Godspeed (Yi Lu Shun Feng, Taiwan 2016)

‘Little Boss’ and ‘Old Xu’ find themselves bundled into the boot of a car . . .

This year’s Chinese New Year screening at HOME Manchester presented by the Chinese Film Forum UK and the Confucius Institute at The University of Manchester, was a Taiwanese film. We’ve had a variety of features over the last few years in Manchester and they have usually been films that haven’t been acquired for UK release. This is particularly the case with Taiwanese films which struggle to get any kind of profile in the UK. Godspeed introduced me to Taiwanese auteur Chung Mong-Hong who wrote and directed as well as photographed his film (using his cinematographer pseudonym Nakashima Nagao). Chung’s credits on IMDb suggest that his career began in his early 40s and that he has performed one or more of his three creative roles across seven fiction features and one documentary since 2008. This seems unusual and I wonder what he did before?

The screening was introduced by Fraser Elliott representing both HOME and the Chinese Film Forum. Fraser suggested that this was a ‘multi-genre’ film drawing on the repertoires of crime, comedy, the road movie and the buddy movie. It was successful both commercially and with critics in East Asia, winning various prizes. Director Chung is part of the renaissance of Taiwanese film at the start of the 21st century and there are several interesting features of Godspeed. Fraser explained that one of these was the casting of Michael Hui, one of the legends of Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, who then became an important figure in HK television. It has been suggested that Hui has not worked so often in Taiwan or the Mainland, partly because of the difficulties he has had learning Mandarin. His Hong Kong status is utilised in Godspeed by making his character ‘Old Xu’, a not very successful taxi driver who moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan in the 1990s. Fraser suggested that Godspeed offered something somewhere in between “Samuel Beckett and Golden Age HK Cinema”. What on earth did he mean?

The young man (Lin Na-Dou) has to follow conoluted instructions to perform his role as courier . . .

It fairly quickly became apparent that Chung Mong-Hong belongs to that small group of directors who pitch their films somewhere between the arthouse and the multiplex. Similar directors often move some titles a little towards the arthouse and sometimes in the opposite direction, but always there is an intelligence and a ‘knowingness’ about genre. As I tried to make sense of Godspeed, the only handle I could grasp was my knowledge of Johnnie To, whose films seem to inhabit the same fictional universe. Godspeed opens with two seemingly separate stories. In one a Taiwanese man (Leon Dai) travels to Bangkok for some kind of trade that appears to go badly wrong. In the other a sad and overweight young man (Lin Na-Dou) answers a newspaper ad and gets a job as a courier to take a package to the South of the island from Taipei. He decides to take a cab and is approached by a yellow cab of some vintage with an equally vintage driver – ‘Old Xu’. The young man is reluctant and haggling ensues before an uneasy truce and the journey begins. Eventually we will realise that this is a drug mule choosing an unusual mode of transport and that the two stories are actually linked – but we won’t make all the connections immediately.

The long sofa still covered in its plastic wrapping. What will happen when it comes off?

Chung is seemingly not interested in the kinds of conventions which enable genre films to be easily exported. I found the film’s opening hard to follow. In Bangkok there is a play on whether or not a large rock will contain jade if broken open – and if someone could tell, just by handling the rock. I know that jade is very important in Asian art and culture, but I wasn’t sure what the allusion was here. Was it about expertise or trust or being a good gambler? In the other story, the procedures the young man has to follow to accept the job and carry it out were tortuous and mysterious. I thought at first that Old Xu was ‘in’ on the drug run and that the young man was meant to take his cab. But apparently not. Fraser described the drug run as a mundane genre element and indeed there are aspects of the film narrative that do feel rather tedious in laying out the plot. If the film is to take off, it requires that interesting relationships are developed between pairs of characters. This is certainly the case and all the lead performances are excellent. Each relationship also has an underpinning of comedy. This is strongest between ‘Old Xu’ and ‘Little Boss’ (as he terms the young man) but it is also there in the meeting between Leon Dai’s character and his partner which involves an odd conversation about an enormously long sofa, still in its plastic packaging. Chung inserts many quirky plot details into scenes and creates a delicate ripple of absurdity. He then ups the violence and there are some very gruesome scenes at various points. These last might make the film commercially viable for an international audience (remember the ‘typing’ of ‘Extreme Asian Cinema’ used by Tartan Video to sell East Asian horror and crime?). However, the other features of this unconventional film are likely to deter Western buyers.

