Tag Archives: migration

Frozen River (US 2008)

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

This was a riveting movie to watch, well-written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a first time feature filmmaker at 44). I found it also to be disturbing in several different ways.

Frozen River is a genuinely independent film made for less than a million dollars (raised from business acquaintances). Developed from an earlier short film, it was sold to Sony Classics before Sundance – where it won a major prize. The central character is Ray (Melissa Leo), a working-class woman living with her 5 and 15 year-old sons in a decrepit trailer. Her husband, a compulsive gambler, has just absconded with the money saved up for an upgrade to a superior home. Ray sets off to find him between shifts at the local discount store. The trail leads to a Bingo Hall on the Mohawk territory that spans the US-Canadian border. When she sees her husband’s car being driven away by a young Mohawk woman, she gives chase. The upshot is that Ray is sucked into the ‘people trafficking’ across the border which has replaced cigarette smuggling as an earner for some members of the Mohawk community.

As well as gambling and people trafficking, the narrative takes on issues of parental control and the deprivations of trailer park life. It certainly isn’t Hollywood, but still there is a kind of happy ending. In a way this was a relief after a couple of harrowing incidents in the story when I could hardly bear to look at the screen since tragedy seemed inevitable. I’m still trying to work out if this was a cop-out or whether I have read aspects of the film wrongly. As we’ve noted in other posts, it is rare to get contemporary American films that deal with working-class life. It’s even rarer to get films like this written and directed by a woman and with a central focus on two women from outside the norm of Hollywood leads. There has been lots of (justifiable) praise for Melissa Leo, but I would want to also praise Misty Upham as the Mohawk woman. I’m very supportive of the film in lots of ways, but . . .

The problem I have with the film and especially with the happy ending is really to do with the politics of American working class culture. I confess that as a middle-class European it’s sometimes hard to fathom. Let’s begin with the central family in the film. There is some interesting discussion on IMDB as to whether this is a middle-class family brought down in the world by the husband’s gambling. There is generally a view that a ‘poor’ family shouldn’t be watching a large rented TV and eating junk food. Against this, Ray is shown to be a mother who wants her children to go to school and do well (i.e. she isn’t ‘irresponsible’). I wasn’t sure about the actors (real cousins) who played the two sons – they seemed very articulate and ‘well-educated’. So, am I falling into a trap in expecting a stereotypical portrayal of kids who live in a trailer park? To be fair, the film offers believable, non-stereotypical police officers and other characters, so perhaps I ought to read the children as they are written. I can’t say too much about my major concern with the film without giving away the plot, so, SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.

Ray is driven by the need to find the money for the new house – in the couple of days before Christmas Eve. Driving illegal workers over the frozen river and across Mohawk land evades the immigration controls. She’s seemingly unconcerned by the Chinese in her boot (trunk) but freaks out when a Pakistani couple turn up, yelling that she doesn’t know what a ‘Paki’ is (the term used by the Mohawk woman) and then saying that she doesn’t know where Pakistan is and losing it completely because the couple might be carrying bombs or something. Is this what American working mothers are like? A woman who seems rational at other times can’t distinguish between frightened illegal immigrants and an Al Quaeda cell? Or is this just my false perspective?

Following this, Ray acts quite callously and only seems to care about her kids’ Christmas presents. Not so terrible perhaps, but we now have her classed as suspicious of other cultures – which goes against the believable portrayal of the two women, white and Native American who are slowly drawing together after beginning on a level of mutual animosity. Lila, the Mohawk woman is an interesting character, streetwise but not as assertive as Ray at first. She also has a small child who she has ‘lost’ to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. In a possibly metaphorical move, she eventually buys some glasses to improve her poor short-range vision. The ending of the film sees Ray make a sacrifice which effectively ‘saves’ Lila and her child. It was this volte-face by the woman who could treat illegals as terrorists that I found a bit hard to take. I’m mindful of Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts in which Chinese illegals drown in Morecambe Bay when their gangmaster allows them to work in unsafe conditions. People smuggling is often a dangerous business that ends in tears – see our discussion of Farewell China. The film seems to focus on the white-Native American relationship, but to ignore the illegals who somehow seem less than human (they have no dialogue as such). I’m interested to hear what Americans think about this aspect of the film – and Canadians, who are also ‘absent’ apart from the Quebecois who organises the smuggling. Wouldn’t all these illegals be better off taking their chance in Canada?

