Tag Archives: crime film

LFF 2012 #6: Dreams for Sale (Yume uru futari, Japan 2012)

Kanya and Satoko

Writer-director Nishikawa Miwa was in attendance for this screening and through the excellent interpreter, whose name I didn’t catch, she was able to give the audience plenty to think about. It’s quite a long film (134 mins) and we didn’t leave NFT2 until around a quarter to midnight. I enjoyed every minute.

Dreams for Sale is a fascinating comedy-drama with two excellent lead performances by Matsu Takako (the teacher in Confessions) as Satako and Abe Sadawo as Kanya– Mr and Mrs Ichizawa, the central couple. At the beginning of the narrative, a fire in their restaurant as Kanya is preparing food destroys their investment and shakes their confidence. Satako recovers quite quickly and goes to work in a noodle bar but Kanya, the chef, is hit badly and starts to drink. However, a chance encounter with a woman he knows provides access to a new sum of money. At this point, we realise that we’ve seen this woman before in a sequence which seemed inconsequential at the time. This is a strategy Nishikawa develops through the film. The audience needs to stay awake to remember everything they have seen and link scenes together.

Satako is at first upset that her husband has got something from another woman, but then she starts to recognise that her husband, though not conventionally handsome, has a charm that seems to attract vulnerable women and she begins to work out how to use this quality to ensnare women with access to money. The couple will eventually become an adept pair of ‘marriage fraudsters’. Posing as his sister, Satako finds women and prepares the way for Kanya to seduce them into ‘pledging’ money for marriage – or simply because they will do anything for him.

Nishikawa Miwa told us that she had researched marriage fraud in Japan and that it was a significant issue. The obvious course would have been to make the film a crime story – how will they be found out, what will happen to them? There are also comic elements to exploit in the suspense as the stories of deception become more difficult to set up and control and we imagine all the duped women turning up at the same time. Indeed, some reviewers see the film as a very controlled farce. However, though there are elements of both crime film and comedy, Nishikawa plays it much more like humanist drama. What she really wants to do is to explore love and marriage – what does the deception do to the couple, what do they find out about themselves? They are not ‘bad people’ and most of the women they defraud have money to spend and they are getting something from the deal. Satako and Kanya also want to spend the money on a new venture, telling themselves that they will pay everything back. This doesn’t make the crime acceptable, but it does point us towards thinking about the current state of society in Japan and in a way the film fits in with the long-running series of stories about unemployment amongst skilled workers in the face of a stagnant economy. In some ways the film attempts something similar to Villain, the very successful awards winner in Japan that failed to find audiences in the UK. I think Dreams for Sale is probably a better offering for UK audiences.

This is a very good film that reveals its many qualities gradually and makes some demands on audiences who are repaid handsomely in the way in which the narrative develops. I hope it gets wide distribution and I recommend it highly if you get chance to see it.

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.

The Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket, Sweden 1976)

The media on the street during the climax of The Man on the Roof (screengrab by DVD Beaver)

Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.

The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.

Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck. Eastwood or McQueen he isn't, but not a police inspector to underestimate either.

The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.)  The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.

Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from Play.com). The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?

Izzat (Norway 2005)

The three friends as part of the East Side crew in 'Izzat'

Izzat is exactly the kind of film this blog is all about. It’s a crime genre film from Norway – a filmmaking country better known internationally for serious social drama until hits like The Troll Hunter and Headhunters in the last couple of years. But Izzat is also one of the first films (possibly the first) to emerge from the Pakistani community in Norway and as such belongs to the broad category of diaspora film.

Migration has become a visible social issue in Scandinavian countries over the last thirty years, but in the UK we are mostly familiar with representations of migrant communities in Swedish and Danish films and TV. Norway has experienced similar inflows from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and the Pakistani community is the largest of the non-European groups in Norway – around 35,000 mostly living in and around Oslo, especially on the East Side of the city.

‘Izzat’ is the Urdu and Hindi word referring to ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, particularly in relation to the family and the onus on men to maintain the reputation of the women of their family. In a European context this has led to rather negative representations of South Asian family relations and made it difficult to report objectively on so-called ‘honour killings’ in which young women have been murdered by family members. These kinds of actions are not part of the plot of this film Izzat – but the plot does use the protagonist’s desire to protect his family, particularly his brother and sister, as an important narrative device.

Narrated as a long flashback (but starting pre-credits with a crucial scene from later in the story) Izzat presents us with three young Pakistani boys in their early teens growing up in East Oslo in the 1980s. Bored in “the safest city in the world”, they fall in with a Pakistani criminal gang, ‘The East Side Crew’ led by two brothers, Sadiq and Khalid, and gradually they become part of the gang. The narrative then moves forward several years and we see Wasim and his two close friends, Riaz and Munawar now established as part of a drugs operation. The East Side Crew are opposed mainly by a local operation run by ‘The Bullet’ and his gang of Nordic skinheads. Inevitably the two gangs clash but Wasim also finds it difficult to reconcile his family responsibilities and his close bond with his two friends with the realities of working in a criminal gang and this is where the main narrative conflict arises (there is very little about the police attempts to control the gangs).

The models for this kind of narrative are The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America – all of which have been popular and influential across global cinema. But films about organised crime have always been a staple of major film cultures from Europe (France, UK, Italy), Japan, Hong Kong and India. Izzat is on a much smaller scale than the Hollywood films, but it looks very good in CinemaScope and it successfully combines elements from Hollywood, Europe and South Asia. There are a couple of sequences shot in Lahore where Wasim is first sent as a teenager and then later as a gang member. Written by two Norwegian-Pakistanis, one of whom Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen is also the director, the film does to my mind offer a pretty slick crime film. It has scenes reminiscent of the Swedish TV crime series seen in the UK, but also has elements of the domestic cultural world of Pakistani migrants and narrative moments that are quite specific. At one point when Wasim is arguing with Sadiq he points out that he is a Norwegian citizen but that Sadiq can always be deported if he is convicted. The Oslo setting also throws up some interesting juxtapositions with shootouts taking place in near deserted streets. One climactic moment involves a suburban bus and a tense meeting between two gangsters takes place in a genteel coffee shop to the bemusement of the elderly customers. Colour is used quite carefully in the film so that the 1980s has a conventional ‘golden glow’, present day Oslo is relatively muted and the Pakistani scenes are quite vibrant.

The technical credits on the film are very good. There is an extensive use of Norwegian rock music on the soundtrack (with several songs featuring English lyrics) and the central character, Wasim (as an adult), is played by Emil Marwa. I thought he looked familiar but I didn’t realise that he was born in Norway to a Norwegian mother and Kenyan-Sikh father and has had a long career in British TV and film. His first big break was as one of the sons in East is East in 1999. Although he speaks Norwegian (and presumably Punjabi), his accent was considered wrong for the Oslo-based character so his voice is dubbed (something which didn’t go down too well with some Norwegian commentators). Overall Norwegian audiences seem to have been split between enjoying a relatively new kind of action film and criticising it for not being as slick as Hollywood.The film doesn’t appear to have been seen outside Norway where it had 130,000 admissions which doesn’t sound much but would make it a hit.

I have been wondering why in the UK there is no cinema film that I can think of that uses this kind of crime genre structure in a British-Asian context. Instead, British-Asian films tend more towards social comedies or melodramas or, more recently, have become absorbed into the less ethnically-defined category of ‘urban films’. On the other hand, all the elements of Izzat have turned up in UK TV series or TV films. I’m not sure what this tells us about the differences between the UK and smaller European countries – both in terms of representing migrant communities via popular genres or about the roles of TV and cinema films. It would be interesting to know if anything similar has appeared in Norway (or Denmark or Sweden) since 2005.

Our evening class discussed the film in the context of the development of ‘Nordic Noir’ cinema. With its focus on the Pakistani community the film offers us the obverse view to that of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in which the effects of globalised crime and migration are viewed from the perspective of a host community gradually realising that a settled social democracy is being challenged. The Pakistani criminals in this film are a threat to order but the community as a whole is not represented as a victim or a problem. What is more obvious is that the Norwegian welfare system is simply puzzled by how to handle the boys in school and how the family ties re-exert themselves. I won’t give away the film’s ending, which is possibly a surprise, but it makes a further comment on the relationship between Norwegian liberalism and Pakistani culture.

Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:

Villain (Akunin, Japan 2010)

Yoshino (Mitsushima Hikari, left) is the giddy insurance clerk boasting to her workmates about the rich playboy she has met. Photo © Third Window Films

Villain is a Japanese crime film based on the novel by Yoshida Suichi (released in English translation in the UK in 2010). It was placed No 1 in the Japanese magazine Kinema Junpo‘s Top 10 of 2010 and released in the UK by Third Window – which earlier this year released Kokahaku (Confessions), No. 2 in the same chart. Villain gained several Japanese Academy Awards. We should thank Third Window for bringing these important Japanese films to the UK. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have attracted the audiences they deserve. This film had a single screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of the Asia Triennial Festival (which includes a film programme running through October and November) and I thought the audience was disappointing, despite a significant East Asian presence.

One of the problems associated with the film for UK audiences is its genre classification. Contemporary Japanese Cinema in the UK is too often assumed to be ‘extreme’ – horror, gangster/ultra violence etc. Villain is a crime film but as one IMDB poster puts it, it fits the Japanese notion of a ‘Howdunnit’ or ‘Whydunnit’ rather than a suspense thriller. In fact, this film is more a social drama centred around a killing. We discover who the murderer is halfway through what is quite a long film (139 mins). What interests us why the murder was committed, whether it was really murder in a ‘premeditated with intent’ sense and how the other people involved react to what happened. This makes it a little more like some of the South Korean dramas dealing with crimes such as Memories of Murder (Bong Jun-hoo, 2003) or possibly like some of Hitchcock’s work.

The victim is a young woman, Yoshino, who has left home and her parents’ barbershop to become an insurance clerk in the city and live in the company ‘dormitory’. As part of her attempt to have an exciting social life she attempts to flirt with a rich young playboy and also has casual sex with Yuichi someone she meets through an internet dating site. On the night in question she meets both men (by accident) and ends up dead on a mountain road. The playboy has a circle of friends but we don’t meet his family. The internet dating guy lives many miles away in Nagasaki (the story is set on the most southerly of the Japanese main islands, Kyushu). We meet his grandmother who has brought him up and later his mother who abandoned him. He also hitches up with another person he meets online, Mitsuyo, a lonely woman who works in a clothing store. The other major character is the dead girl’s father who seeks some form of revenge. I won’t spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess who did it. I did suggest that the whodunnit angle is not important. Whydunnit is the key to the film and we are offered a range of characters and situations which suggest that there are many ‘villains’ in society and that crimes and criminals are not always obvious.

The film is in some ways quite conventional – and perhaps ‘old-fashioned’. I think that this too might put off younger viewers in particular. The colour palette is quite subdued and the pacing is slow. Some of the acting styles are also perhaps not what we expect in a mainstream film – in a way, the film moves into quite a stylised mode in the last third, particularly in the playing of some of the older characters and of Yuichi and Mitsuyo. Allied to this is the score by the celebrated composer Joe Hisaishi. I barely noticed the music except on a couple of occasions when I thought “Oh, this is good”. This suggests to me that Hisaishi was doing exactly what the great Bernard Hermann said all film composers should do, which is to support the narrative.

The real question is what does the film ‘mean’? Why has it won so many prizes in Japan? The film’s director is Lee Sang-il, who is a ‘Zainichi Korean’ – someone from the established Korean community in Japan, i.e. living in Japan through several generations since the era of Japanese colonialism and the occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. There is a category of ‘Zainichi Cinema’ that has been identified in Japan – see the discussion in this review of an academic conference last year. However, although Lee’s first film Chong (2000) focused on Korean characters, his subsequent films have all featured Japanese characters and in interviews (see Midnight Eye) he has distanced himself from being categorised as a Zainichi director. Instead, his films tend to feature characters who might best be described as either ‘rebels’ or more generally ‘marginal’ in difficult social circumstances. Thus in Villain, the two most sympathetic characters are perhaps Yoshino’s father and Yuichi’s grandmother – both of whom fight for their dignity and for their children (the grandmother has brought up Yuichi). Other adults fall more easily into social types who are uncaring and exploitative – and therefore potentially ‘villains’ in the scenario mapped out here. Of the four younger people, Yushino and the playboy are broadly drawn types, very easy to dislike and without too many redeeming features. Yuichi and Mitsuyo, by contrast, are quite complex characters and their relationship in the second half of the film is perhaps the best element in the film. (My feeling is that Mitsuyo might be a few years older than Yuichi and if so this is quite important.)

In the bar after the screening I casually mentioned that in many of the Japanese novels (mainly crime novels) I’d read and in several recent Japanese films, ‘youth’ is nearly always a ‘problem’ and inter-generational conflict is there in the narrative. This position was strongly attacked and it was suggested that perhaps this was just a function of the novels that came into English translation and the films that got UK screenings – in other words, was I guilty of a Westerner’s partial view of Japanese culture? Of course, that must be a possibility. I can’t claim to have read or seen even a fraction of what is produced in Japan, but what I have engaged with is often the most important in terms of box office and critical commentary. See, for instance, the No 2 film of 2010, Confessions. The reason I latch onto this potential reading (i.e. about ‘troubled youth’) is not to denigrate Japanese culture but because something similar has been a feature of both British and American literature/films at various times and because Japan offers an example of a rapidly ageing population profile. In fact, the ‘ageing of Japan’ is much faster than in any other advanced economy. I don’t necessarily agree with all the analyses of what this means for Japanese society, but it is a significant factor, especially in relation to the stresses of education and pressure to conform that seem to provide the narrative conflict for so many Japanese horror/high school/youth pictures etc. These themes are not directly applicable to Villain, but it is a film that makes you think.

UK trailer (which includes part of the scene where the victim’s father meets his daughter’s ghost at the site of the accident):

Vallanzasca – Gli angeli del male (Angels of Evil, Italy/France/Romania 2010)

Kim Rossi Stuart as Renato Vallanzasca in one of the prison scenes

Angels of Evil is a stylish Italian entry into the crime biopic genre which has seen a recent resurgence with the success of the two Mesrine films starring Vincent Cassell. It’s also related to another recent biopic, the mammoth take on the international revolutionary criminal Carlos. But perhaps it is best considered alongside recent fictional crime sagas such as Animal Kingdom, Un prophète and Gomorra.

The central character in Angels of Evil is Renato Vallanzasca,  a Milanese street kid born in 1950 who gravitates towards bank robberies and eventually becomes Italy’s ‘most wanted’ partly because he becomes involved with the deaths of police officers. The film begins with one of his many prison terms and then reveals his story in flashback. What is noticeable is the extent to which Vallanzasca’s no doubt partly romanticised biography so closely resembles a typical crime genre narrative. For instance, his gang includes his blood brother from the streets, Enzo, a man who may have learning difficulties but who is certainly a highly dangerous companion, and his ‘little sister’ Antonella from the same background. Renato’s parents remain supportive throughout (it seems barely credible that in one of his breakouts from prison, Renato goes to his parents’ flat).

Generically, the film is very close to Mesrine and Renato is represented as almost a Robin Hood type figure, a generally honourable character who shows up the inadequacies of the police and prison service and appeals directly to the public. I was reminded at times of the idea of the Italian ‘outlaw’ figure and Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas about ‘social bandits’. I haven’t seen Francesco Rosi’s film about the Sicilian bandit Lucky Luciano but I wonder if there are any parallels. Vallanzasca is not a rural bandit of course. But his street origins in the early 1960s do mean that he is an ‘outsider’ and one of the narrative strands in the film deals with his attempts to oust the more established crime families in Milan. I’ve seen criticisms of the film complaining that given its time span (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) it doesn’t say enough about the changing nature of organised crime in Italy. I confess that I couldn’t keep track of all of the action in the film and the various groups from different crime organisations but I did note that Renato (like all ‘old-time’ criminals in genre films) bemoans the young thugs and their mindless violence, believing that he himself was ‘honorable’. I’ve just finished reading an Italian crime fiction novel about the Calabrian criminal families and I was intrigued to see that they get a mention here alongside the Sicilians.

I thought Angels of Evil was an enjoyable (if very bloody) genre film on a par with Mesrine but lacking the intensity of Un prophète or Gomorra. The central performance by Kim Rossi Stuart is its strongest element alongside the two young women played by Valeria Soleano and the Spanish actress Paz Vega (as Antonella). The multi-lingual German actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays one of the gang members. Rossi Stuart also starred in director Michele Placido’s earlier crime film Romanzo criminale (2005) – a very similar package about a criminal gang in Rome in the 1970s which I haven’t seen. Overall I have to agree with a reviewer who suggested that the film reveals a cast and crew who most enjoyed dressing up for the 1970s/80s scenes.

Angels of Evil is that now rare beast – a widescreen ‘popular’ European genre picture that struggles to get even a limited UK release, even though it was part-produced by Fox International Italy and Canal+. Once, such films, often dubbed, received a wide release in the UK. Ironically, Italian domestic production is on something of a roll at the moment scoring multiple hits at home. Angels of Evil opened at No4 in the Italian Top 20 in January 2011 (when 4 out of the Top 5 were Italian ‘domestic features’). When it dropped out of the Top 20 after four weeks the film had taken $3.76 million. It might do quite well when it opens in France in September.