The last third of the film sold the whole package to me. This is when Little Boss and Old Xu learn about each other and a relationship develops which is genuinely moving. I confess I’d like t0o have followed this story into its next phase as a father-son relationship seemed to be developing. There are more comic moments and more emotional moments in this last third than in the rest of the film. I knew steamed buns were important in Chinese culture and this confirms it. I’ll certainly watch another Chung Mong-Hong film if I get the chance. The trailer below from the Seattle International Film Festival gives a good insight into the style of the film. I was taken by the landscape of levées and waterways and the unusual locations for events including the abandoned mini theme park and bowling alley.

 

How to Steal 2 Million (South Africa 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nomura #2: Zero Focus (Zero no shoten, Japan 1961)

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) , Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

The three women at the centre of ZERO FOCUS in a promo pic, (from left) Takachiho Hizuru as Sachiko, Kuga Yoshiko as Teiko and Arima Ineko as Hisako

portrait-without-bleedThis was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.

Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.

The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.

Confrontation on the cliffs

Confrontation on the cliffs

The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.

Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:

http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_movies/zerofocus.shtml

http://wanderingkaijyu.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/zero-focus-aka-zero-no-shoten-1961.html

The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.

N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.

Nairobi Half Life (Kenya-Germany 2012)

Mwas (Joseph Waimiru) bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) – bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and like Nigeria and South Africa it has a legacy of anglophone film culture from the British colonial period. Contemporary Kenya has managed to retain cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa but unlike the other two countries it has so far not managed to export films for the international market even though a range of films are made locally. In 2013 two Kenyan titles were screened as part of Bristol’s African Film Festival, Afrika Eye in the UK. Nairobi Half-Life and Something Necessary (Kenya 2013) were well-received and have now begun a tour of UK venues. Nairobi Half Life was also an official Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014, although it failed to make the shortlist.

In the past, Kenya was too often simply the ‘backdrop’ for adventure stories made by British or American producers. A good recentish example would be The Constant Gardener (UK-US-Germany 2005) which featured scenes set in the enormous shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi. Though this film had elements of ‘authenticity’ in its imagery (as might be expected from Fernando Meirelles,  the co-director of City of God) it was not really an African story. The two films screened at Afrika Eye were both made under the aegis of a partnership between German director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day production company and a local Kenyan company, Ginger Ink. What this meant in practice was that a local story and script was produced by a Kenyan creative team and Kenyan actors but aspects of post production were carried out in Germany and Tykwer and cinematographer Christian Almesberger were ‘supervisors’ of direction and camerawork. The music was scored by Xaver Von Treyer who worked closely with musicians in Nairobi (listen to a sample track here).

I should start my comments on the film by saying how much I enjoyed watching (and listening to) it. The performances of the leads are very good, the camerawork and editing, alongside the music, present all the vibrancy of city life and the narrative of what is a familiar genre film works well. The film was directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga (who had been an assistant director on The First Grader (UK-US-Kenya 2010)).

The central character is Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a young man desperate to leave his village and make it as an actor in the big city. What follows is a familiar story of the country boy landing in the city, suffering setbacks and falling in with a street gang. But Mwas really is a talented performer and he finds himself accepting an acting role in a local theatre group’s production at the same time that his new friends begin to escalate the scale of their criminal activities – partly, and largely unwittingly, because of actions begun by Mwas. It is this ‘double life’ for Mwas that creates his sense of ‘half life’. He can’t properly enjoy the new experience of acting (and meeting educated and sophisticated young people) when he is still committed to the street gang people who ‘rescued’ him.

