Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:

The Clan (El Clan, Argentina-Spain 2015)

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

Pablo Trapero is one of the most successful filmmakers working in Argentina today. To underline that status, his latest film to get a UK release was co-produced by the Almodóvars’ company El Deseo. It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2015 and had the biggest ever opening box office take for any film in Argentina, quickly achieving 2 million admissions. What lies behind its success? This a ‘true crime film’ telling the unlikely story of the Puccio family living in an affluent district of Buenos Aires in the early 1980s. Behind the façade of comfortable middle-class life they operated a kidnapping business led by the father Arquímedes (Guillermo Francella) who had been an ‘intelligence’ operative – basically a tool of the military dictatorship – while masquerading as a civil servant before defeat in the Malvinas War helped to cause the downfall of General Galtieri in 1982. Still with contacts in the military, Arquímedes decides to switch from kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ dissidents to kidnapping rich business people and demanding large ransoms. It seems that young Argentinians are only dimly aware of the recent history of their country and the revelations of this story have created a great deal of interest.

(Warning: There are what some might consider SPOILERS in what follows.)

In terms of Latin American Cinema this is perhaps the most potent contemporary genre  – films about the repercussions of the fascism of the 1980s in Argentina and at different times in many other Latin American countries. In some ways El Clan resembles the big popular hit The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Argentina. But El Clan is in many ways a ‘harder’, less romantic film, probably because of the true life story. The hardness of the film is derived from the family’s involvement and in particular with the relationship between Arquímedes and his son Alejandro (known to his friends as Alex and played by Peter Lanzani). Alex is a successful rugby player. He plays for Casi, one of the powerful Buenos Aires clubs and was the ‘golden boy’ and later captain of the club team. He also played for the ‘Pumas’ – the national team which was beginning to build an international reputation in the 1970s and 1980s.  When his father decides to kidnap the sons of rich men, he drags Alex into the business because several such boys are rugby players at Alex’s club and Alex is useful in identifying potential targets. Later, Arquímedes uses the money from one ‘job’ to transform the small family shop into a swish sporting goods store to be run by Alex. In one of the best scenes we see Alex testing a new sub-aqua set, holding the mouthpiece to his face and breathing in oxygen. On reflection this seems like a metaphor for the terror that Alex feels because of his father’s actions and his own involvement. He compulsively sucks in oxygen, as if he is gasping for air because he is so frightened. The contrast between the domesticity of the Puccio family’s daily routines and the brutality and squalor of the treatment of the kidnap victims is shocking.

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family's criminality

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family’s criminality

All of the family bar the youngest, Adriana who is still in middle school, are aware of what is going on. Alex’s mother and his sister Sylvia (both teachers) play minor roles. The youngest son, Guillermo decides to abandon the family before he is dragged into the business when he goes abroad and the second son Maguila is brought back from abroad to aid his father. It is a chilling performance by Guillermo Francella as Arquímedes and reminds us of the conviction of the fascists in Argentina that they had a right to do these terrible things. Arquímedes is always calm, even when he is prepared to kill the abductees because they might cause problems if released. At the end of the film we learn what happened to the real Puccio family – and Arquímedes does more or less what we, by then, expect of him.

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

This is a well-made thriller which has audiences on the edge of their seats. Much has been made of the music in the film and the way it creates an ironic context for the terrible deeds on screen. I’ve seen reviewers refer to ‘contemporary pop songs’ – which is nonsense unless British/American music takes decades to reach Argentina. The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald (1944), the Kinks (1966) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) provide excellent tracks that fit the film narrative, but they are not about the period. I don’t know the other songs – which might be 1980s. It has also been suggested that this is Trapero’s most accessible film. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the case. My memory of Carancho (2010) is of a similar mix of crime genre film and social commentary. Trapero’s approach is to start towards the end of the story (i.e. the arrest of the family) and show snatches of action and then flashback to different periods to discover what happened over three years. Each flashback has a useful title giving the year and some contextual events. Even so, this makes the film narrative more complex and more difficult to follow. If you want to watch the film (and I certainly recommend it) I suggest that you read a timeline of major events in Argentina 1982-85 before you watch it. I’m not sure what Trapero gains from this approach – perhaps it just seems fashionable and that is the basis of its accessibility? You can download the Production Notes for the film from the Curzon website, but these focus mainly on the contemporary coverage of the arrest etc. rather than the aesthetics of the film. It’s worth noting though that Trapero’s cinematographer Julián Apezteguia uses a tracking camera to take us through the government buildings and bureaucracies of Buenos Aires and a distinctive film noir style for the criminal acts themselves and especially the way Arquímedes moves silently, calmly through the night. There is something really creepy about Arquímedes sweeping the pavement in front of the family shop early in the morning with water from a hose being used to clean the walk-way when only yards away in a basement room a kidnap victim suffers. The sound too is very well handled with attention given to the muffled screams of the victims mixed with other more every day sounds.

