings for his second wuxia, The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Flying Daggers is a wuxia romance with female warriors in central roles and this is a description that might fit Assassin. However, it is another Zhang Yimou film that seems most relevant to me. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) has a similar structure of brief moments of action set between what is effectively a power struggle within a royal household. It’s much more spectacular than Assassin but the importance of the intrigue and the conflict of family ties and real politik is similar.

Hou’s final trick in making life more difficult for the audience – and adding layers to the intrigue – is to use another story told by a character as a kind of key. This is the story about the bluebird given as a gift. The bird fails to thrive until someone suggests that a mirror is put in the cage and then the bluebird revives, singing and dancing to its own reflection. Here is the clue to both the script and casting decisions. Many of the characters are ‘doubled’ and the casting and costumes/make-up seem to deliberately attempt to confuse the viewer – they certainly did for me. Thus it isn’t easy to distinguish between the wife and the concubine of Tian Ji’an and similarly Tian himself is sometimes easily confused with his officers. My first task when I re-watch the film will be to make sure I know who is doing what to whom.

Assassin9

Yinniang’s mother – seen in flashback as remembered by Yinniang. This sequence is presented in 1.85:1 with the rest of the film in 1.37:1

Whatever my problems following the narrative, I have no doubts that this will be one of the most interesting films I will see this year. And I haven’t even mentioned the music by Lim Giong which also needs more of my attention. I’m sure I saw a reference in the credits to music from ‘Dakar’ (in Senegal?). I must find out more. Trailers can never possibly convey the pacing or complexity of a film like Assassin but you can get to see some of the beauty and some of the features outlined above in this trailer:

Hou Hsaio-hsien is a case study director in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.

Masjävlar (Dalecarlians, Sweden-Denmark 2004)

Sofia Helin as Mia

Sofia Helin as Mia

As an avid fan of The Bridge (BronBroen) it was not long into Season 1 that I realised that I’d seen Sofia Helin before in a film I’d used on an evening class. This was Masjävlar (Dalecarlians) and it featured as part of a class I ran at the National Media Museum, linked to an exhibition of the photographs of Anders Petersen and JH Engström. The class was an attempt to explore certain ideas about the culture of central Sweden captured in the remarkable photographs taken by Petersen and Engström in Värmland County.

I was searching for Swedish films made in Värmland when I remembered Masjävlar which had played in the Bradford International Film Festival a few years earlier. It’s a film about ‘going home’ from Stockholm to the county of Dalarna in Central Sweden. Dalarna is the county east of Värmland and it is also known as Dalecarlia. The county has a strong identity and although it is not a very long way from Stockholm in geographical terms, it is culturally very different. In the film, Sofia Helin plays Mia, a woman in her early 30s who returns home to Dalarna for her father’s 70th birthday only to find that she is now at odds with her family in some ways. The film’s director Maria Blom based the narrative partly on her own experiences as a young woman from Stockholm whose father was born in Dalarna. She moved to the county herself around the time she wrote the original stage play.

My notes on the film for the evening class screening in 2011 can be downloaded here: Dalecarlians

This is a great little film that was immensely popular in Sweden and will be enjoyed by anybody who follows The Bridge and wants to know more about Swedish culture. Sofia Helin is excellent as Mia. A UK DVD is available from Drakes Avenue. Here’s a link to MovieMail.

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

The Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has developed a reputation for festival films in the ‘slow cinema’ mode. This means that his films are shown by leading festivals but struggle to get cinema releases in many territories. Jauja (his fifth feature) is a slightly different proposition since it stars the internationally-known Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen (who is also credited as one of the producers and the music composer on the film). Perhaps because of this, Alonso has managed to attract funding and support from many sources including the US, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The film won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Cannes and two other international awards and certainly in the UK it has had a higher profile on release than the director’s earlier films.

Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish military engineer in the late 19th century who is assisting the Argentinian Army in their genocidal campaign to survey and ‘clear’ the ‘jungle’ – the desolate area in Patagonia sparsely populated by indigenous peoples. (The English word ‘jungle’ has connotations of tropical rainforest but its original Sanskrit/Hindi meaning is ‘arid wasteland’ – precisely describing parts of Patagonia.) He has with him his teenage daughter. It isn’t explained why she is there and her presence is disturbing for some of the soldiers. Almost inevitably she starts a relationship with one of them and the couple then run away from the camp. Forced to go looking for them, Mortensen’s character makes his own journey into the unknown.

‘Jauja’ refers to a magical place and at the beginning of the film a title explains this. In colonial ‘Latin America’ it became associated with similar concepts such as ‘El Dorado’. In this instance it seems to me that it refers to what might be termed the fantasy at the heart of the colonial melodrama. In some ways this film reminded me of Tabu, the Portuguese film which so captivated me in 2012. The two films aren’t necessarily the same in style, but there are some parallels about colonialism and both employ a time shift so we see characters in the present with links to the colonial past. In Jauja the link is not really explained but Viilbjørk Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, also plays a young woman in a country house in modern Denmark. Without spoiling the ‘plot’, I’ll simply note here that the Captain’s search for his daughter takes him to some odd places and some strange experiences. There are two linking motifs between the two time periods – a dog and a toy soldier.

The colonial 'other' – the indigenous people who live in the 'jungle'

The colonial ‘other’ – the indigenous people who live in the ‘jungle’

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

The search for a daughter (common I understand to several of Alonso’s stories) in the context of a ‘hostile territory’ in the 19th century brings to mind John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran searching for his niece presumed abducted by Comanche raiders. Alonso selected the Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki) to shoot Jauja and Salminen is quoted as seeking a John Ford look for this quasi-Western. He appears to have come across the idea of an Academy (1.33:1) frame with rounded edges during post production and then imposed it on the 1.85:1 footage. The effect works particularly well because of the deep-focus compositions which stretch the gaze into the far distance – proving that barren spaces can be captured in depth as well as in the breadth of a CinemaScope image (see the article and interview with Mortensen by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight and Sound May 2015 plus the review of the film by Adrian Martin for more detail on this). The Academy framings also act as a reminder of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

I enjoyed Jauja and I found the various aesthetic devices and ideas about the colonial (mis)adventure both interesting and stimulating. I think the Danish connection came about because of the multilingual Mortensen’s interest in the script. Alonso and his co-writer Fabian Casas welcomed a different ‘voice’/language that would be ‘strange’ in an Argentinian film (i.e. not Spanish/French/Italian or English). The colonial past of Denmark is not so widely known as that of other European nations but it is an important element in Danish culture. Besides Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland, Denmark also possessed widely scattered small territories in the Caribbean and India and participated in the slave trade. Dinesen stands in for the European colonial adventurer while the Argentinians themselves are like the ‘settlers’ in North America and Australia who set out to eradicate indigenous peoples. The Argentinian Army officer in the film refers to ‘coconut heads’ – a made up name that Alonso thought would be strange but “not offensive” (see the interview in Sight and Sound). It sounds pretty offensive to me and I suspect to many others. Perhaps as the Luis Suarez racism charge suggests, these issues are rather differently dealt with in the Southern part of South America (i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay)?

So, what does the wider release mean for this ‘slow cinema’ film? I suspect that there has been a fair amount of bewilderment amongst the more mainstream arthouse audience. For my part I enjoyed the chance to gaze on the tableaux set up by Alonso and Salminen and to use the time to think about some of the issues. But I was aware that at the end of a long working day I was prone to losing concentration and potentially falling asleep. On the other hand, a big screen in a darkened cinema auditorium is also far more likely to hold my attention over the whole film than a small screen in my living room – when it is so easy to pause or switch off a DVD. Festival films are meant to be seen in cinemas, even if many critics now watch them on much smaller screens. I also have Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) on disc – I wonder how that will work out?

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

I was excited by the prospect of this film but I hadn’t attempted to read much about it before the screening. Mani Ratnam is acknowledged as one of the innovators of popular Indian cinema, helping to transform Tamil cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s and then moving into Hindi films or dual language versions of the same script. His last (Tamil) film was not released in the UK and his recent films made in Hindi or both Hindi and Tamil did not really work as well as his earlier purely Tamil films. I was delighted then to recognise quite quickly that OK Kanmani is in many ways an updated version of one of my favourite Ratnam Tamil films, Alaipayuthey (2001). I read later that Ratnam deliberately opted for the update to explore what he saw as changes in attitudes towards marriage in India.

In Alaipayuthey the young man is a recently graduated software engineer setting up a new company with classmates. He comes from a wealthy family but at a friend’s wedding he meets a young woman, a medical student from a middle-class family. Their parents refuse permission to marry because of the class difference so they marry secretly and inevitably things go wrong before a happy ending to what is a romance/family melodrama set in Chennai. In OK Kanmani, the young man Adi is a talented computer games designer who arrives in Mumbai from Chennai to work on a new job with friends from the Tamil community. He meets Thara, an architectural ‘intern’ living in a ladies’ hostel. Again they meet at a wedding (a Christian Tamil wedding). The class positions this time are reversed, Adi is middle-class, Thara comes from a very wealthy family in Coimbatore (the rapidly developing second city of Tamil Nadu). Though they are clearly very much in love, neither wants to marry yet. Since both are away from home they are able to consummate their relationship outside marriage without their parents’ knowledge. They must then decide if they want a ‘live-in’ relationship and not a secret marriage. This is the big change between the two films.

As well as this central relationship, Ratnam offers us a long-term marriage, possibly as a comparison or ‘test’ for the younger lovers. Adi is lucky that he is able to rent a room in the spacious house of his brother’s ex-boss, the retired banker Ganapathay. The banker has retired to look after his wife Bhavani, a former singing star of Carnatic music who has developed early stage Alzheimer’s. If Adi and Thara are going to live together in Ganapathay’s house they need to persuade the couple. Inevitably though it is going to be difficult to prevent Adi’s brother and sister-in-law from discovering what is happening. As one comment I read pointed out the brother’s marriage is conventional for the 1990s, thus Mani Ratnam can present three relationships across the decades when the brother and his family make a surprise visit. Adi and Thara’s relationship is contingent on their separate career ambitions. In particular she wants to go to Paris to study further and he knows his talent can take him to North America. How will the relationship survive these potentially conflicting ambitions? Neither wants to marry but marriage is a convention of Indian film narratives as well as Indian society generally.

In ‘updating’ the earlier story Mani Ratnam has made some interesting decisions. He’s returned to work with cinematographer P. C. Sreeram who lensed Alaipayuthey and earlier Ratnam classics with long-term collaborator film editor A. Sreekar Prasad. Also, I understand that the film uses a great deal of live sound – it was certainly noticeable that the dialogue seemed both more spontaneous and more ‘natural’ than the booming dialogue of mainstream Indian cinema. Reading round the film I also discovered that much of what was meant to be Mumbai was actually Chennai. Ahmedabad is one of the cities visited by Thara for its architectural qualities. but it also provided more generic locations. So, Mumbai here is less a city of tourist sites and more a generic urban space excitingly filmed. To add to this sense of the ‘urban’, Ratnam starts the film with a sequence from a videogame. Later we will realise that this is ‘Mumbai 2.0’ the game (presumably in a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style?) that Adi is developing. Further game sequences including an animated sequence feature later in the film. The music is by maestro A. R. Rahman. I enjoyed the soundtrack in the film but nothing stood out immediately. I’m now listening to the tracks on YouTube and getting more into them. In the clip below (sung by Karthik and Shashaa Tirupati) the lovers are together in a lodge in Ahmedebad – one of the few scenes that aren’t primarily ‘realist’. The song begins with Adi using music software on his iPad and a Bluetooth speaker. This is one of many examples of modern phone and computer technology woven into the narrative.