Info on Courtney Hunt was gleaned from an interview on the Huffington Post and the film’s press kit available here.

It’s great that Melissa Leo should get all this attention. I’ve been a fan since Homicide – Life on the Street. In this movie she looks like a real person and not a movie star. Writer-director Hunt is adamant about her commitment to showing a working-class woman on screen. According to an interview in New York magazine, Hunt herself was brought up by a single mother and took her early inspiration from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I hope the film does well – and creates discussion about race and class in contemporary America.

Le Grand Voyage (France/Morocco 2004)

Father and son wait at customs control in Le Grand Voyage 

Father and son wait at customs control in Le Grand Voyage

I thought this film was much more interesting than some of the rather sniffy reviews that appeared at the time. Le grand voyage won various prizes around the world, including one at Venice and was then dubbed a conventional ‘festival film’ or, worse, a ‘road movie’. To be fair, however, lots of people clearly enjoyed it as much as I did. I don’t accept that recognition of a film as a road movie means that it won’t be an interesting film.

The plot is very simple. A Moroccan who has lived in France for 30 years decides that the time has come to make the hajj to Mecca. But instead of flying or going by sea to Saudi Arabia, he opts to go by car, commanding his younger son Reda to drive him. Reda is due to take his high school exams for the second time and is upset to be parted from his French girlfriend, Lisa. The pair set off in a reconditioned Peugeot estate supplied by Reda’s older brother. It is indeed a classic ‘road trip’ with two travelling companions who have little in common and barely speak to each other. Many of the elements of the road movie are covered – strange, unannounced extra passengers, comic misadventures etc. – and the overall thematic about characters learning about each other and about themselves through the adventures. Yet, it isn’t anything like an American road movie, or one across any other large country. One of the important narrative threads is the change in the sense of which of the two characters is ‘in control’ of the journey. At first Reda is comfortable driving in France and Italy – although he still has to obey his father, he is still justified in chastising the old man who gets them lost because he can’t read maps. But as they cross the Balkans it slowly becomes apparent that Reda’s French culture is less and less useful – while the father becomes more capable of sensible decision-making.

For any monoglot English speaker, it is rather chastening to think that Reda actually speaks three languages – French, some English and the Moroccan Arabic of his family. But because he has rejected Islam and his Arab heritage, he doesn’t know the classical or the ‘Egyptian Arabic’ that is more useful travelling the back roads of Syria and Jordan. His father has this and is anyway much more comfortable dealing with the farmers and local villagers they meet on the way. The last part of the film deals with the pair’s arrival in Mecca. Many of the reviews find this the most interesting part of the story – especially the crowd scenes. I’m not sure that these scenes are that unusual in news footage terms, but it is true that for a fictional story to include such scenes is very rare (probably unique). I would certainly agree that the closing scenes of the narrative are important. Once again, it’s quite interesting to compare the ending with the generic conventions of the road movie. What have the two characters learned/achieved? For me, although the personal stories were interesting, I was more taken by the commentary which emerged about the whole issue of ‘North-South’ relationships and the process of migration. For the last thirty years, the assumption has been that migrants have travelled from the ‘South’ (i.e. North Africa) to Western Europe to find employment, just as Reda’s father presumably did. But now with EU membership opening up to Eastern Europe and eventually the Balkans and Turkey, the definitions need to change. The old man, not the 2nd generation ‘French man’ who is his son, moves more freely through what might soon become the new extended Europe. Allied to this, the director, French-Moroccan Ismaël Ferroukhi  has said that he wanted to represent a new sense of the wider Muslim community – one which dealt with the majority of community-minded Muslims travelling to Mecca, not the minority involved in conflict. I think he succeeds.

The Silence of Lorna (Bel/Fra/Ita/Ger 2008)


Jérémie Renier and Arta Dobroshi in The Silence of Lorna

The Walloon filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be on a run of films focusing on young women in difficult social positions. They present social realist dramas set largely in the industrial zone around Liège (although industry rarely figures in the stories) with narratives seemingly taken on and worked over from the Ken Loach storybook. The films don’t have the Loachian humour and occasional bursts of melodrama, but instead offer a more intense narrative focus on an individual expressed through an austere and disciplined aesthetic.

The Silence of Lorna won the script prize at Cannes this year. I’m not sure I can see why except that the script is certainly provocative with two ‘shocking’ effronts to narrative convention and the possibility of engagement with a wide range of issues. However, the film is memorable because of its direction and central performance by relative newcomer Arta Dobroshi. She plays Lorna, a young Albanian woman who has become involved in a complex network of scams. At the beginning of the film, she has just received her Belgian ID – acquired through marriage to a junkie, Claudy. Of course, the Dardennes’ storytelling method requires the viewer to work this out over quite a lengthy sequence. But this is just the beginning of events that see Lorna passed from one man to another. The women she meets are invariably officials of the health service. Lorna is intelligent and resourceful, but can she survive working on scams in which she should not become emotionally involved?

I’m not sure if the film’s title is ironic. Lorna isn’t really ‘silent’ – indeed most of the time she speaks out. But she also has to be secretive and her speech is often directed within the small group of scammers who use her. Dobroshi is always interesting to watch and there are sequences in which you are forced to think about migration as an activity with criminal exploitation possibilities. Unfortunately, I don’t think this goes far enough for me – although I suspect that when I reflect upon the last few scenes, I may revise this view.

The Silence of Lorna is a North-West European social realist film and not a ‘crowd-pleaser’. On the way out of the cinema, somebody wondered out loud “Why would anyone go to Belgium from Albania?”. I really don’t see why Belgium is considered dull. I enjoyed the drab streets of the city as a place I recognised that in one sense seemed calm and civilised. I won’t spoil the ending but will point out that it suggests that the city and the woods outside the urban areas have some kind of symbolic value. We might argue that this industrial region that once made ‘things’ now frantically plies a trade in ‘identities’. I could relate this to those British social comedies like The Full Monty in which men who once worked in manufacturing are forced into forms of ‘performance’ instead. I’m not sure how I got from social realism to postmodernity – but perhaps that’s what films like this do?

Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990)


Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Ka-Fai in Farewell China

This is an extraordinary film with a shocking ending. In some ways it plays as a darker version of the later Comrades, Almost A Love Story. The premise is straightforward with Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Maggie Cheung as a young couple in rural China. They met during the Cultural Revolution, married and have their allowed one child. Their aim is to emigrate to America and eventually, after countless attempts, Hung (Maggie Cheung) is successful in getting a visa to study and sets off promising to send for Zhou and their son as soon as possible. When his letters are returned ‘undelivered’, Zhou decides to travel himself, leaving his son with the grandparents and by a circuitous route via Panama, he makes it to New York. Without English, how is he going to find Hung?

Directed by Clara Law, who made several features around this time, the film begins in a recognisable social realist style, but in New York, many of the scenes are set at night in different ‘Chinatowns’ in Brooklyn and the Bronx and also in Harlem. One IMDB user remarks that the film shows areas of New York that don’t usually appear in feature films. For me, the nighttime scenes were reminiscent of films like Scorsese’s After Hours, with the dark streets as very menacing.

The narrative offers a wealth of sociological detail about the different migrant groups. The ‘mainlanders’ occupy the lowest level of rented housing, whereas the Hong Kong and Taiwanese communities have been able to move out. I don’t want to spoil any narrative expectations, but there is an interesting use of an American-Chinese character. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are excellent and I don’t really understand why films like this don’t get picked up for UK distribution. It would be great to screen this next to Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts or Michael Winterbottom’s In This World – as well as Comrades, Almost A Love Story. (Available on an All Region DVD from Fortune Star, Hong Kong.)

Comrades, Almost a Love Story (Tian mi mi, Hong Kong 1996)

Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai in one of the most affecting scenes from Comrades – Almost a Love Story

Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai in one of the most affecting scenes from Comrades – Almost a Love Story

This wonderful film is not available in the UK (and wasn’t released in UK cinemas as far as I’m aware – a fate it shares with the equally wonderful Actress/Centre Stage). This is a terrible state of affairs since this is one of the best performances by the iconic star of Chinese cinema, Maggie Cheung Man Yuk. Leon Lai is equally good and it’s a tribute to the film that I still think this even after struggling to watch it on a Hong Kong VCD. (I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but Hong Kong films on VCD have both Cantonese and Mandarin soundtracks and I have found it quite difficult to disable one of the two tracks on my MacBook – I finally worked it out when I set the audio on the computer all the way to right or left and then played the film using Quicktime.)

The story could only be set in Hong Kong before 1997. It begins in 1986 with the arrival of Li Xiao Jun (Leon Lai) from the Mainland in the hope of making enough money to pay for his marriage to his girlfriend, still back in Tianjin (in North Eastern China). Searching for jobs he meets Maggie Cheung (as Li Qiao) who is working behind the counter at McDonalds. She decides to help a fellow Mainlander (she comes from Guangzhou – on the mainland, but close to Hong Kong), but gives the impression that she has been in Hong Kong for a long time. She has several jobs and many schemes to make money (her aim is to be rich and buy her mother a house) and she is soon humouring Xiao Jun, treating him as a country bumpkin. Despite their differences they eventually fall in love. They make an interesting couple and we get to see what happens to them over a 10 year period leading up to the eve of the handover. This isn’t an art film but a thoughtful entertainment film complete with a narrative twist in its resolution.

It is distinctively a Hong Kong film with a theme of migration and memory – the most important theme in Hong Kong cinema up to 1997 as far as I can see. The soundtrack carries the songs of Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng throughout the film and they also figure directly in the narrative. Western audiences will recognise some of the nostalgia (and the yearning for migration) from the films of Wong Kar-wai and this film would make a fascinating double bill with In the Mood for Love.

The genre of the film is the romance melodrama with its mixture of nostalgia, hardship and lucky coincidences and its narrative conventions of weddings, break-ups and reconciliations. It works so well that you fear that Hollywood will want to remake it. I don’t think that it could be done. Although the US too is a nation built on migration, I haven’t seen an American film with this feel – except perhaps in the glimpses of Little Italy in the early 20th century in Godfather II. Most of all, I just can’t see a Hollywood star who could do what Maggie Cheung does. I realise that this may again be a function of watching a narrative from a different culture and not following the spoken language – I get used to just watching the faces and Maggie Cheung does so much with her beautiful face.

I was surprised to see a user comment on IMDB that begins with an assertion that this film isn’t ‘political’ (and this from a Chinese or Hong Kong user, I think). It was clear to me that the central characters have quite different attitudes to making money and ‘getting on’. Li Qiao buys in completely to the capitalist dream and she makes her money in various ways, including dabbling on the stock exchange and recruiting students for an English language class. Her whole approach is based on an embrace of the service industry ethos of late capitalism and a recurring image views her subjectively from the perspective of an ATM machine which charts the rise (and fall) of her savings. Xiao Jun, by contrast, establishes himself through family connections and eventually takes jobs associated with the restaurant business in a traditional family-based approach. I found the chapter on the film by Rey Chow in her book Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films (2007) very useful and I hope to review the whole book at a later date. At this point, I’d like to pick up just a few of the points she makes.

One of the striking points about Comrades is that it offers a series of romances/relationships, each of which in some way comments on the central relationship. Two of these involve Chinese women and Western men and both of them involve the impact of globalisation. The first involves Xiao Jun’s aunt, who years ago as a young woman supposedly spent a day in a hotel with the Hollywood actor William Holden when he was filming Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing (US 1955) in Hong Kong. (Chow points out that the aunt is played by Irene Tsu who had an uncredited role in Holden’s other Hong Kong movie, The World of Suzie Wong (UK 1960)). This kind of intertextuality also extends to the other romance – between an English teacher and a Thai prostitute called Cabbage. The teacher is played by Christopher Doyle, then Hong Kong resident and cinematographer to Wong Kar-wai. These two romances, one past (and possibly a fantasy?) and one uncertain, are complemted by Li Qiao’s own ‘arrangement’ with an older gangster figure (played by Eric Tsang). The scenes between these two are sometimes very affecting and add to the emotional impact of Li Qiao’s attachment to Xiao Jun. All the men involved in the relationships seem caring and understanding (Bill Holden is, of course, ‘absent’) and the narrative seems to me to be sympathetic to the woman’s position.

Chow is as interested in the ideological discourse associated with Li Qiao’s embrace of Hong Kong capitalism as she is in the the discourse of migration and identity and she offers several important observations. One, I liked about the visual symbols of movement and commercial energy concerns the enfless flow of people through rapid transit systems, airport security, etc. against the images of Xiao Jun on his bicycle seemingly cycling without effort against the flow. All this and Teresa Teng on the soundtrack – I’m sure there is more going on than I can fathom. I’d say more about the ending of the film, but I don’t want to spoil it if you get the chance to see the film. Unavailable at the moment, distribution seems to be in the hands of Warner Home Video – perhaps they have plans to re-release it?

Since you can’t get it anywhere with English subs, here is a YouTube link (you can probably watch the whole film on YouTube if you look carefully):