My initial reaction to the film was that much as I enjoyed and admired it, I did have the feeling that there were two styles/two approaches in evidence that didn’t quite gell. In one sense of course this reflects the ‘half life’ for Mwas but I think that there is a more fundamental issue here about the ‘supervision’/mentoring by Europeans. No matter how well-intentioned (and well-thought through) the project, there is a sense of a hybrid film being produced. I was reminded of Metro Manila which has a similar narrative and genre mix. As in that film, the dialogue in Nairobi Half Life is mostly spoken in a local language, first Kikuyu in the village and the Swahili in the city. English words creep into Swahili much as they do in any modern urban language, but the crucial moment comes when Mwas meets actors who use English regularly (Swahili and English are the two official languages of Kenya). These meetings emphasise the social class differences in a society in which there is a relatively wealthy minority and a significant problem of rural poverty fuelling the drift to the city. I’m really skirting around the issue of ‘authenticity’ here. Nairobi Half Life tells a genuine African story but it does feel like an almost universal crime genre film with a realist style – and a conventional genre resolution to the narrative. It might be worth making a comparison with the gangster picture from the Congo, Viva Riva and the Canadian-directed War Witch (Rebelle) which both share some elements.

African filmmakers are faced with three choices in developing their own approaches. The first, evident from the early 1960s, was to accept training abroad and return to Africa to make films which attempted to offer an alternative to Hollywood/European models. The second is to take the overseas training but to then embrace genre models familiar from Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. The third is to stay home and try something rooted firmly in local culture – the Nigerian video film approach. I suspect that there are Kenyan variations on Nollywood and it would be interesting to see what they look like.

There are several interesting resources which give background on the production of Nairobi Half Life. This article from John Bailey and the American Academy’s outreach programme on cinematography visits Kenya and looks at classes of aspiring cinematographers linked to the Nairobi Half Life project. The film has its own Facebook page and One Fine Day Productions has details of its African workshops. Reviews of Nairobi Half Life have generally been very good, like this one. There are some others more critical, like this one.

Here is a One Fine Day Workshop documentary showing how the Kenyan project works in practice:

Classe tous risques (France/Italy 1960)

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This could be an image from a neo-realist film on the streets of Milan.

The BFI’s reissue programme with its gleaming restorations distributed as DCPs is doing wonders for the reputation of classic European cinema – and Keith will be pleased to learn that this example is in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. Claude Sautet, who died in 2000, was known in his later career for dramas like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et M. Arnaud (1995) but in his earlier career as a writer and director he worked on genre films including this classic polar. Polars are crime films of various kinds and this is one of the very best featuring Lino Ventura in his prime and Jean-Paul Belmondo just getting established (his earlier film with Godard was also released in 1960).

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

Lino Ventura (Abel) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric)

The Franco-Italian co-production (a growing industry practice in the early 1960s) starts in Milan with Ventura as a career criminal and a wanted man who has killed trying to get home to France. (The title has been claimed as a pun on ‘Tourist Class’ but I prefer to think of it as a man who travels ‘at all risk’ – there is no quarter if he is caught by the police as he faces execution by guillotine.) The film includes a journey between Nice and Paris (with Belmondo as driver) which had become almost de rigeur in the polars I have seen. I was reminded of the Jacques Demy film La baie des anges (1963). Class tous risques is a relatively long film for the time (115 mins) and Sautet uses the screen time to great effect in developing the characters. The main commentaries on the film mention three things, linking it to film noir, neo-realism and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. I don’t think this is a film noir, either in terms of the mise en scène or the theme. For one thing it doesn’t have the misogyny associated with the femme fatale. There is a woman who would betray Abel (Ventura), but she is a not a femme fatale. The women are mostly loving and supportive. It is not like a Melville polar – it’s far less romantic and instead veers towards neo-realism in the authenticity of both settings and relationships – the author of the original novel, José Giovanni had himself experienced the criminal life. It begins with a terrific chase sequence in Italy and includes passages in which Ventura must look after his young children.