The 'normalcy' of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The ‘normalcy’ of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The Clan in cinemas

The Clan opened in the UK on September 16 and the BFI box office for the first weekend shows that it only appeared in 14 cinemas – but achieved a site average of over £3,000, giving it No 29 in the chart and beating all but two of the other films on release. The small number of cinemas is surprising, especially because this is a film from the producers of the previous Argentinian blockbuster Wild Tales which in 2015 became the highest earning ‘non-Bollywood’ foreign language film in the UK. Wild Tales opened on 50 screens for No 9 in the chart and a site average over £3,600. So why the change of policy from the same distributor, Curzon-Artificial Eye? The difference is that this time Curzon made the film available on VOD at the same time as the cinema release. Unfortunately, they do not release stats for VOD sales on a regular basis, so there is so far no chance to compare the releases. What this means though is that there are fewer opportunities to see the film in cinemas. I saw the film on its second week run at HOME in Manchester where it showed in one of the smaller cinemas. It was so popular that the lunchtime screening sold out and I found myself in the middle of the front row with a CinemaScope image a few feet away. This was genuinely ‘immersive’ – so much so that I couldn’t see the whole screen easily and had to switch my gaze from one side of the screen to the other while still managing to read the subtitles. I’m not complaining and I enjoyed the film, but I’m not happy about Curzon’s policy. I shouldn’t have to travel 40 miles to see a film that could be showing closer to home. Either Curzon are reluctant to accept Picturehouses booking the film or the latter are even less interested in the foreign language market than I thought.

 

The Hunters (Jägarna, Sweden 1996)

The hunters

The hunters

The Hunters was a big hit in Sweden in the 1990s but, as far as I am aware, didn’t receive a UK cinema release. It wasn’t until the success of Scandinavian TV noir dramas that UK distributors began to look out for Scandinavian genre films. Consequently it was only in 2012 that I learned about The Hunters when Arrow released its sequel with the English title False Trail (Jägarna 2, Sweden 2011). The original film was then given a UK DVD release.

The Hunters turns out to be a genre classic full of familiar elements. It is no surprise that it was a big hit or that Hollywood attempted to persuade writer-director Kjell Sundvall to remake it in an American setting. That didn’t happen but the film is intriguing in the mix of universal and Scandinavian elements – something which in turn perhaps explains the contradictory critical responses to the film. Its narrative is basically the same as in the sequel. The central character, Erik, a Stockholm policeman played by the familiar figure of Rolf Lassgård, returns to his home town in the far north of Sweden, ostensibly for his father’s funeral. Later it is revealed that he has left Stockholm after the trauma of a recent case and has been transferred to this rural backwater. He is reunited with his brother who stayed on in the family home. One of Erik’s first tasks as a new local policeman is to investigate illegal poaching of game in the area (the film begins with the killing and butchery of elks by unidentified poachers). It soon becomes apparent that there is a local conspiracy between some police officers and officials and local hunters. Matters become personal for Erik who is ostracised by many in the local community and who soon finds himself suspecting his own brother to be involved in poaching. The situation worsens when a Russian fruit-picker is accidentally shot. Eventually, another familiar figure arrives from Stockholm, a female prosecutor who joins up with Erik to forward the investigation. A grisly climax is inevitable.

In the early parts of the film I was reminded of Cimino’s The Deerhunter with the depiction of local hunters as a boisterous male group with generic character types, the leaders, the clowns, the weak members – a dangerous camaraderie fostered by alcohol. I reviewed the sequel soon after seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark 2012) which also focuses on the secrecy and conspiracies of small town life. That film is essentially a melodrama about the persecution of the central character. The Hunters too becomes partly a family melodrama about Erik’s relationship with his brother Leif and their relationships with their father. But I’m also reminded of Carlos Saura’s celebrated 1966 film La caza (The Hunt). Saura’s film works as a metaphor for life under Franco’s regime in Spain – the hunt provides the explosive setting for men to argue between themselves, to be aggressive towards women etc. In Swedish narratives there are important resonances in the choice of settings and in particular the journey from the far North to Stockholm and the ‘return of the natives’ back from Stockholm (at one point Erik is presented with an award for ‘returnee of the year’). The elements in the story do sometimes feel hackneyed – a Filipina working in a bar, a man with learning difficulties caught up in the intrigue, Lief’s brother’s passion for opera – but that’s only because we’ve encountered them in the years since in various Scandinavian noir crime dramas.

The Hunters is strong genre entertainment. It’s nearly two hours of action with strong performances especially from Lassgård and from Lennart Jähkel as Leif. It serves as an interesting example of Swedish commercial filmmaking and is especially useful as a starting point for studying ‘Nordic noir TV’ as discussed in Chapters 4 and 9 in The Global Film Book.

Arrow Official Trailer for the DVD release:

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, Norway-Sweden-Den-Ger 2014)

as Lars

Stellan Skarsgård as Lars

Kraftidioten got very good reviews at the Berlin Festival in January but has been released by Metrodome on just 25 screens in the UK. That’s a shame because it is an enjoyable black comedy with a star cast offering great entertainment value. The film’s Norwegian title refers to the ‘power idiots’ who operate in part of the Norwegian north country (represented generically rather than precisely in a snow-covered mountain landscape with occasional trips to the city which looms out of the snow like Oz). The ‘idiots’ are two groups of gangsters controlling the local drugs trade. Unfortunately, one group has incurred the wrath of an upstanding ‘citizen of the year’ played by Stellan Skarsgård as the driver of giant snow-clearing trucks. Provoked beyond his tether by the murder of his son this character proceeds to ‘eliminate’ gang members one by one until he finds the real culprit – thus the English title. Each ‘disappearance’ is marked by a simple death notice.

The chief idiot is a Norwegian gang leader from a local crime family. He’s a pony-tailed vegan living in a show house stuffed with designer monstrosity furniture who compounds the initial idiocy by wrongfully attacking the Serbian gangsters who control the other half of the market. The film is marketed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘comedy’. It is extremely violent but there is plenty of dry and dark Nordic humour, which I think should appeal in the UK. I’ve read at least one comment from elsewhere which thought the film was a serious drama.

Alongside the Swedish star Skarsgård the starry cast includes Bruno Ganz (Swiss) as the Serbian gangster leader and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Katrine from Borgen) as a divorced wife (otherwise this is a very male film). The international casting reflects the usual co-production arrangements of the three Scandinavian countries with Germany. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to both Tarantino and the Coen Bros films, especially Fargo. There is something in these comparisons and they may well have influenced Danish scriptwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland – two highly-experienced creatives. However, much of the humour strikes me as Norwegian/Swedish, drawing on representations of a welfare society and the familiar discourse of ‘new immigrants’ in Scandinavia. Skarsgård’s character’s Swedish identity is highlighted when he is praised for being the best kind of Swedish immigrant. In contrast, the Norwegian gangster insists that the Serbians are actually Albanians. The nearest comparison I could make is with Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film was a big success in the UK and if you enjoyed it, you should enjoy the slightly drier and more comedic scenes here. I should add though that this is slightly less of a thriller and its relatively slow pace stretches to 116 minutes.

The UK Trailer (which does include some of the best moments, so don’t watch if you already know you want to watch the film):

Prisoners (US 2013)

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

There are two reasons for featuring what is ostensibly a Hollywood movie on this blog (apart from its surprising success and controversial readings by critics). First, it’s the product of a creative team in which several of the principal crew members (director, composer, cinematographer, designers etc.) are non-American. Secondly, its length (153 mins) and outline story of a double abduction of young girls in a small town at Thanksgiving suggests possible links to the current cycle of ‘Nordic Noir’ films and long-form television narratives.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski is best known for the Hollywood remake of the Icelandic film Reykyavik-Rotterdam as Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg – and Wahlberg is one of the exec producers of this film. Prisoners was a script that was well known around Hollywood for several years with various attempts to get it into production before Denis Villeneuve was attached. He is the Québécois director of Incendies (France-Canada 2010), one of our ‘films of the year’ on this blog. It’s been a remarkable year for Villeneuve with two major releases, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal – Enemy (Canada-Spain 2013) is the second.

So does Prisoners look and feel any different from a standard Hollywood thriller of this type? The opening scene of a deer shoot in the snow seems like a nod towards The Deerhunter in establishing the Pennsylvania setting but from then on the narrative becomes quite claustrophobic (partly because of the decision to shoot in 1:1.85 rather than ‘Scope). The long running-time and the focus on only a limited number of characters allows the story to develop slowly and in this sense it feels quite different to a Danish serial like Forbrydelsen (The Killing). With outdoor scenes dominated by extreme weather (heavy rain and slush) photographed by Roger Deakins and with a mystery element, the ‘feel’ seemed to me closer to the Icelandic crime thriller Jar City.

Outline (no spoilers)

Two families, the Dovers and the Birches are spending Thanksgiving Day together but alarm bells ring when the two youngest children go missing and are treated as victims of an abduction. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) leads the hunt for them and is extremely aggressive towards police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his arrest of the chief suspect (Paul Dano), a man with obvious learning difficulties. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is much more reluctant than Dover to take the law into his own hands. The events which follow include several mistakes in the investigation and questionable behaviour by those involved. The ending of the film is ambiguous in one crucial respect.

Commentary

I found the film to be always engaging and the running-time was not a problem. I can see that there are some plotting issues and possible implausibilities but that’s common for films of this kind. Overall I thought that Villeneuve handled his actors and used the locations very effectively to create tension and to maintain audience involvement. The main weakness of the script was that the ‘wives and mothers’ (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) had little to do (like Terrence Howard). By contrast, Melissa Leo as the ‘aunt’ of the Paul Dano character was extremely effective. But the other two older Dover and Birch children were also fairly redundant as characters.

The central narrative offers us two major male characters played by Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman has the ‘shouty’ role which necessarily requires a strong physical presence. Gyllenhaal plays Loki as an intense and obsessive man and uses what I can only describe as a method approach. Festooned in tattoos and with swept back gelled hair, a tightly-buttoned shirt and a compulsive blinking habit he is a striking but mostly quietly-spoken character. There are some particularly unhelpful remarks by the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the paper’s video review show about the acting in the film. I think film students would find it useful to compare the two central performances.

None of the characters in the film is given a ‘backstory’. We don’t know why Loki behaves as he does. We just know he has a reputation for solving every case. All we know about Dover is that he is a self-employed handyman with a basement filled with stores in the event of a disaster. I don’t think we know what Birch does and the women don’t seem to have jobs – so it isn’t clear how the families are supported. In an early exchange, Dover tells his son that there isn’t enough income for a second vehicle (Dover drives a pick-up). What all this suggests is that we are meant to read the narrative at a much more symbolic level and audiences have certainly tried to do this. Variety has published a piece comparing the film’s representation of torture as a means of obtaining information unfavourably in a comparison with Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve handles these scenes well, I think. He can shock an audience while still being restrained. The IMDB bulletin board carries a debate about the film’s use of religious imagery. My knowledge of small town Pennsylvania is not very extensive but I think that the ‘community’ is intended to be Catholic and there are various quotes from The Lord’s Prayer etc. The film’s title is open to interpretation. Who are the ‘prisoners’? What kind of incarceration is it?

To return to the American/global sense of the narrative, I would say that there are enough similar Hollywood thrillers to make the film feel familiar. The film is technically a Hollywood product since the production company Alcon Entertainment have a distribution outlet in North America on a long term basis via Warner Bros. Outside North America, however, media sales are handled by Summit and the UK distributor is the Canadian conglomerate eOne. The success of the film has come during a very slack period with no blockbuster releases and it will be interesting to see if it maintains its No 1 position in the UK chart this weekend with some strong competition. In the meantime, I’d recommend the film mainly for Gyllenhaal’s performance (and Villeneuve’s direction). I’m really looking forward to Enemy.

Welcome to the Punch (UK 2013)

Max (James McAvoy) and Sternwood (Mark Strong)

Max (James McAvoy) and Sternwood (Mark Strong)

This is a strange film. Writer-director Eran Creevy describes it as a “cops and robbers film'” and tells us that it developed from his love for the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ pictures of the late 1980s/early 1990s by directors such as John Woo and Ringo Lam. Quentin Tarantino has already exploited the genre but Creevy offers something new in his setting of the action in Canary Wharf with new images of ‘London noir‘. One undoubted success of the film is that it follows the old maxim of “put your money on the screen”. Creevy and his producers/collaborators got their chance to make a London action film after just one calling-card production, the £100,000 Shifty in 2008. Creevy comes from a background of work in advertising and music video and with his cinematographer Ed Wild has achieved a compelling look for Welcome to the Punch. Whether a good look is enough without a coherent script is another question.

Welcome to the Punch was released in the UK in March 2013 but it seemed to disappear quite quickly and I missed it. The DVD is now out and it includes both a Q&A at BFI Southbank and a ‘Making Of’, both with Creevy in expansive mood. We learn, for instance, that the original script was 180 pages and that this was eventually almost halved in length. This perhaps explains some of the mysteries about the back story. The film opens with a prologue featuring a carefully-planned robbery in Canary Wharf in which the four robbers are escaping, only to be impeded by a single police officer acting against orders to wait for back-up. This is Max (James McAvoy) who finds himself up against the leader of the quartet, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Sternwood decides not to kill Max and escapes with the others. The plot then picks up a few years later when Max has returned to work with a new partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough). Sternwood is living in a remote area of Iceland and Max still wants to ‘take him down’ but his bosses want to restrain Max and they have other ideas about how to use the developing situation to capture Sternwood. What follows is a convoluted story about police corruption, politics and the private security industry, at the centre of which is an almost separate narrative about the strange relationship between Max and Sternwood, likened by several commentators to the Pacino-De Niro story in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Many audiences appear to have given up on the various plot developments, complaining that the film doesn’t make sense. The film’s strange title is partly explained in the plot but still strikes me as unnecessarily obtuse. I get the sense that the film would have been stronger if Creevy had either started again, or given the ideas to someone else, in either case beginning to write within a 90-100 minute framework.

One of Creevy’s problems is that, although UK police are now armed when approaching dangerous criminals, suspected ‘terrorists’ etc., they don’t routinely carry arms. To replicate Hong Kong gunplay scenarios, Creevy creates a special force equipped with an array of weapons who can indulge in extended shooting matches. This is certainly not the socially realist British police procedural, but also it isn’t an out and out fantasy like James Bond. At one point we are offered a scene almost like those in The Ladykillers with Peter Mullan menacing Ruth Sheen as the mother of one of the villains in a chintzy room in the East End. I fear that a very strong cast (including Daniel Mays and David Morrissey) is rather wasted as all the attention is focused on the central pairing.

The most important aspect of the film’s production is the way that it exemplifies how the industry now works. Shifty was one of the films selected for Film London’s Microwave scheme. Although he had to make that film for only £100,000, Shifty saw Creevy ‘mentored’ by Asif Kapadia. He was forced to hone the film’s narrative and to think carefully about what he could do with the money. The critical success of that film saw Creevy nominated for two major British awards (BAFTA/BIFA) and win two other film festival awards. This must be one of the reasons why Ridley Scott was prepared to ‘present’ the film for his Scott Free Productions. This obviously helped the film get stars of the quality of James McAvoy and Mark Strong (who has worked with Scott on productions such as Robin Hood and Body of Lies). Eran Creevy clearly has talent and the story ideas behind this production alongside the original ideas about settings (Canary Wharf companies took some persuading to allow shooting) could have made the film memorable. The script seems to me to be the weak point – as it is too often in British productions.

It might be worth discussing this film alongside Danny Boyle’s Trance. The films have similar London noir settings and both have James McAvoy in the lead. I like McAvoy but I still have problems with his physical presence as a male action lead – he’s as short as I am, but he also has some visible strength. Perhaps I should remember Alan Ladd? Filth, out this week, may solidify his leading man reputation. Unfortunately both Trance and Welcome to the Punch fail to develop their female characters and that’s something Eran Creevy might want to think about.

Here is a PowerPoint presentation on a case study of Eran Creevy as an example of current film production in the UK: WelcomePunch3

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well: