Tag Archives: youth picture

Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) – Narrative, Genre and Representation

Jess is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

This is one of our occasional archive publications of notes on specific films for film and media studies students. These notes were originally published in 2004.

Introduction
Bend It Like Beckham (BILB) is in many ways an excellent case study for British film, in terms of both ‘industry’ and ‘culture’. The release of the film in the UK in 2002, during the run-up to the football World Cup (at a time when David Beckham’s injury was front page news), represented something of a gamble for the distributor Helkon, with a wide release on over 380 prints – the kind of release usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. The gamble paid off so well that the film became the most successful ‘non-Hollywood’ British film of the modern era with a UK box office of over £11 million. The ‘universality’ of the central theme then went on to win large audiences in North America where the ‘Beckham factor’ was (then) of little importance. An American box office of $32 million and healthy returns in Australia, India, France, Italy and Germany guaranteed that director Gurinder Chadha would have carte blanche for her next project. Keira Knightley, the second lead in the film also become ‘hot property’ with subsequent starring roles in major American films. (Parminder Nagra had success on US TV, but nothing like that of Knightley.)

The success of the film was also associated with the way in which it presented aspects of British Asian life in accessible ways for a mainstream audience – attracting little or no controversy in the process (cf East is East, 1999). These notes will discuss the film in terms of narrative, genre and representation and also raise questions about contemporary British Cinema.

SynopsisSPOILERS (These notes discuss the film’s narrative in detail, so this is a full synopsis)

Jess Bhamra is an 18 year-old school-leaver who dreams about football and being able to ‘bend’ a ball like David Beckham. Her mother expects Jess to follow tradition in their Punjabi Sikh family and prepare for marriage, like older sister Pinky (but only after she has got a degree). One day in the local park, Jess is spotted playing football by Jules who is a member of the Hounslow Harriers women’s football team. She invites Jess to watch the team play and persuades the coach, Joe, to give Jess a trial. Jess is accepted but she decides to keep her new activity secret from her family. Mother finds out and tries to stop her, but Jules persuades her to carry on (being similarly under pressure from her own mother, who worries that Jules is too ‘tomboyish’). Preparations for Pinky’s wedding are in full swing, but Jess uses her clothes budget to buy new football boots – angering her parents. Jules gives her some suitable shoes but the two are seen by Pinky’s future parents, who thinking Jules is a boy, declare that Jess brings shame on the family and they call off the wedding. Jess is banned from football. Joe visits the family to plead her case. He fails, but Jess is determined to carry on and secretly joins the team on a trip to Germany where Jules sees for the first time that Jess and Joe are attracted to each other.

Mr Bhamra has worked out what is happening and meets the team on their return. He despairs of Jess and Pinky. Meanwhile, Jules falls out with Jess. Mrs Paxton overhears the row, convinced it is a lovers’ tiff. Jess confides in her cousin Tony and discovers that he is gay – but his family don’t know. Jess is playing in a game when her father sneaks in to watch. Jess is pumped up and gets sent off. Father discovers Joe comforting Jess. When they return home, Teetu’s family have come to rescue the marriage. The new wedding date clashes with the final of the football competition. Jess gets her A Level results, but Jules is looking forward to the American scout seeing her play.

On the day of the wedding, Father relents because Jess looks so unhappy and he allows her to leave the reception to play. Jess scores the winning goal – ‘bending it’. Jules and her mother arrive at the wedding and cause a scene because Mother sees Jules kiss Jess. At Jess’ house Tony tries to help Jess by telling the family that they are getting married. But Jess wants the truth – she announces that she has won the scholarship in America and her father says she can go. Jess goes to see Joe – she tells him she can’t start a relationship, but she offers hope. David Beckham is glimpsed in the airport as the girls fly off.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha was born in Kenya, but brought up in the UK, in Southall, West London. She first came to attention as a features director in 1993 with the release of Bhaji on the Beach, a social comedy which followed a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool. In the best traditions of the genre, the narrative of this film provided the opportunity for women of different ages to exchange ideas about men and their own lives. The Blackpool setting also allowed some comic moments of culture clash. Overall, however, the film offered a serious discourse about the issues facing Asian women in Britain and it found an appreciative audience, despite restricted distribution.

“You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other, Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other, cultural specificity and universality – but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them.” (Gurinder Chadha quoted on www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/)

In 2000, a second feature, What’s Cooking? moved Chadha to Los Angeles and a multi-strand narrative about four families from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing familiar domestic problems which are brought into focus by the pressures of Thanksgiving Dinner. Again more of a critical than a commercial success, What’s Cooking confirmed Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker and her ability to explore cultural diversity without emphasis on cultural difference.

Recipe for Success

It’s difficult to escape from culinary puns in describing Gurinder Chadha’s work and Bend it Like Beckham was presented with the tagline “Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”. Much of the success of the film derives from perfect timing in combining an interest in football and celebrity, at a time when ‘Beckham mania’ was beginning to peak in the UK, with the increasing popularity of Indian culture and all things ‘Bollywood’. A further significant factor in easy recognition in the UK was the success of the television series Playing the Field (1998-2002) created by Kay Mellor. This series had already introduced the idea of women’s football as an interesting site for dramatic narratives. Although the series generally concentrated on older women players, it was important in appealing to a female audience, especially an older audience, notoriously difficult to attract to cinema features.

Overall, BILB can be seen as a British ‘feelgood’ film which appealed to audiences much in the same way as The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000). It differed in being ‘Southern’ rather than ‘Northern’ and female-centred rather than male-centred. It is also ‘feelgood’ in a British Asian context. The more affluent Punjabi/East African Sikh family setting also distinguishes the film from the other major British Asian comedy success, East is East (which like the other two examples represented Northern working class life). For the British film industry, the most important difference between BILB and the other films mentioned here is that it was made and distributed without Hollywood studio money. The rather complicated financial arrangements saw the lead taken by the German media group, Helkon AG which set up a distribution arm in the UK, eventually taking a 51% stake in the UK ‘start-up’ company, Redbus (which itself had hired staff from the disbanded Polygram distribution arm in the UK). Helkon has since gone into bankruptcy in Germany, but Redbus survived (and was sold to Lionsgate in 2005). German and British money went into BILB, but essentially it is a ‘British’ film.

It is worth noting that BILB breaks many of the ‘rules’ that low budget British films being ‘groomed’ for feelgood success are normally expected to follow. The film is arguably too long for its subject matter at 112 mins (80-95 mins. is the norm for a film of this kind in the UK). It does not boast either the ‘star’ cameo performance of a Julie Walters in Billy Elliot (Juliet Stevenson could be argued to fill this role, but her star status was less established) or the leading role recognition of Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. Similarly, the film lacks the range of familiar ‘character actors’ and the ‘gritty’ social realism of films like Brassed Off (1996).

BILB is in many ways a youth picture, but one more in the mould of a Hollywood ‘teen picture’ rather than a British ‘social problem’ film. (Youth pictures in the UK have often concentrated on the problems associated with young people – drugs, delinquency etc. – rather than on their aspirations.) Youth pictures, by their very nature feature tend to feature younger, lesser known actors. They also tend to feature popular music and this is certainly the case with BILB which not only sports an extensive range of music clips, but also uses them in a series of montage sequences, often associated with football training and action from featured games. The reliance on these montage sequences is perhaps the defining stylistic feature of the film. (The film is in the main very conventional in terms of aesthetics. It is filmed on location with studio inserts for the Bhamra home. Apart from a couple of crane shots and extensive steadicam work on the football field, camerawork is not particularly expressive.)

Narrative

The central idea of BILB is the linking of two ‘conflict narratives’ – effectively doubling the narrative potential. The first narrative concerns the attempts of Jess (Jasminder, played by Parminder Nagra) to live her life ‘independently’, according to her own interests rather than those expected of her by other family members, and especially by her mother. The second narrative concerns the possibility of women’s football as the basis for a successful career (i.e. rather than as a recreational activity) – something which is extremely difficult in a British context.

A different way to present this ‘double’ would be to assess the problems or barriers facing Jess. She wants to be a footballer, but not only is she a woman, but she is an Asian woman. Note that the image of ‘Asian woman footballer’ has to contend not only with the concept of a young woman challenging traditional roles for women in British Asian families, but also the almost complete absence of Asian role models in professional British football. In this sense, the narrative of BILB is set up like a traditional Hollywood ‘quest narrative’. Jess might as well be tackling dragons and wizards, so fantastical does the challenge sound.

The other characters in the film are all developed in relation to Jess’ quest. Jules, played by Keira Knightley, at first appears to have so many advantages in her parallel quest for football success – not least her greater experience and her height and athleticism. But Jules has to contend with her mother and her fears about lesbianism. Mrs Paxton provides a kind of counter-balance to the similar negative feelings of Jess’ mother.

It is noticeable that in contrast to other British Asian films (My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, My Son the Fanatic) – all of which feature British Muslim families – the main dramatic focus is on the mother figure. This does not mean that father does not have an important role, only that the opposition to Jess comes mainly from her mother. Interestingly, it is only via the father and his memories of playing cricket in Kenya that the film makes direct reference to forms of institutional racism. Father is a patriarchal figure in this Sikh family, but he is also prepared to be flexible in dealing with his daughter.

The other characters in the film have similar personal battles that contrast with those facing Jess and to some extent provide other dimensions to her struggle. Sister Pinky offers a stereotype of a young British Asian woman who can be both ‘modern’ (in dress and appearance and in attitudes towards sex with her boyfriend) and ‘traditional’ in the way she accepts that she must marry according to the customs of her community.

Tony carries a secret that he cannot reveal to anyone other than his cousin, Jess. His gayness is even more unacceptable to the family. Joe carries several burdens – he is estranged from his father, has had to give up his career as a player and is unsure about his future as a coach. In dramatic terms, both Tony and Joe are seen as supportive of Jess – almost as if they sympathise with her position or because they want to see her succeed where they can’t. The male power in the film lies with Mr Bhamra and it is because he is understanding that a resolution is possible.

The two narratives come together in the final act with the crosscutting between the wedding and the football final.

Representation

The representation issues in the film clearly relate to gender and ethnicity. Less obvious are the questions about social class, which are raised less by the film itself and more by audiences attempting to read the film. BILB is essentially a (young) woman’s film. Gurinder Chadha herself has said that she got the idea for the film after watching the reactions to England’s failure in the 1996 European Nations Cup. She was intrigued by the prospect of putting an Indian girl into the ‘testosterone-fuelled’ world of British football. At the centre of the film is the mother-daughter relationship in the Bhamra household. The similar relationship in the Paxton household emphasises this relationship. For Jess, the alternatives seem to be the life as mapped out for Pinky or the camaraderie of her teammates.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother's generation.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother’s generation.

Chadha has also stated that many of the lines of dialogue attributed to the two mothers came from her own experience – listening to her own mother and the mothers of her (white) friends. She suggests too, that young British Asian women went back to see the film for a second or third time, just to hear how Jess’ mother berates her. (Comments taken from the DVD commentary.) Here we have confirmation of one of Richard Dyer’s arguments about representation. Gurinder Chadha as writer/director ‘speaks’ in the film. Hers is the authentic voice of a woman brought up in an Asian family in Britain. This is further emphasised by actors playing older than their real ages (Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra and Harvey Girdi as Teetu’s Mum) – effectively playing their own mothers. How audiences read these scenes depends very much on how ‘real’ they take the situations to be. (It might be argued that while the plot is formulaic, with its expected actions and its repetitions, the confrontations themselves ring true.)