The film succeeds for me mainly because of the cast. Dulquer Salmaan (Adi), younger son of Malayalam cinema icon Mammootty, is very good with his rather annoying and cocky manner which is easily dealt with by Nitya Menen as Thara. The two work very well together and I found Nitya Menen delightful as an intelligent young woman who is very attractive but not a Bollywood fantasy woman. This couple is matched by veteran Prakash Raj as Ganapathay and Leela Samson as Bhavani. Leela Samson is a highly experienced dancer but this is her first film feature. She steals many of her scenes. Ratnam’s skill is to use her character’s Alzheimer’s in such a way that we realise its serious implications yet she can also be the deflater of serious moments. I won’t spoil the narrative but I agree with those commentators who see the older couple’s intense love as an important element of the film.

At this point it seems that OK Kanmani is a big hit with the public in South India and abroad in North America. There isn’t a Hindi version but a Telugu version was released at the same time as the Tamil. Nitya Menen has appeared in earlier Telugu films. Some of the younger critics in India and especially those most interested in the new ‘independent’ Indian cinema have criticised OK Kanmani for its lack of adventure in its depiction of the city and for its weak ending. I’ll agree with this last point, the narrative ‘resolution’ was a disappointment for me but that doesn’t negate the sheer pleasure I got from most of the film. This is a mainstream romance and most audiences will thoroughly enjoy it on that basis. My faith in Mani Ratnam remains.

Official trailer:

The Golden Era (Huang jin shi dai, China-Hong Kong 2014)

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

This film was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival where I saw two other recent Chinese films, Dearest (China-HK 2014) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I saw The Golden Era earlier at Cornerhouse in Manchester for the annual Chinese New Year treat courtesy of the Chinese Film Forum. Golden Era is a biopic, a melodrama and a very personal film by Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the case study directors in The Global Film Book). The Hong Kong entry for Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, The Golden Era did not make the final selection but this is no surprise given its length, large cast of mainly ensemble players and its lead character who is an important Chinese writer from the 1930s but not widely known outside China itself.

I usually prefer to see films ‘cold’ but in this case I think it would have been useful to have read some of the background on the narrative’s subject, Xiao Hong. This might have made it easier to understand the inter-relationships of the central characters and their movements during the turbulence in China in the 1930s. Xiao Hong was born in Manchuria close to the border with Russia in 1911 and eventually found her way to Hong Kong where she died in 1942. She tells us this in a ‘to camera’ statement at the start of the film and this is a strategy Ann Hui deploys throughout the film as different characters in the story comment on their ‘take’ on the writer and what happened to her. This is both a narrative device to disrupt the conventions of the biopic and something of a necessity because there are so many gaps in the known history of the character. This means we get some contrasting versions of what might have happened and why. The device made me think of Actress/Centre Stage (HK 1992) Stanley Kwan’s audacious film about the 1930s Shanghai film star Ruan Lingyu in which Maggie Cheung plays the star and appears as herself.

Xiao Jun  (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

The Golden Era is a complex story about a genuine rebel character. Originally named Zhang Naiying, Hong had an unhappy childhood and ran away from an arranged marriage only to find herself pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and abandoned at 20 in a cheap hotel in Harbin. Her rescuers were from the local group of writers. She fell for one of them and the couple changed their names to Xiao. She became Hong, he became Jun. From her early beginnings as a writer Hong wrote about her feelings and about the social environment. In 1931 Japan occupied what a year later would become the puppet state of Manchukuo. Hong herself would later spend time in Tokyo where she coined the term ‘Golden Era’ to describe a special period in her own life – recognising that she had time to herself (Jun was not with her) to write and that this was what she prized most. (I found this to be a striking observation for a young woman in her twenties.) At other times she visited Shanghai and became part of semi-official Chinese literary culture. However, as the Japanese invasion of the rest of China began to take hold in 1937, she and her fellow writers began to move West, ahead of the Japanese and joining up with the Communist Party. Hong and Jun split – for several reasons. He wanted to fight, she just wanted to write. When she did eventually marry it was not for love.

It isn’t difficult to see what attracted Ann Hui to this project. She herself was born in Manchuria in 1947 and her mother was Japanese. Like Hong, she moved to Hong Kong (but as a child aged 5). For one of the most acclaimed female directors in Chinese film, Hong’s story is full of important examples of refusal to abide by the conventions that bound most Chinese women of the time – of family, of ‘romance’, of ideologies of ‘cultural work’. The role of Hong requires an actor of great presence and strength and this is a wonderful performance by Tang Wei, probably best known outside China for the lead female role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (China/US/Taiwan 2007). The remainder of the ensemble cast is very strong too, many are actors who seem familiar including Hao Lei as Ding Lin, another prominent female writer, but one who is a redoubtable CCP soldier.

The film appeared at major festivals including Venice (closing night film) and Toronto but it received a mixed reception. Variety called the film ‘stifling’ and ‘unilluminating’. I’m an Ann Hui fan but I confess that in the opening sequences, knowing that the film was 177 minutes, I did wonder where it was going to go and whether I’d be able to cope with so many characters. In truth I thought the second part of the film was preferable to the first. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that I began to feel more comfortable with the array of characters and secondly the film became more of a recognisable melodrama. I guess that around half the audience in Manchester were Mandarin speakers and I noticed that they laughed at one moment when I was responding to what seemed like classic melodrama. It may be that the subtitling didn’t carry a joke – or perhaps it was that the younger Chinese audience is less familiar with classic melodramas. I thought about the films of Xie Jin in particular, but was also reminded of my recent viewing of Spring In a Small Town (China 1948). In these films it is usually the woman at the centre of the story – and often it is relationships between women that really matter.

Thinking about melodrama also prompts considerations of the films problems – and potential solutions. The interior lives of writers are difficult to register on film. At the two extremes are sequences of someone writing in a room or visualisations of their ideas that might be quite spectacular. Xiao Hong’s biography does indeed comprise many scenes in rooms punctuated by dramatic events in a country mired in war (a lot of train trips, wagon rides and ferries). Melodrama at least offers us the pleasures of costume, colour, hair and make-up and this is a feature of The Golden Era. I enjoyed the cinematography of Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City) and the art direction of Zhao Hai.

Reading the varied responses to the film I was struck by that of Derek Elley for Film Business Asia. He thinks that the film fails (he also refers to another recent version of the same story, Falling Flowers in 2012). Elley argues that Ann Hui is less comfortable with period films but he puts most of the blame on Tang Wei who he agues is completely miscast. I haven’t seen Ann Hui’s other period films so I can’t comment on that aspect. The Tang Wei argument is more troublesome. Elley clearly doesn’t rate her as an actress and argues she can’t hold the narrative together. I’m not sure she has to. The story is as much about the people around her and how they see her. Elley makes sharp comments. Here’s an extended quote:

Looking and acting way too modern throughout, Tang is unable even to come up with a consistent style of delivering her dialogue, wobbling between softer standard Mandarin and a hard, gutsy northern accent. She seems out of place from the start and doesn’t make Xiao Hong (for all her faults) somebody worth caring about across three hours of drama and tragedy. It’s a typically loose, unfocused performance by the 34-year-old actress that seeps out into the rest of the movie.

It’s always difficult watching a film and having to rely on subtitles and being unable to distinguish accents and dialects. But this is a common charge in many film cultures (I’m equally guilty of criticising UK and US actors for inappropriate accents). Perhaps that laughter quoted above was aimed at the delivery of the dialogue? As to the performance overall, Ann Hui is a vastly experienced and highly-celebrated director. I can’t really see her accepting the kind of performance Elley refers to. I acknowledge his comments and I agree with some of them up to a point but overall I enjoyed the film and Tang Wei’s performance. Unfortunately, like the other two films mentioned at the start of this review I don’t think that The Golden Era will be widely seen in UK cinemas. Distributors seem afraid of releasing Chinese films of any kind.

Here’s the international trailer with English subs:

And a Chinese trailer with English subs:

The Tree (L’arbre, Australia-France 2010)

The two youngest children, Charlie and Simone (Morgana Davies)

The two youngest children, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and Simone (Morgana Davies)

I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.

The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.

Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.

The tree stands in its 'magical reality'

The tree stands in its ‘magical reality’

But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.

My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.