Ordinary Heroes (Qian yan wan yu, Hong Kong (Cantonese) 1999)

Anthony Wong as Fr. Kam with street children

‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.

The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.

I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.

It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.

Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan, India (Hindi) 2017)

Rajiv and family take a trip along the Ganges in Varanasi. Daya is with one of his new friends and his granddaughter Sunita. Rajiv and his wife Lata seem somewhere else.

Hotel Salvation is the latest Indian Independent film to successfully tour film festivals worldwide and now receive a limited general release in the UK. It was first launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. Its young (25 year-old) writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani had already won prizes with Kesh (2013), his thesis film short from New York School of Visual Arts which also first screened at Venice, winning two awards. His début feature feels tonally similar to Court (2014) and seems to have followed a similar distribution pattern. It also shares one of the lead actors from Court, Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays Lata, the wife of the central character, Rajiv (Adil Hussain). Rajiv is a hard-working family man with a student daughter living somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. His 77 year-old father Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with the family and one day he announces that his death is imminent and that he wants to die seeking salvation in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He expects his son to take him to Varanasi for his last few days. That’s the outline of the plot. When I saw the film at a preview a few weeks ago, the flyer promoting it from the distributor, the British Film Institute, gave a wholly misleading reference, quoting critics who likened it to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011). I have nothing against that film, but Hotel Salvation is quite different and the reference simply shows the problems Indian films face with such ignorance from mainstream critics. The BFI now seems to have withdrawn the flyer, probably after so many negative reactions.

Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his father Daya (Lalit Behl) arrive at the hotel.

Shubhashish Bhutiani had the idea for the film when he discovered the existence of the Varanasi ‘Mukti Bhawans’ or ‘Salvation Hotels’ – modest hostels which allow a dying person to stay for a maximum 15 days. If they have not died in that time they must move out – but some just re-admit themselves under a different name. The hostel has a priest on hand and access to all the necessary services. Varanasi is still well-known for its ghats – the stepped embankments that lead down to the Ganges, some of which are regularly used for cremations and pujas (religious rituals). However, the numbers are now restricted because of fears of pollution. Daya avails himself of what is on offer and makes a number of friends in his first fortnight while Rajiv grows increasingly frustrated, linked via his mobile to a boss who keeps asking him when he is returning. Later both his wife and daughter will come to visit with their own concerns and Bhutiani has said:

“What this film does is that it looks at the same incident from the eyes of three different generations. It is also reflective of present-day India when a section is busy consolidating cultural and traditional mores while there is a set of people wanting development and liberalism. In between, there is a struggle between the East and West and the issue of cultural dilution with internet telling us what people are eating and wearing in different parts of the world. Things like what is organic food?” (The Hindu, 18 April 2017, Interview by Anuj Kumar)

Bhutiani is a sophisticated young man, born in Kolkata, schooled in Uttarakhand and then New York but also familiar with his mother’s family background in Rajasthan. He states his identity as Indian but his perspective as global. It’s not surprising then that his film has a global appeal not unlike the films of Satyajit Ray, but, also like Ray, rooted in ‘real’ local traditions and cultures. Hotel Salvation is a gentle film, sometimes quite humorous and overall very affecting as we see the family individually learning about themselves and their relationships and eventually coming together. Adil Hussain is the most experienced actor in the film while Lalit Behl has just the one other role in Titli (India 2014). Interestingly, the theatre actor Hussain has complained that he has been ‘underexploited’ in films, including this one: “I want to get rid of this realistic acting for some time. I want to fly, and the stage is one place where I am allowed to fly”. (The Indian Express, 7 May, 2017). But it is precisely the realist representation which works so well here. The situation creates the drama and the actors express the emotion. I look forward to the future films of Shubhashish Bhutiani, a young man with lots of promise. I also liked the music by Tajdar Junaid and the cinematography by two Americans (?) who I’m guessing Bhutiani knows from New York.

Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.

Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belgium 2016)

Simon (Gabin Verdet) and his girlfriend Julette (Galatéa Bellugi)

This is the third feature by the French auteur Katell Quillévéré. It’s adapted from a novel by Maylis De Kerangal and the screenplay is by the director and the highly-experienced Gilles Taurand. I’d seen and enjoyed Ms Quillévéré’s first two features, Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013), and I was keen to see the third, although I knew it would be difficult for me to watch hospital scenes in an operating theatre (I’m very squeamish). The title is ‘bald’ in its meaning – to save lives by using the vital organs of healthy people who have died in accidents.

Simon’s parents Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen)

Anne Dorval as Claire, te heart’s recipient

The film is unusual in taking an emotional subject and structuring the narrative in such a way as to possibly slightly distance the audience. I have to be circumspect here since I watched the last section of the film through my fingers. In the first part of the narrative we follow three young men obsessed with surfing. They drive out to a beach near the port of Le Havre very early one morning and enjoy an exhilarating session, but as they drive back there is a tragic accident and 17 year-old Simon is seriously injured. This opening sequence is almost dialogue free and it really is a tour de force. Simon’s parents are summoned to the hospital and it is the task of Dr. Thomas Rémige (Tahar Rahim) to explain to the distraught parents that Simon is actually ‘brain dead’ and that they might consider donating his organs. Meanwhile in Paris, Claire (French-Canadian actor Anne Dorval) is told that her weak heart is failing and that she needs a transplant. I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative to then reveal that the third and last section brings the other two strands together.

What is unusual is that Katell Quillévéré has decided to present the film almost like an observational ‘day in the life’ documentary. Although Tahar Rahim is top-billed as the ‘star’ of the film, he is only on screen for a short time. This is an ‘ensemble film’, so Quillévéré gives us a number of other characters, each of whom plays a small part in the overall story, but each of whom is in a sense ‘humanised’ in what is a highly-organised medical process. These characters include Simon’s girlfriend and the newly-appointed nurse who looks after him on the life support system, Claire’s doctor in Paris and her two grown-up sons, her ex-lover etc. and in the final section, the two junior doctors (?) who accompany the heart on its journey from Le Havre to Paris and contribute to the surgery team.

The registrar (Bouli Lanners) and the cardiologist (Tahar Rahim)

Jeanne (Monia Chokri) the nurse on the left has her own private ‘moment’ during the busy day

It is a brave move to play down all the possibilities of a family melodrama and not to invoke any genre touches in presenting such an emotional story. Reading reader’s comments on the best-selling novel that forms the source material, I learned that the film’s title comes from a line in Chekhov’s play Platonov (1878): “Bury the dead and repair the living”. The novel in French has been translated twice in English (for UK/Canada as Mend the Living and in the US as The Heart). I think the film’s English title is clever in referring to ‘healing’ rather than the more prosaic ‘mending’, although on second thoughts, ‘mend’ is quite an interesting term too. I’m intrigued that quite a few literary reviewers referred to the ‘straight to video’ or ‘movie of the week’ material of the narrative and commented on how the literary style ‘lifted’ the material. I thought of emotional drama/melodrama, but putting down such stories as implied by the comments above reeks a bit of snobbery, I think). I would have to agree, however, that it is Katell Quillévéré’s sheer skill in her staging of events and direction of her ensemble cast, all of whom are very good, that makes this such an accomplished film. Despite its ‘documentary/procedural’ feel, she also offers us at least two moments of fantasy that are beautiful to watch and work very well in the presentation of the story. The cinematography and editing are particularly good. The score is by Alexandre Desplat and it complements the editing and provides an emotional base for the narrative. The novel emphasises that all the events are contained in a 24 hour period. The film doesn’t explicitly state this (and I didn’t think about it) but there is always a sense of ‘controlled urgency’.

Heal the Living didn’t get much of a cinema distribution in the UK and even where it was available, not much of an audience. That’s a shame. I think Katell Quillévéré is a real talent. I’m not sure this is my kind of story but I was still engaged throughout and very impressed by how it is presented. If you are a fan of such stories I urge you to seek it out. (It’s on Curzon Home Cinema and no doubt other outlets.)

Your Name (Japan 2016)

Mitsuha and Taki

Mitsuha and Taki

This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.

In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.

The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015)

rams_poster

These are my (slightly edited) notes distributed for a screening of the film in 2016.

Rams was a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. It was promoted as a dark comedy about a pair of brothers who have fallen out though they live close by each other on two separate farms. What brings them back into contact is an outbreak of disease among the local sheep and their farmer’s reluctance to follow government guidelines on disease control. For some audiences the film is dark enough to be a tragedy, but either way it seems to have captured the imagination of UK audiences.