The contrast between Jess and Pinky is expressed in a number of ways. Dress and appearance are important, but casting and acting style contribute as well. As Pinky, Archie Panjabi has to suggest the modern/traditional contradiction of a particular kind of Southall girl. Parminder Nagra was 27 when she played Jess as an 18 year-old and she has an uncanny ability to look even younger at times – to be almost childlike. But in some of the later scenes with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with her hair down, she looks much older (older than him in fact). This switching suits her character which is innocent and direct, but also capable of maturity. In this respect she represents authenticity – Pinky seems a much less mature woman. Other issues surround Pinky’s behaviour. She hasn’t gone to college which might affect her ‘marriageability’ and she has also slept with Teetu, another mark against her in the marriage stakes for a traditional community. Yet, she does love Teetu and she wants to marry him for love, not just because the families approve. So there is an ‘authenticity’ about her behaviour.

The running joke about food also becomes part of the discourse about gender and ethnicity. In the famous line that developed into the tagline for the film’s poster campaign, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”, Gurinder Chadha is again making a reference to her own childhood and the traditional view that a young girl must be taught by her mother how to make a ‘full North Indian meal’. The DVD commentary is again interesting on this point and provides an explanation for the scar on Jess’ leg. The explanation in the film is that this is the result of an accident when she was heating up baked beans as a child and her trousers caught fire. Gurinder Chadha tells us that this is what really happened to Parminder Nagra.

Ethnicity

BILB is a film in which, although ‘ethnic difference’ is several times the basis for comedy or dramatic effect, it is almost never a ‘problem’. The film is set firmly within the community that has produced both the filmmaker and the story. Gurinder Chadha is completely ‘at home’ and the narrative is infused with her love and affection for her family. There are only two moments in the film where racism becomes an issue.

One is when Mr Bhamra recalls his own treatment as a cricketer from Nairobi who is excluded from a local club in England. He goes on (with complete justification) to point out to Joe that there are no British Asian players in the Premiership. “They won’t let our boys in, so what hope is there for Jess?” Jess responds by saying that Nasser Hussein became the England cricket captain. The argument ends, but in the credit sequence at the end of the film, we see Joe bowling to Mr Bhamra on the green outside the Bhamra house, with all the players properly dressed in cricketing whites. (The same experience is also used in the closing scenes to explain why Mr Bhamra let his daughter play in the final – he wants her to make decisions in which she wins and doesn’t regret.)

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

The second moment of potential conflict over racism comes when Jess is sent off in the match watched by her father. After the game, Joe berates her. She tells him that he wouldn’t understand, because the opposing player had called her a ‘Paki’ and that is what caused the incident. Joe responds with “Of course I understand. I’m Irish.”

It could be argued that in both these instances, the reference to racism in UK society ‘works’ in a narrative sense, especially in the case of the father’s actions. However, it could be argued that both offer a fairly rosy view of UK life from within an established and confident community. Racism in UK sport is still very much a ‘live issue’ and the different experience of immigrant groups in the UK is not to be discounted. These representations also become problematic for audiences in other territories (see comments below on social class).

Social class

Issues of social class remain a problem for UK filmmakers. Despite the protestations of politicians about the creation of a ‘classless society’, most British films are read by audiences in class terms. In other words, audiences make sense of what happens on screen because of their own knowledge of the nuances of social behaviour and they choose the films they want to watch, partly at least, on the basis of what they assume to be the audience address of the film. So, for example, films such as Notting Hill (UK 1999) or Love Actually (UK 2003), written by Richard Curtis are perceived as ‘middle class films’. In the most extreme recent example, most (middle class) UK film reviewers fell upon the comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which they identified as a ‘working class film’.

Many of these differences are difficult for overseas audiences to follow. This is important because most British films need overseas sales to make significant profits. Successful films abroad have tended to celebrate a certain (arguably nostalgic and certainly ‘realist’) view of working class communities in the North of England or selected areas of London. Alternatively, they have attempted to promote a generally affluent England (i.e the South East) with as few local ‘quirks’ as possible. BILB falls some where between the two. It is set in a definable and recognisable place – the borders of Southall, Heston and Hounslow, west of London. The houses where the two lead characters live are ‘semi detached’ and suburban. The Bhamra house looks out onto an attractive green or common. Location, and especially housing, have always been key indicators of class in Britain.

Given the high cost of housing in contemporary London, these houses scream ‘middle class’, especially to audiences outside the capital. Yet, the narrative information suggests that the Paxton family is to be read as ‘nouveau riche’ ( a view supported by the DVD commentary). Social class in the UK is judged not by money, but by education, taste, ‘lifestyle’ etc. The gauche behaviour of Mrs Paxton (plus her accent, dress etc.) are crucial. The Bhamra family is rather different. In East Africa the family would have been relatively wealthy. On arrival in the UK, they would have had to rebuild their lives – thus the early struggle and the need to work overtime etc. Because of the extended family system and the family work ethic, as well as other factors, many such Punjabi and Gujurati families have been able to achieve material success in the UK relatively quickly. The development is emphasised in BILB by the fact that Jess is qualified to enter university, unlike her older sister. Mr Bhamra’s uniform suggests that he has progressed in his Heathrow job, although precisely what he does is not clear. Note also that he reads the Guardian – a sure sign that he associates himself with a liberal middle class. It isn’t possible to pigeonhole the Bhamras. ‘Lower middle class’ might be the best description. What is important is that the film goes to some lengths to avoid the possibility that audiences will make an automatic assumption about social class and ethnicity. In this respect a comparison with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1998) is useful. In this contemporary melodrama, the Bradford setting for a taxi driver’s family suggests a more traditional Northern working class community in which a second generation Muslim youth is growing up (although again this film shows different experiences within the Muslim community).