I love the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and the music is by the ever reliable Georges Delerue. One of the things that makes the film great is its complete lack of sentimentality and its devastating ending. This is a sure-fire classic. Now I must dig out my copy of Touchez pas au grisbi, in which Ventura makes his debut down the cast list with Jean Gabin as star. If Classe tous risques comes your way via an inspired film programmer, rush to see it.

Filth (UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/US 2013)

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.

I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.

Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.

This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.

After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth:

Gangs of Wasseypur (India 2012)

gangs-of-wasseypur_UK_Banner

This 2-part, 320 minute gangster epic is notable for many reasons. It’s a well-crafted film telling a universal story of two extended families engaged in a long-running feud and it’s enjoyable and provocative at the same time. For film scholars what is most interesting is that it uses all of the elements of Indian popular cinema developed over at least the last forty years and yet it isn’t a ‘Bollywood’ film in the normal sense – in other words the popular Indian film audience knows that the film is ‘different’.

Produced, co-written and directed by Anurag Kashyap for his own company with backing from Viacom 18 and its ‘Tipping Point’ brand, Gangs of Wasseypur is based on true stories about gang warfare in the North Eastern state of Jharkhand (previously part of Bengal and then Bihar). It begins in the early 1940s when Shahid Khan, a Pathan in a Muslim village decides to improve his family’s chances by robbing goods trains in the guise of the local gangleader from the dominant Qureshi family in the village. The Qureshis are not amused and a feud begins, quickly to be complicated by the intervention of a third party, a Sikh businessman/politician who runs the local coal mine and who becomes a powerful figure when control of the mining industry passes into Indian hands after the end of the British Raj. Over the next seventy years or so, this three-cornered fight continues sporadically and we get to know more about the principal characters.

I’d argue that the two main ‘differences’ about the film as popular Hindi cinema are firstly in its ‘realist’ representation of a very specific region – quite unlike the idealised India of much of mainstream Hindi cinema – and secondly the refusal of a conventional narrative drive with clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. The story is linear, except that it is told mainly in flashback from 2004 – from when it will eventually move forward to 2009. There is an ending, but it isn’t a complete resolution as the possibility of some kind of continuation is left with the audience. This in itself is not that unusual. Having noted both these points, the same elements could be discerned in Kashyap’s first work for Hindi cinema, the script he co-wrote for Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya in 1998. The focus on families and the ruthless rise of specific male characters in settings like this is there in much of Varma’s work and in Tamil cinema in the form of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Thalapathi (1991). As far as I can see (i.e. I haven’t seen enough), Varma remains largely within a Bollywood context whereas Ratnam has a much wider range and includes more gritty and locally-defined backgrounds – but both Varma and Ratnam use major stars in their gangster stories. The link for all three directors inevitably seems to be Coppola’s Godfather in terms of characters, relationships and story elements.

Kashyap recognises the Godfather influences but he himself refers to Goodfellas, possibly because of the basis in documented gangland activities – and also the use of narration, which in Gangs comes from Nasir, the last survivor of the extended Khan family from the 1940s. This character is rather like the Robert Duvall character in The Godfather – accepting his place in the clan and looking out for the family as a whole. It’s not unusual to see these kinds of nods towards Hollywood in popular Indian films, but I wonder if Kashyap has seen Gomorra (Italy 2008)? Or the films of Johnnie To and John Woo? I would expect so and it would be good to place Gangs of Wasseypur alongside those films (plus City of God) as an example of international crime cinema. So Gangs is ‘global’ and ‘local’ – it is very much an Indian film and its street scenes are the most ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ that I have ever seen in an Indian film. The locations include the cities actually mentioned in the text: Dahnbad, Wasseypur, Varanasi and also Kolkata, Ranchi, Allahabad etc.

Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan and behind him Jameel Khan as Asghar Khan

Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan and behind him Jameel Khan as Asghar Khan

Characters

The long film works because of the strong characters, played mainly by a group of ‘character actors’ in Hindi cinema or by relative newcomers. Part 1 is dominated by the standout performance of Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan, the son of Shahid Khan. Bajpayee is actually from Bihar and he is completely believable. The character is interestingly vulnerable in terms of his sexual weakness (“led by his dick” as his wife tells him) as well as ruthless as a gang leader. Part 2 is dominated by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faizal Khan, Sardar’s second son. Siddiqui appears to be on the cusp of star status in Hindi cinema – he’d already had thirty film and TV appearances by 2012, some in parallel cinema. The actor at the centre of both parts of the film is Tigmanshu Dhulia as Ramadhir Singh, the politician businessman. A well-known producer/writer and director, Dhulia had barely acted before and his performance is excellent. He is the most affected by the very long ‘story time’ of the film since he has to play a character from his early 20s until his mid 80s. It’s impossible of course but Kashyap manages to keep the audience hooked on action long enough not to worry about this.

Huma Qureshi as Mohsina and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faisal Khan

Huma Qureshi as Mohsina and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faisal Khan

Gangster films like this tend to push the female characters to the edge of the frame but at least in Gangs there are strong performances for the three principal female roles. Sardar Khan’s sexual appetite means that despite marrying Nagma, he also sets up a home with Durga, a Bengali Hindu woman. Richa Chadda and Reema Sen are both very good as the strong women the script demands. In a very different role (I suppose it’s the Diane Keaton role in The Godfather) Huma Qureshi is equally good as Mohsina, wife of Faisal Khan. The long running time of the film means that we get to see courtship, seduction and weddings as well as marital discord. These three actors are each either relatively inexperienced or in Sen’s case coming from mainly Bengali and Southern Indian cinema productions.

Music

For me, one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the music. There is a great range of songs across the five hours plus from folk songs and a reggae mix (or is this ‘chutney’?) through atmospheric scoring from Sneha Khanwalkar to frequent use of Hindi filmi songs, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these are performed live by a singer who turns up at weddings, political rallies etc., others are heard on the radio or in one of several visits to cinemas. There are five or more ‘song sequences’ but these are not much like traditional choreographed dance sequences, involving instead people working or celebrations (like weddings) with a performer. The ‘presence’ of Bollywood as a popular film institution is everywhere, especially in Part 2 with posters on walls and constant references in dialogue. Most pointedly, Ramadhir Singh claims that his longevity (survival) is because his head is not filled with film heroes who might cloud his judgement. At the crucial moment in 2004 (when the film narrative begins in flashback and when we return to it layer on) the Khan family are watching a TV soap opera.

‘Playfulness’

One aspect of the film that has infuriated some Indian critics are the narrative digressions. One critic picks out Sardar’s seduction of Durga – which I thought was one of the highlights of the film since it is important in establishing a sub-plot – and because it strengthens the representation of both characters. More understandable and, I assume, deliberately provocative is a ‘Tarantinoesque’ discussion over mobile phones about buying different kinds of vegetables when three gang members are stalking their prey through the market. One of the scriptwriters, Zeishan Quadri, actually appears in this scene as ‘Definite’, Durga’s son. I have to conclude that there is a real sense of play here. But perhaps there is also a real point in the scene where Faisal is puzzled by the name Definite for his step-brother. What does it mean he keeps asking (his own younger brothers are ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Tangent’, but these are just nicknames. Definite is Definite! The point here is that unlike Bollywood, the characters in Gangs don’t speak English. At least not until the post 2002 period when the formation of Jharkhand as a new mineral rich state draws in ‘chancers’ from further afield. These references to politics and economics enrich the film for me and it is the gradual accretion of elements like this that takes Gangs of Wasseypur away from mainstream Hindi popular cinema and help to create whatever it is we wish to call it – Indian independent cinema, ‘New Bollywood’ etc. or as one actor described it in an interview “a blurring of the boundaries”.

Gangs of Wasseypur is very bloody and full of subplots with a huge cast of characters. It’s also 320 mins long, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’m not sure about the distribution policy of Mara Pictures in the UK – a couple dates here and there – but there are still showings up to late April/early May and you can check them out on the Mara Pictures website.

Interesting Indian review

Trailer (no English subs, but it gives the flavour of the film and its music):

And as an example of the music track, here’s the reggae-inspired ‘Hunters’: