Las Plantas (Plants, Chile 2015)

Chilean cinema has certainly developed in recent years. This month a Chilean film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and here is a first-time writer-director Roberto Doveris creating an unusual coming-of-age story which succeeds on several levels. A weird and wonderful tale, Las Plantas combines genres and ideas that don’t always cohere, but the film is always watchable and it is innovative in interesting ways. I caught it on MUBI (on its last night of availability unfortunately).

Flor in the school playground with the comic book

The title refers to a comic book discovered by 17 year-old Flor in the garage of the apartment for which she is now responsible. The comic book appears to be Argentinean and offers an episode in a longer science fiction/fantasy/horror story which borrows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other familiar tales about plants that in the dead of night take over human bodies. Throughout the film there is a sense that the comic book and several other factors must be in some way metaphorical about the situation in which Flor finds herself. ‘Flor’ is short for Florencia, but ‘flor’ also refers to ‘flora’ or ‘flowers’.

Flor in cosplay mode at a comics fair

Flor has more to cope with than most teenagers. Her brother Sebastian is in a persistent vegetative state and needs constant care in feeding and washing. Flor’s father is absent and her mother is also seriously ill in hospital. When Clara leaves (she may be Flor’s aunt?), Flor is in sole charge of the apartment and Sebastian. A creepy uncle appears and disappears one night. Money is in short supply and it appears that Flor has had to move schools. We don’t see her engaged in school work and she doesn’t seem to have a ‘best’ girlfriend. Instead she hangs out with two boys with whom she creates dances that might at some point be performed. The trio also engage in forays into internet chatrooms, looking for sexual encounters. Eventually it becomes clear that this fascination and anxiety about sex (and the comic book story) is what helps Flor get through the daily grind. In the final part of the narrative Flor’s sexual desire takes centre stage.

. . . and sleeping next to her comatose brother

I can see from some of the online comments that the slow pace and the loose narrative has put off some viewers. It’s true that some characters appear without much explanation and that it is easy to get confused by characters who are similar in appearance and often photographed in shadow. On the other hand the whole film has a dreamlike quality and a ‘tidier’ narrative might lose some of the atmosphere or ‘tone’. The film stands or falls on the central performance of Violeta Castillo as Flor. This is her first listed feature and Castillo (who is Argentinian) has also provided some of the music in the film.

I’m a little surprised that the film hasn’t had wider distribution. I can see that the nudity (especially erect penises) might be a problem for censors but personally I’d be happy to see this film get a ’15’ certificate in the UK. It’s worth pointing out that the sequences depicting Flor’s developing sexuality are by no means sexist – nakedness is not ‘gendered’ here. It’s refreshing to see a narrative focusing on a young woman’s discovery of her own sexual desire and her own attempts to explore it.

Las Plantas won prizes in the ‘Generation 14+’ section of the Berlinale in 2016. Here’s the trailer from the festival:

Stones for the Rampart (Kamienie na szaniec, Poland 2014)

The 'Grey Scouts' attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

The ‘Grey Scouts’ attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

Unlike several other recent mainstream Polish films in the UK that have been released ‘on date’ with Warsaw, Stones for the Rampart had to wait over a year after its Polish release. An adaptation from a 1943 ‘patriotic novel’, the film directed by Robert Glinski offers a story about older teenagers who are members of a clandestine Scout troop known in English as the ‘Grey Ranks’. Worried by the possibility that the boys’ actions against the Nazi occupiers of Warsaw might create more trouble than it is worth, a group of the Scouts are recruited into the ‘Home Army’ – the official Polish resistance. There are a number of links/categories that this film brings to mind and, although it is clearly a very specific context, it does reveal generic features. The most obvious link is to Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war-time films produced in the 1950s and in particular the first part A Generation (1955). This too was based on a novel about teenage resistance fighters in Warsaw (with Roman Polanski as one of the younger boys). The new film also relates to Hollywood’s attempts to enable familiar genre films to appeal to younger audiences through stories featuring younger versions of generic characters, e.g. in films like the Westerns Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns 2 (1990). Finally we might consider this Polish film as another example of European film industries re-visiting the Second World War and national myths about resistance to occupation (or in the German case, resistance to Nazi ideologies such as in Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005)).

Probably the first point to note is that in re-visiting the resistance struggle in Warsaw, contemporary filmmakers are working in a very different context to Wajda in in the 1950s. They are not under any pressure to highlight the importance of the communist resistance groups – indeed they may feel pressurised not to mention them. I confess that I do not have the historical knowledge about the Polish resistance in Warsaw to know when the communist resistance becomes important. The Home Army with its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile in London was certainly the much larger force and I didn’t register any direct references to communist activity. The sensitivity of these issues makes it very difficult for non-Polish speakers to decode all the subtitled dialogue and written texts shown in the film. I’m not surprised therefore to discover what seem to be very negative comments about this film. In the review in the Polish version of Newsweek, Michał Wachnicki lambasts the film for poor dialogue and lack of realism. Google Translate itself offers only a rough approximation of Wachnicki’s arguments but he seems to be quoting Hollywood films such as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket as successful war films. I would have thought that a film like Rossellini’s Rome Open City would have been a better benchmark. By contrast, the most positive English language review is from an American priest. Father Dennis Zdenek Kriz from Chicago suggests that the film offers important moral questions about the sacrifice of young lives in a just cause.

What do I make of all this without the language and cultural historical knowledge? The young people depicted are on the whole middle-class with all the resources that implies. The air of ‘amateurish’ resistance is contrasted with the brutality of the Nazi occupiers towards the working-class people on the street who are randomly executed in retaliation. In some ways the film is quite ‘realist’ in showing credible psychological reactions to events – the ending of the film is poignant in the confrontation between a young German soldier and an equally inexperienced ‘scout leader’/student. The complex relationship between the Home Army leadership, the scout troop and the other more isolated ‘agents’ (including the parents of the boys who have roles their children don’t know about) isn’t perhaps as clear as it might be. What is clear, however, is that the Home Army is a much more substantial force in 1943 than the resistance in many other Nazi-occupied countries. The inclusion in the narrative of the relationships between the young men of the scouts and their girlfriends is potentially problematic and this is perhaps where I feel most inadequate to deal with the dialogue.

I’m glad I saw this film and I wish it had found a wider audience in the UK. As far as I know it has only been seen at selected Cineworld cinemas. It is certainly an interesting addition to the increasingly large collection of WWII stories of resistance.

Trailer (no English subs):

Samson & Delilah (Australia 2009)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

I’m not sure how I missed this film but I clearly made a big mistake. This is one of the most important Australian films of recent years and the section in The Global Film Book on Ten Canoes suffers because it doesn’t include discussion of this film. I hope I can now put this right.

Samson & Delilah is an Indigenous Australian film, written, directed and photographed by Warwick Thornton (DoP on The Sapphires, Australia 2012). Thornton wrote a script with very little dialogue and cast two 14 year-olds without any experience of filmmaking to play the young couple in a small isolated community in Central Australia. As might be expected, a cinematographer’s film features some beautiful compositions, a genuine feel for landscape and some excellent nighttime footage. But more importantly, Warwick Thornton was aware that working on 35mm with only a small crew and living with the community, he could complete the shoot quickly and get the best performances from his non-professional actors. The interviews with Thornton and his producer Kath Shelper on the DVD reveal just how much of a bonus a very low budget can be – especially when the decision is made to put the bulk of the money onto the screen using the the best quality format.

Samson & Delilah is a romance and a drama, but it’s also a film about a ‘social issue’ and a metaphorical statement about aspects of Indigenous culture and its place in Australian society. Samson is a young man with little going for him. He lives in a small settlement with his older brother who spends most of his time playing in a small music group. Samson spends his time generally mooching about and trying to woo Delilah, whose main task appears to be look after her elderly grandmother who she she helps with the production of craft objects featuring traditional designs. There isn’t much in the way of story but in a formal sense it is the death of the old woman which ‘disrupts the equilibrium’ and brings Samson and Delilah closer together (although in an antagonistic relationship). The story will take them away from the community and place them in the nearest ‘big town’ where they face a generally hostile reception. This in turn will raise the profile of Samson’s addiction to petrol fumes which he inhales regularly and to the point of oblivion. I confess that I didn’t know anything about this form of drug dependency before I saw this film and at first I couldn’t work out what was happening. I understand now that it is a real and dangerous social issue for Indigenous communities in Australia alongside alcohol and other harder drugs.

The presentation of the story of these two young people is interesting in several ways. It isn’t a ‘social problem melodrama’ and nobody comes to ‘save’ Samson and Delilah. It’s a humanist film and in no way sentimental. In fact it’s a tough film and difficult to watch at times – but also compelling so you don’t want to turn away. There are moments of humour and it definitely is a love story. This of course makes it even more devastating as an artistic statement about Indigenous culture in contemporary Australia. At times the narrative development is so slow that the viewer is forced into contemplation and reflection on what is being shown and how it is being shown. The Global Film Book uses Indigenous Australian cinema as a case study to raise questions about how audiences can learn to ‘read’ films from different cultures. In the book the main case study film is Ten Canoes plus a brief analysis of Toomelah (Australia 2011). On this site we have also discussed Mystery Road (Australia 2013). Samson and Delilah is different from these other three films because it doesn’t have the same sense of ‘narrative drive’ and engagement with ideas about genre that can be found in Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Mystery Road – even though it shares a similar sense of the low budget approach of Toomelah (but an almost opposite approach to the quality of the image). Compared to the historical and sociological dimensions of Ten Canoes, Samson & Delilah offers no ‘explanations’ of the actions of characters on-screen in terms of Indigenous culture. The DVD and the film’s website do offer background information and a ‘FAQ’ section to cover traditions but in the film itself such actions are simply observed. For instance, after her grandmother’s death, Delilah cuts her hair and she is badly beaten by the other women of the community. Samson cuts his hair too and then rescues Delilah (taking the community’s collectively-owned vehicle). Warwick Thornton says everything in the film comes from his own knowledge and experience – he stresses that he doesn’t agree with every aspect of tradition. He also points out that Indigenous communities vary greatly in size and display distinct local cultural differences. As he says, some of them are well organised and successful, others aren’t. The film was shot mainly around Alice Springs in Central Australia.

From the perspective of the ‘specialised film’ audience in the UK, Samson & Delilah comes across partly as a kind of art film in which, though little ‘happens’ for quite long periods, the image (and the soundtrack which has some excellent music tracks) is always interesting. The action that does occur in the context of the love story and the struggles of youth is engaging and accessible because of the performances and the direct approach taken by Thornton and his crew. I was told by a colleague that this was the film I needed to see and I fully concur. The film won prizes around the world including the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The DVD has several worthwhile extras including an earlier ‘long short film’ that Warwick Thornton made based on his experiences as a radio DJ in Alice Springs – this too has interesting comments to make.

Trinity (UK distributor) website for DVD.

Official (Australian) website here.

Download the films Press Book here.

UK trailer:

The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro, Mexico-Spain 2013)

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

This terrific film comes to us with a glowing recommendation from Ken Loach. Its writer-director Diego Quemada-Díez began as a camera assistant on Loach’s Spanish-set Land and Freedom (1995). His work in different roles in the camera department has featured in two further Loach productions plus films by Spike Lee, Alejandro Inarittu and Fernando Mireilles among others. What he has learned from close contact with these leading directors is evident in this his first feature-length film.

‘The Golden Dream’ is about America, though the direct translation of the film’s title is the Golden – or ‘Gilded’ – Cage and it may refer back to a well-known Mexican song and later film about migration to the US. The current film has been described as a ‘poetic road movie’, though it is for much of the time a (freight) train movie. It takes three teenagers on a journey from Guatemala into Mexico where they attract a fourth traveller a young ‘Indian’ in Chiapas. The group includes a confident young man who makes himself leader and a similarly confident young woman who binds her breasts and cuts her hair to pass as a boy. After a setback, one of the original trio heads home but the others continue ‘jumping’ freight trains that they hope will take them all the way north to the American border and eventually to Los Angeles. Inevitably they will have adventures, suffer great losses and learn things about themselves. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll simply say that not all of them get to America and the other adjective to go with ‘poetic’ used in the synopsis is ‘severe’.

The poetry is in the images. This is a photographer’s film in the sense that meaning is carried more by the images than the dialogue. It’s not that I remember many specific images as such (even though many are striking), just that the story seems to flow so smoothly. The credited cinematographer is María Secco.

The three teenage leads are very good indeed (none have film experience as such, but all are ‘performers’ in some form of community arts) and the story is not romantic or sentimental. The travellers experience both the warmth and solidarity of the rails – and the violence and duplicity of those who prey on them as migrants. I enjoyed the musical performances in the film as well – these add to the quasi-documentary feel and the chief lesson learned from Loach is the strategy of filming the story ‘in sequence’ and briefing the cast only about the events of the day’s shoot in advance so that the actions/re-actions feel natural rather than ‘performed’.

Peccadillo Pictures distributes the film in the UK. It’s certainly worth seeing on a big screen if you can find it:

This film would make a very good companion piece to Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001), a rather different form of ‘road movie’ discussed in some detail in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book.

Colorful (Japan 2010)

One of the paintings demonstrating the talent for art that Makoto discovers he has. (Image from http://www.lostinanime.com/2011/05/colorful.html)

One of the paintings demonstrating the talent for art that Makoto discovers he has. (Image from http://www.lostinanime.com/2011/05/colorful.html)

Colorful is a lovely anime that is well worth seeking out if you hold any preconceived notions about anime as easily classifiable. It’s quite difficult to outline the narrative but the film deals with a range of ‘personal’ and ‘social’ issues associated with adolescence and what can happen when a teenager is caught between the pressures of school and the ups and downs of family life.

The film was screened in the UK as part of the touring Japan Foundation ‘East Side Stories’ Film Festival presenting ‘Japanese Cinema Depicting the Lives of Youth’. At a 126 mins running time the story has plenty of room to breathe and to allow  the audience to reflect – though that probably means that some of the teen audience might be lost if they balk at the slow pace. The narrative begins with a ‘lost soul’ (a ‘sinner’ denied re-incarnation) being given the chance to be alive again in the body of a young teenage boy who has just died after a suicide attempt but who will now be revived. The lost soul has a spirit mentor or guide who fills him in on the back story and gives him instructions as to his ‘mission’. Our hero then wakes as ‘Makoto’ and finds himself in a family where he knows enough to get by but still needs to learn things about his brother and his parents as well as about his classmates at school. This necessity to understand the world around him and to properly ‘know’ friends and family, as well as himself, is the central thrust of the narrative and later it will become clear what will happen if he ‘succeeds’ or ‘fails’ to achieve his goals.

The setting and to some extent the gentle moralising for adolescent viewers is similar to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (discussed in Chapter 5 of The Global Film Book). The animation style is more traditional but again offers a detailed evocation of Tokyo streetscapes. (Although has several reviewers mention, the title is slightly misleading – the colour palette is more subdued than vibrant.) My favourite part of the film is when Makoto teams up with Saotome, a boy in his class who seems to have solved the problem of being ‘geeky’ (otaku) without sacrificing the possibilities of social interaction. He has discovered an interest in local history and in particular, the last tram or ‘light rail’ line which closed a few years earlier and which is now commemorated by plaques and information displays along the route. As his friend reads from an account of the line, the boys visualise the tram, full of passengers, trundling along like a ‘ghost service’. (I think this impressed so much because the tram’s colour scheme reminded me of the Blackpool trams of my childhood.) Makoto and Saotome occupy the bottom two positions in class gradings but they help each other towards achieving entry to a high school. We also see Makoto’s relationships with two very different girls in his class, each of whom attempts to be friends with him in different ways.

I won’t spoil the other parts of the narrative. Makoto does ‘do good’ as well as be cruel and unthinking –  in other words he is a ‘normal’ adolescent. The narrative also uses melodrama tropes in relation to Makoto’s family situation. There is a ‘twist’ in the narrative that many audiences will no doubt see coming, but I don’t think this spoils what is an affecting film overall.

I’m not sure why this anime has not got a UK release – at least on DVD. It has had a partial release in North America but nothing to match its domestic market release (but beware there is an American dub of the film). The story is adapted from a novel Karafuru by Eto Mori “one of the most celebrated female writers of fiction in Japan today” (Books from Japan). The film’s director is Hara Keiichi who began his career in the 1980s on the seminal TV anime series Doraemon.

Japan Film Foundation UK Tour 2014

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation's 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Parade (Paredo, Japan 2010) one of the titles in the Japanese Film Foundation’s 2014 UK Film Touring Programme.

Advance warning of next year’s Japan Film Foundation UK Touring programme was released on Monday 23 December. The tour reaches venues in London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Dundee, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham between January 31st and March 27th 2014.

Full details including which titles (selections from 11 in all) are playing at which venues can be found on the Foundation’s website. This year’s theme is ‘youth’, under the title ‘East Side Stories’, with films from the last ten years, most not previously seen in the UK. There is also one archive print, 18 Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin) from 1963: “A worker in a shipbuilding yard is offered the chance to boost his wages by managing a dormitory inhabited by a pack of eighteen adolescent ruffians. This early film by Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre) is a neo-realist account of the conditions for Japanese temporary workers in the 1960s, and rare to see outside Japan”.

We hope to get to at least a couple of these screenings. It looks an interesting programme.

King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, Norway/Pol/Ger/France 2010)

Stellan Skarsgard as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

Stellan Skarsgård as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.

Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.

An attempt at escape from the island.

An attempt at escape from the island.

The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . .  Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.

Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.