Iceland has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance rates in the world. Whatever the reasons for this (long, cold nights with little to do?), it does mean a vibrant local film culture and a recent history of notable films that have won prizes at international festivals. For example, Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) won the New European Cinema Prize at Bradford International Film Festival in 2012. Although a winner around the world, no-one was prepared to go on and release the film in the UK. The lead in Volcano was played by Theodór Júlíusson, now one of the two brothers in Rams. We should be grateful that Soda Pictures gambled and put Rams into distribution. Perhaps it was the leavening effect of humour which allowed Rams into distribution? The other recent Icelandic film to get a UK release, Of Horses and Men (2013) is also a ‘rural comedy’.

Like most Icelandic film productions (and TV serials like Trapped, on BBC4 early in 2016), Rams is a co-production involving Danish as well as Icelandic public funds. The budget for the film was around €1.5 million (about the same as the average for low budget UK films). Around 10-12 films are made in Iceland each year. The links to Denmark are ‘post-colonial’ in Iceland. They are necessary for such a small country, though after 1945 Iceland began to turn more to the US and the UK (the relationship with the UK has sometimes been similarly tense – note the aside about disease imported with British livestock in the film). Polish involvement in Rams perhaps reflects the fact that Poles are the biggest migrant group in the country. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 – less than Bradford and less than half the population of Leeds. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in the ‘capital region’ of ‘Greater Reykjavik’. Emotional dramas like Rams can be quite intimate. Population density outside the capital region is very low and people know their neighbours well. Family disputes stand out.

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Director’s statement

Rams was written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, a young man still in his 30s who has made an affecting film about two brothers in their sixties. Hákonarson began his career working on documentaries and he also has experience of working with sheep. An interview with him is available on the BFI Player series (free to watch): https://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-rams-qa-with-director-grimur-hakonarson-2016/

Hákonarson trained in Prague and in the interview he explains that his instinct is to show rather than ‘tell’ as a Hollywood film might do. This means that as an editor, he always tries to cut the dialogue and that as a documentarist he is spontaneous – sometimes shooting scenes not in the script because they might offer something in the edit. For example, a scene in which one of the brothers, Gummi, shovels snow from outside his door was not in the script but now has meaning in the final edit.

Many of the incidents in the film that seem absurd or slightly surreal are in fact based on real incidents, including the trip to hospital and sheep in the basement. The central story is inspired by a true story the filmmaker learned from his father and some of the extras who appear in the film are local farmers. The film does confirm the old adage that the more ‘real’ a filmmaker wishes a film to appear, the more artifice is required. In this case that means a long period of preparation, including a search for amenable sheep (most sheep would simply run away from the filmmakers and Iceland has nearly 500,000 sheep), finding the two houses close together etc. Though the region of Iceland depicted in the film (in the North West) does have heavy snowfall in winter, it was still necessary to spend money on artificial snow (and CGI snow) for some scenes. Two sheep died ‘naturally’ during the filming and through use of CGI the two dead sheep could be used to show a flock being culled.

Tradition and family

Iceland is a ‘young country’ in terms of population profile with a median age of 35 and a high birth rate by European standards. But it is also a culture in which traditions are important as well as close family ties. The director has stated that he sees the ending of the film as symbolic.

References

Statistics on Iceland from: https://issuu.com/hagstofa/docs/icelandinfigures2015

United States of Love (Zjednoczone Stany Miłości, Poland 2016)

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

Tomasz Wasilewski, writer-director of United States of Love is a name to watch. Born in 1980 he has produced a narrative set in a Polish town in 1990. The English title of the film is ironic in two ways. It could be read as a comment directed at the desire of Poles in 1990 for the materialism and ‘freedom’ of American society. It could also refer to the sense of a community united in pursuit of the erotic or simply the possible comfort of an emotional relationship. Either way it is a dark prospect, emphasised by the film’s washed out colours and drab setting. This certainly isn’t a ‘date movie’ or a Friday night feelgood film.

We are plunged straight into the middle of a celebratory meal as Poland moves towards democracy, shot as a static scene in which everyone around a long dining table seems to be talking at once. I found it difficult to follow the subtitles and at the same time to scan the faces to work out who was who. The four principal female characters are all present for the meal as they are all neighbours in the same concrete housing block on several floors. The film narrative follows each of these four women for their own self contained narrative – and also interweaves them. Wasilewski uses a technique whereby he may repeat a scene from an earlier story and then start a new story with a different central character – so we also get a different perspective on the first story. This overlap becomes more noticeable when one story ends very badly and this time he doesn’t repeat the final scene – leaving us in limbo as to what happened next.

The four women, for me, seem to represent different groups of women in Polish society. Agata is a married woman, still young but with a young teenage daughter. She is the one who seems most aroused by the erotic urge associated with freedom. Many reviewers refer to her ‘unhappy marriage’. I’m not sure that describes her situation. Her husband is represented as a passive character not particularly keen to try anything new. In a nicely observed sequence we learn that the housing block has a thriving video club with homemade videotapes. ‘Adult films’ are popular with many residents and Agata watches a porn sequence that has been left on the end of a tape sent by the husband of one her friends working abroad. Agata is obsessed with the idea of seducing the young priest who visits the families in the block. The church provides one of the few flashes of colour in the neighbourhood, but it is also intrusive.

Iza is the headteacher of the local school and she has been having a long-term affair with a married doctor. For me she represents how, under the old regime in Poland, someone in her position as a professional with status could own her own car and have a rare form of independence – now threatened. Iza is wearing the green dress in the image above. Her careful coiffure, her pearls and fine bone structure give her an image of a 1950s glamour figure. She is single and comes across as a cold character, now out of time. The young woman standing behind her in the image is her sister Marzena, a former beauty queen now working as a PE instructor and in a spa hotel which welcomes its first German tourists. She wants to become a photographic model, but she also has become the object of desire for an older woman, a teacher at her sister’s school, Renata – the fourth principal character. These two characters represent very different women in the ‘new Poland’. Marzena has opportunities but appears vulnerable to all the evils of capitalist exploitation. Renata is in one sense now ‘free’ but in another ‘left behind’.

These four intriguing and inter-related stories offer plenty to engage the viewer but the visual style of the film is in some ways its most memorable feature. The young director did well to attract to the project the cinematographer Oleg Mutu from Romania and one of the principal creatives behind the Romanian New Wave. Mutu, Wasilewski and his designers create images drained of colour – so much so that before I looked at the trailer below or stills from the film, I had forgotten that the film was not shot in black and white. The effect is emphasised by the mise en scène which is devoid of (nearly) all those features of capitalist society that we take for granted – the advertisements, graffiti, posters, shop displays etc.  The effect of bleakness is further enhanced by Mutu’s compositions which use the space of the ‘Scope frame to isolate and also sometimes to push characters out of the frame as the camera holds the framing in a static shot. In one sequence, when Agata aggressively seduces her husband, the couple end up more or less out of the frame with just a foot pushing against a fitted sheet – an extraordinary image. Equally, in a film in which colour has been drained away, it is shocking to enter Renata’s apartment and to meet the greenery and brightly coloured birds she keeps for company. The most tragic and disturbing shot in the film is actually reminiscent of last year’s Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) in which a tragedy is shown in an extreme long shot. Somehow, the seemingly huge distance from the tragedy emphasises our sense of being a helpless observer. I’ll remember the shot for a long time.

In this Cineuropa interview Tomasz Wasilewski talks a little about his childhood (he was 10 in 1990) and about his very negative feelings towards the communist period in Poland. In that sense his film certainly communicates how he feels. On the same day I saw his film at the Leeds Film Festival, I also saw Old Stone (China-Canada 2016). That film deals with the contemporary period in China and has a similar dystopian feel though here it is the ‘old values’ of communism that have been lost and the new values that are creating problems. It’s interesting that both films feature scenes of exercise classes for women – I haven’t worked out what that means yet! It’s also interesting to compare the historically themed art films coming out of Poland today (e.g. Ida (2013 as well as United States of Love) with the commercial pictures getting a UK release such as Planeta Singli (Poland 2016). I wonder what Wasilewski makes of these new blockbusters?

United States of Love has been released in a handful of UK cinemas and is also available on VOD from Curzon Home Cinema. In the UK it has been given an ’18’ certificate for “sexual assault, strong sex”. I’m not sure that the depiction of sexual activity merits an 18, but the unremitting bleakness might. I’d still recommend the film.