The confusions in BILB for North American audiences are neatly summed up in these two quotes from review articles:

What sets Bend It Like Beckham apart, however, is that director Gurinder Chadha exposes the social and historical context that drives this personal story. In a brilliant scene not central to the plot, Chadha subtly draws attention to Jess’ class background when she reveals a gruesome burn that she suffered as a young girl fixing her own dinner while her mother worked the night shift at London’s Heathrow Airport. Chadha is equally skillful in revealing the racist white English culture that keeps the girl’s parents, despite their rise from their working class immigrant roots into the middle class, in a space of cultural seclusion.

It is a theme to which many Asian Americans can surely relate. Perhaps it was easier for Asian American college students to buy into the hype of Better Luck Tomorrow (US 2002) because of that film’s middle class ennui in contrast with the immigrant politics of Bend It Like Beckham. (from: ‘Better Buzz Tomorrow’, Anmol Chaddha, 6/5/03 on Alternet.org)

and . . .

In promoting Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha implores, “the film celebrates the processes of cultural change, the experience of living in a diverse environment from one generation to another and not only the difficulties involved but also the pleasures in becoming more integrated.” Yet surely the film shows that whites next door to a south-east Indian wedding celebration can continue to live in blissful ignorance of the party going on next door. Where interracial alliances are shown, we find the new lower middle class in England comprising well-educated visible minorities reading the Guardian alongside the Del-boys (or Boycies) made good – white English (who are impressed by the respect for elders in ‘exotic’ cultures) or Irish (who are allowed to – absurdly – explain that they understand what being called a ‘Paki’ means) individualists from working class backgrounds. (Daniel McNeil, University of Toronto, in The Multiracial Activist, April/May 2003)

The first of these quotes is from an Asian American, praising BILB in comparison with a recently released Asian American film. The second is a Canadian postgraduate student who clearly knows British culture very well. Taken together (and putting aside understandable American confusion with class boundaries in the UK), the comments are reminiscent of those in the debates that surrounded The Cosby Show on US (and UK) TV in the 1980s. Bill Cosby was at the time, the highest paid performer on US television and he produced his own show which a middle class African American doctor and his beautiful and talented family in a sitcom. Black audiences were divided between those who enjoyed the assertion of family values and saw the show as ‘aspirational’ and others who were concerned that it was not representative of the lives of most African Americans at the time. Similar feelings were expressed in the UK.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn't for football.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn’t for football.

The main ways in which the film represents Punjabi identity is through the narrative leading up to the wedding. The sights (and sounds) of the wedding party in the Shepherd’s Bush gudwara seem very familiar to any filmgoer with more than a nodding acquaintance with Indian Cinema. Even those British arthouse audiences who would not normally see a Bollywood film, would have enjoyed a similar spectacle in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). Crucially what the wedding celebrations emphasise is the confidence of the Punjabi community in a set of traditions that are at the same time able to refer to a rural past and to embrace a modern future. The wedding is just as ‘at home’ in Southall as in New Delhi. Because of partition in 1947, Punjabis are scattered around the globe, but family and religious celebrations keep the community together. The wedding and the references to food and music (see below) are part of what has been argued to be cultural diversity rather than cultural difference. The community celebrates in a traditional way, but is also happy to participate directly in the culture of the ‘majority’ or ‘host’ community. The images of Southall Broadway – a ‘real’ London high street with national chainstores and Asian grocers side by side – at the beginning of the film represent the sense of a hybridising of UK culture. Punjabi culture contributes to and draws from a new culture which mixes traditions. (Difference still exists in the lack of comprehension shown by both white and Asian characters towards the behaviour of others, but mostly this is a factor in older generations, not the second generation characters like Jess and Tony.)

Music

Music is essential in BILB, not just to provide ‘background’ for montage sequences of football training etc., but also to represent the ‘feelgood’ ethos of the film and also to promote the ‘hybridity’ that Gurinder Chadha obviously supports. Again the DVD commentary provides some explanations of why particular tracks have been used. Throughout the film there are musical sequences which combine traditional film music scoring with Punjabi popular music. There are songs written for the film (e.g. from Melanie C.) and examples of songs from other traditions given a Bhangra treatment (e.g. ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ originally a hit for the Trinidadian Soca star Arrow in 1983 and then used as the theme for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – a link in BILB to ‘Nessun Dorma’, used so successfully in the BBC coverage of Italia 1990 and here signalling the moment of Jess’ triumph with her ‘bent’ free kick).

Perhaps more about ‘personal politics’ is the use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 hit ‘Move on Up’. Chadha states that this song was particularly important for her because of the singer and the context of the original song. Curtis Mayfield was for many African-Americans one of the major voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the lyrics of this song are all about ‘empowerment’. It plays in the film as Jess sets off for football training for the first time and again at the end of the film when the two girls fly off to America.

Genre

Issues of narrative and representation are also bound up with questions of genre. BILB is a ‘feelgood’ film. This isn’t a traditional generic category, but it is certainly a recognisable set of elements, especially in the context of contemporary Hollywood. The ‘feelgood’ narrative often centres on the ‘quest’, clearly evident in BILB.

Gurinder Chadha has been quoted as referring to the film as a ‘teen comedy’ and this may be the most useful focus for a genre analysis. ‘Teen comedy’ is a Hollywood concept, usually associated with a high school setting, but also applicable to a range of other settings and mixes with other genres, including science fiction and the combat film (e.g. in Starship Troopers, US 1997) and the whole cycle of ‘teen horror’ films.

The term ‘youth movie’ is a useful broad category term and fits BILB well. Several aspects of the youth movie repertoire are referenced in the film:

  • generational conflict, parents v. daughter
  • forms of ‘rebellion’ by daughter
  • focus on clothes, food, use of language to represent ‘difference’
  • narrative with time constraint – takes place over the summer holiday before university
  • climax at major social event – wedding/football final
  • extensive use of popular music

These are elements found in a whole range of youth orientated films. ‘Youth movies’ usually set out to target a youth audience and so alienate older audiences. BILB clearly appeals more broadly, even though it has all the other elements in place. This is partly explained by the added ingredient – the focus on the Punjabi family and the importance of elements of the Bollywood formula, especially the wedding as climax of the narrative. BILB has been described as a ‘Bollywood film’, but this is only valid in terms of the wedding and the internal family conflicts. The musical sequences, for instance, are derived from Hollywood cinema, not Bollywood.

The American dimension

BILB was successful in North America for different reasons than those which helped The Full Monty etc. Rather than a ‘British film’ adapted for an American market or marketed as ‘distinctively British’, BILB was conceived with aspects of the American market already addressed in the script. Gurinder Chadha’s husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, is American and Chadha herself had previously made an American film, the Los Angeles set What’s Cooking? After living in America she was aware of some of the audience needs. Although the Beckham name was not so important in North America and the title of the film would baffle most American audiences, Chadha also knew that ‘soccer’ in America is arguably more important as a participatory game for women and girls, than as a male spectator sport. It is very much a ‘college game’ and therefore it is important that the film ends with the two protagonists flying off to a ‘soccer scholarship’ in California. The women’s game in America also has a professional presence and the stars of the American Women’s team that won the World Cup in 1999 are household names in America. In Jules’ bedroom she has a poster of Mia Hamm, who for most of the late 1990s was the best known female sportsperson in America.

In preparation for BILB Chadha watched sell-out women’s soccer games in California and she knew an audience was there. As part of the promotional tour for BILB in North America, Parminder Nagra made a public appearance at a men’s professional league game and launched a new season with the kick-off (see www.filmjournal.com)

What may seem puzzling from a UK perspective is that the US release, several months after Europe and therefore not related to the World Cup, followed the huge American success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some American audiences took BILB to be primarily a feelgood comedy romance about an ‘immigrant community’ and its wedding conventions.

Conclusion: BILB and British Cinema

Since there are very few British films that have massive international success (BILB’s cinema box office was ten times the production budget), it is inevitable that each ‘winner’ will become the next film to be emulated (or rather imitated). In the case of BILB this is going to be very difficult as can be perceived from the ‘success factors’ apparent in the film’s production and reception by audiences:

  • relatively low budget production (£3-4million)
  • writer/producer/director with knowledge of subject
  • all the benefits of ‘hybrid culture’ without the possible barriers
  • ‘feelgood’, upbeat narrative
  • well targeted for audience plus possibility of ‘universal appeal’
  • good timing for release re Beckham/World Cup etc.
  • full distributor support for release

Gurinder Chadha herself used the success and her new status to get finance for Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004) – a Bollywood version of Jane Austen. Whilst this film was still under the creative control of Gurinder Chadha, it had US (Miramax) money in from the start as well as an Indian star. It was certainly not a low budget ‘British’ film. BILB is likely to remain a one-off until another combination of factors produces a similar success in a few years time. Other attempts to carry on in the same way have not succeeded at the box office (e.g. Peter Cattaneo followed up The Full Monty with the relative flop Lucky Break in 2001 and Damien O’Donnell followed East is East with the little seen Heartlands (2002).

Questions for discussion

1. In what ways is Bend It Like Beckham clearly targeted at an audience of young women?

2. Using specific scenes from the film as examples, show how Pinky and Jess have different attitudes towards their parents ideas about marriage.

3. Discuss the ways in which camerawork, music and editing are used to link the two main narrative lines in the film during the wedding/football final.

4. How would you analyse the concept of ‘hybridity’ in relation to Punjabi culture in Britain as represented in the film?

Resources

There are many reviews and interviews on websites. This is a selection of some of them (including those quoted in the notes above):

www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/

www.alternet.org/story/15835/better_buzz_tomorrow

www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/filmreview.php?issue=may2003&id=717&section=film_rev

film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,682376,00.html

Claire Monk’s generally negative review of the film in Sight & Sound May 2002 is an interesting example of the problems associated with ‘judging’ a film on a preview screening. It is difficult to argue with any of Monk’s general criticisms of the film (“. . . artless and mediocre . . . unsatisfying viewing for thinking adults”), but she can’t predict its power to move audiences.

Bend It Like Beckham is available on DVD from Helkon (the DVD includes a very useful director’s commentary). All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images © Helkon.

BIFF 2013 #20: 170 Hz (Netherlands 2011)

Michael Muller as Nick and Gaite Jansen as Evy

Michael Muller as Nick and Gaite Jansen as Evy

BIFF19logoThe title of this feature refers to the only sound frequency that one of the two deaf mute characters who form the central couple in the narrative can hear. I’ve read several reviews which name the precise sound that Nick can hear but I must have missed that. I spotted the moment when Evy remembered a sound she heard once. Clearly sound design has to be dominant in the film and it is quite unsettling to watch and not hear what we expect to hear. And yet, director Joost van Ginkel also strives to offer us rich visuals as well – as if to compensate? The reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, so perhaps some audiences think that he tries too hard. Van Ginkel comes out of shorts and TV and this is his first feature. It may be that he is focused more on sound and image and ideas than on narrative. Evy and Nick are young lovers. Again I’m not sure how some reviewers know the exact ages of the characters, but importantly Evy lives with her parents and her father in particular doesn’t approve of Nick. Nick is much freer. He works in a garage and sleeps in an old bus. He clearly doesn’t have any time for his own father – and there are scenes in which his revulsion is possibly explained. Both families are wealthy and it is summer so life isn’t hard for the lovers. They decide to run away and stay away long enough for Evy to become pregnant. At this point I was reminded of the Bergman film Summer With Monika. But the ‘journey’ that Evy and Nick make is much shorter – their place of refuge turns out to be an old submarine moored in a local inlet (and with buildings overlooking it).

I think van Ginkel is caught between wanting to create a conventional genre piece (and the film certainly plays with genre conventions, especially with Nick as the long-haired biker boy ‘rebel’ in leathers) and wanting to stay within a kind of arthouse fantasy. In the credits he reveals that he has borrowed ideas from both Krzysztof  Kieslowski and Darren Aronofsky. I haven’t been able to work out what these might be but there is certainly a feel or ‘tone’ that the film strives for that might be related to the work of these auteurs. Genres like the youth picture are essentially realist in the sense that the young protagonists have to confront parents or the agents of authority and they must overcome obstacles, ‘learn’ from mistakes, achieve goals etc. In this film the protagonists run away but there is no sense that anyone is coming after them. A sub-plot sees Nick confronted by a trio of young bullies at a water polo game which promises something but is then easily ‘resolved’. Other confrontations appear to be fantasies and there is a danger the audience will lose patience with trying to read the final scenes.

The film certainly looks good. Gaite Jansen is an experienced young actor and she does a great deal with the part. Michael Muller has no other listed credits on IMDB and he plays his role in a deadpan manner most of the time. Nevertheless I thought they made an interesting couple. The main problem with the film is that there isn’t enough narrative meat to get your teeth into, there is no ‘peril’ and no idealism, they seem secure on their submarine and it is only their own adolescent tiffs that propel the last third of the film forward.

BIFF 2013 #19: Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (Canada 2012)

Jade Aspros as Esther and Igor as King Henry

Jade Aspros as Esther and Igor as King Henry

BIFF19logoI’ve watched quite a few of the shorts at BIFF this year, but most of them haven’t really caught my imagination. This one did. It has a genuine story – an incident with an outcome and recognisable characters. Esther Weary doesn’t enjoy her birthday, which falls on a schoolday that is also Halloween. She imagines herself being persecuted — and then she is. Her nose is too big according to a dreadful little princess. To her consternation her first period arrives on the same day . When she gets home her family are waiting for her. There’s King Henry the pug and her grandfather (played by the great Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), who is kind and thoughtful but seemingly isn’t prepared for menstruation. All will be well because Esther isn’t ugly and her family love her. That’s it really, except that the story is told again through an animated pop-up picture book which forms the basis of the credits. It’s 14 mins long and director Stephen Dunn tells the story with real imagination and most of all through images. That’s what I want from a short – a whole story, told with imagination in as short a time as possible. I don’t mind a little sentimentalism thrown in as well if it’s tempered by the dark stuff.  Most of the other shorts I’ve seen in BIFF are either avant-garde formal experiments (fine in their own right but not always a good complement to a feature) or they are good ideas without a story or a story without good ideas.

Here’s the lovely trailer:

BIFF 2013 #5: Me and You (Io e te, Italy 2012)

Olivia (Tea Falco) and Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori)

Olivia (Tea Falco) and Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori)

BIFF19logoHere’s a ‘good news’ story. The maker of wonderful films of the 1960s and 1970s returns after an absence of nearly a decade with a modest film that’s very good and one that you’ll want to recommend to people. In the 1980s and 1990s Bertolucci became known for epic films (most of which I confess didn’t go to see) made with Jeremy Thomas and smaller films that were sometimes controversial in their representations of teenage sexuality. Stealing Beauty (1996) comes to mind. At first Me and You looks like it is in line with many of the earlier films – a dysfunctional family and the possibility of ‘socially unacceptable’ sexual relationships. There was a moment when I thought that this was going to be a kind of re-run of La luna from 1979. But although there are shared plot elements, Me and You turns out to be something else.

Lorenzo is a 14 year-old boy living with his mother who has ‘escaped’ into his own company. Challenged by a psychiatrist he claims to be ‘normal’. When a school ski-ing trip is being planned, he decides to tell his mother that he wants to go, but secretly organises his own hideaway week in the basement of their apartment block. All goes well until his older half-sister arrives unexpectedly. I won’t spoil what then happens but you will create your own expectations of a drama played out in a confined space and mainly as a two-hander. Before the screening Festival Director Tom Vincent suggested that Jacopo Olmo Antinori who plays Lorenzo is a star of the future. He is certainly very good in this film, but an important element of his success – and that of the film overall – is that we as the audience contribute to the success of the performances by making our own evaluations and then see them challenged. Tea Falco as Olivia, the half-sister is also very good. This is a ‘slight’ film in some ways, as other festival critics have reported, but it works very well. It’s satisfying to see a great director back on form. The film has been acquired by Artificial Eye for UK distribution and it is scheduled to open next Friday, 19 April. Make a date, you’ll enjoy it.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen, Norway 2011)

from the left: Alma (Helene Bergsholm), Sara (Malin Bjorhovde) and Ingrid (Beate Stofring) give the finger to the small town's nameboard.

from the left: Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and Sara (Malin Bjorhovde) give the finger to the small town’s nameboard, watched rather disapprovingly by Ingrid (Beate Stofring). (Image courtesy New Yorker Fims)

I’m sure I’m not in the target audience for this intriguing little film (76 mins) but I enjoyed it and I’m very happy to support it. It topped the Norwegian chart on its cinema release which is no mean feat for a low-budget picture without much of a plot. But it succeeds because of its central performance and because of the approach of director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen towards what is strangely a rare topic for films – the sexuality (indeed the lust) of teenage girls.

The film is based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen which offers three linked stories about different women in a small Norwegian town. Director Jacobsen chose to focus on just one story – about Alma (Helene Bergsholm), tall blonde and beautiful and still only 15. She lives with her mother in a tiny town in Western Norway, set in beautiful countryside but with virtually nothing for teens to do except get drunk at parties or behind the youth centre. We first meet Alma furiously masturbating to the (rather jolly) chat of Stig the phone sex operator. Her mother is commendably unphased by her daughter’s horniness (but appalled by the phone bill). Alma’s fantasies extend to imagined lovemaking with a classmate, Artur – and potentially with other desirable males. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish what is fantasy and what is reality but Artur appears to do something to Alma that she reports to her friends, the sisters Sara and Ingrid. Before long her story is out and she is ostracised by all the teens in the area. This is the real social issue – growing up in small towns where everyone knows your business. The sub-plot involving Alma’s best friend Sara supports the central theme of representing ‘real’ young women. Her sister Ingrid represents the ‘opposition’ and her older sister now at university also plays an important role (hers was one of the other stories in the novel). Jannicke Systad Jacobsen was careful to create a fictitious small town made up of locations in Western Norway and to cast the roles in the Loachian manner, i.e. young people from the region itself. Both Helene Bergstrom and Malin Bjorhovde were high school students without any acting experience before they took on their roles.

Turn Me On, Dammit! reminds me of the Swedish film Fucking Åmål! (1998) (boringly re-titled Show Me Love in the UK and US). Åmål is a small town in Western Central Sweden and the film explores the romance between two teenage girls who despair at living in ‘fucking Åmål’. The ‘taboo’ in that film was the possibility of teenage lesbian sex, but the real problem was the language of the title. The film however became the biggest film of the year in Sweden. Turn Me On. Dammit! has been very well received in North America, but has only now been scheduled for release in the UK – and only on DVD.

tmodI found the film enjoyable precisely because Helene Bergsholm as Alma seems so ‘normal’ and Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s approach is very refreshing. The slide from reality into fantasy and the desire to communicate that is frustrated by lack of confidence and experience is something that most audiences are likely to recognise from their own adolescent fumblings. It’s really for young women to say whether the film ‘works’ and there are many reviews out there and some suggestions as to why this is an important film as well as an enjoyable one. Mainstream film and TV is obsessed with comedies about teenage boys losing their virginity but teenage girls are too often trapped in a version of the Madonna/Whore typing. They are either ‘dangerous nymphets’ or princesses waiting for Prince Charming. It would be fascinating to study this film alongside American teen sex comedies and the Twilight films.

I urge all film and media teachers to check out the film and decide for themselves whether this shortish feature would be a worthwhile teaching text. The DVD is released in the UK on 25th March by Element Pictures Distribution and can be ordered from Amazon UK.

New Yorker Films has created a very good ‘official website’ for the film’s North American release with stills, a press book and very good background texts.

Here’s an illuminating review from  The Globe and Mail, Toronto . . .

. . . and the North American trailer (with added Orson Welles soundtrack!):

¡Viva! 2013 #5: Els nens salvatges (The Wild Kids, Spain 2012)

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

vivalogoPatricia Ferreira was picked out by Rob Stone (Spanish Cinema, Longman, 2002: 11) as one of “a growing number of talented and committed female directors in Spain”. Since her début feature in 1999 she has completed five more and she came to ¡Viva! to introduce Els nens salvatges and then to answer questions after the film.

Els nens salvatges is in one sense a familiar genre – a form of youth picture focusing on three teenagers and their parents. It didn’t occur to me until later that structurally the narrative resembles Rebel Without a Cause – two boys and a girl who hang out together, get into scrapes and have to deal with various issues associated with their parents. Meanwhile, in school and on the streets they have run-ins with teachers and fellow students. However, in its origination and treatment the Spanish film is quite different. Ms Ferreira explained that the idea for the film came from an incident some 15 years ago that prompted a debate about youths and parents and the Spanish school system. She suggested that Spanish people would remember the story. Her re-working of the story, co-written by herself and Virginia Yagüe, offers us Alex (Àlex Monner) as a graffiti artist and Gabi (Albert Baró) as a kickboxer. Laura, aka ‘Oki’, (Marina Comas) is the girl from the better-off family who recognises something in the boys’ behaviour that she finds attractive.

Patricia Ferreira has a documentary background and she liked the idea of being an outsider in Barcelona and ‘observing’ the youth of the city. She also decided to try to offer a naturalistic view of relationships in which both Catalan (including Majorcan Catalan) and Castilian are spoken in certain situations. She took a long time in preparation and this was a problem in casting the three leads. Around 15 young people are growing and changing their appearance quite quickly and her early picks had outgrown their roles as shooting approached. She explained that she didn’t want to work with ‘non-professionals’ and she eventually found the young actors who do very well in their roles. The film is essentially realist but it is presented in CinemaScope and looks very good. As I’ve indicated, the characters and the situations are all familiar. Oki has a mother who dotes on her and a father who tries to ‘buy’ her off with expensive presents. Oki gives up on her flamenco classes as part of her ‘rebellion’. Alex has parents who seem to have little time for him, especially his father, and Gabi’s father is the typical macho man who wants his son to be a fighter. We are even offered a sympathetic young school counsellor (played by Aina Clotet who was the lead in Elisa K at ¡Viva! in 2011).

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and an interpreter (sorry, I didn't catch the name)

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and interpreter Elena Alonso from the Instituto Cervantes.

It’s the school scenes that seem to have created the most interest. We see the behaviour of students in the classes of a couple of teachers and we see a staffroom meeting discussing what to do about a particular incident. Frankly, I didn’t find any of these scenes to be particularly shocking. They seemed quite ‘real’ and experienced teachers will have seen all this before. The central issue in the film is what all the events lead up to in the final scenes. Before the screening Ferreira explained to us that the film was inspired by a real event. She told us this, I imagine, because she thought that we might find the final part of the narrative to be ‘unreal’ or ‘unlikely’. But the film is edited in such a way that the final act and its impact is discussed before we actually see what happened. I’m not sure this worked for me. This is a shame because everything else worked very well. This is certainly an interesting film and well worth watching. The crux of the issue seems to be that Patricia Ferreira’s approach means we ‘observe’ what the character in question does rather than, as in a mainstream film, being shown or told what he or she feels. I didn’t observe anything that helped explain why the act was committed. Perhaps that is the whole point. The moral seems to be that if teens are misunderstood or if parents and schools don’t treat them with respect, bad things might happen. I don’t mean that to sound trite. The film shows young characters who are occasionally thoughtless in their desire to have fun but not in any way threatening. When something does happen it’s a shock because it seems to come from nowhere. I can’t say much more without giving away the ending which I don’t want to do if the film is going to get a UK release. It has won awards at various festivals and it should work on distribution here.

Overall, a successful event, I feel. I enjoyed the film and the Q&A. This was the last ¡Viva! screening I was able to get to this year. My impression is that it has been another successful festival with two days still to go if you are in Manchester.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai, Taiwan 2011)

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Why don’t we see more Taiwanese popular cinema? Most cinephiles in the West at least know about Taiwanese New Cinema and its highest profile auteurs from the 1980s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. The more adventurous know Tsai Ming-liang but after that we are stumped. Cornerhouse in Manchester has come to our rescue. They have previously shown one of the more recent Taiwanese blockbusters Cape No. 7 and last week, as part of the Chinese Film Forum programme, they showed You Are the Apple of My Eye. Felicia Chan, one of the organisers of the forum, gave a ‘1 hour intro’ before the screening which provided some useful preparation for the screening.

Taiwanese cinema has seen an upsurge since the mid-2000s for a number of reasons. I suspect that part of the reason must be the relative decline in Hong Kong popular cinema and the emergence of mainland Chinese popular cinema – which now seems more open to other films from ‘Greater China’ – but with certain provisos. There is certainly a greater ‘exchange’ of films between all the East Asian film industries and You Are the Apple of My Eye has broken box office records across the region, with significant audiences in Hong Kong, the PRC and Singapore as well as at home. I’m not surprised by this, but my own inclination is to place the film in the context of the success of South Korean films in the region. The film I was most reminded of was My Sassy Girl, the smash hit romcom from 2001 that found eager audiences throughout East and South-East Asia, prompting at least five remakes, sequels or alternative versions in China, Japan, India and the US. I’m not sure the Taiwanese film is as wildly original but it is similarly appealing and with careful handling might succeed outside East Asia. The biggest problem might be that because the film approaches genre repertoires such as the high school film, teen romance etc. in rather different ways than standard Hollywood fare it will be misunderstood. I think it helps if you have a good grounding in East Asian teen horror/romance films or anime/manga.

The first resemblance to My Sassy Girl comes in the source material – an autobiographical novel. Giddens Ko, the director, has adapted his own novel and set the film in the high school he attended. He’s now in his thirties, I think and the film’s action spans 1995-2005. This already signifies an approach to the material very different to Western youth pictures which invariably focus on the final year, or even term/semester of a student career. The story is told in flashback beginning with preparations for a wedding and going back to high school at 16. We then meet five teenage boys, each delineated by a personal trait and two girls, the class ‘honours student’ and her best friend. Although only one boy, the author’s character, has any family seen onscreen, this is still a collective narrative – all the characters are still there ten years later. The other interesting feature is the inclusion of a real-life event, the earthquake of September 1999 (in which over 2,000 Taiwanese died). This reminded me of Aftershock (China 2010). Most of the East Asian films of this kind that I’ve seen focus on the young women, so it is interesting to see the five young men at the centre. There are a lot of masturbation jokes (or what in the Uk would be ‘knob jokes’) which all seem rather sweet instead of being offensive – partly because they aren’t used to denigrate women as sometimes happens in Hollywood’s ‘gross-out’ comedies. (These scenes reminded me of Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001).)

But I guess the central interest of the film and the main reason for its popularity is the long up and down romance between the central character and the ‘honours student’, well-played by Michelle Chen. I won’t spoil the narrative – suffice to say it’s affecting and the film’s resolution is not predictable. This romance was much less weird than the South Korean model in My Sassy Girl, but it pursued the same kind of romanticism. It was believable and I can understand why whole families in Taiwan have enjoyed the film, as Felicia pointed out in her intro.

You Are the Apple of My Eye was screened on an immaculate CinemaScope print with decent subs and it looked very good. I enjoyed it and would happily watch more. I hope Cornerhouse have less difficulty next time prising a print out of 20th Century Fox – and can somebody bring these films to the UK on a full distribution deal please?

Fox trailer with English subs: