“Burning” – Korean film based on story by Murakami

Burning [Blu-ray] [2019]

Based on a short story by Murakami and set in South Korea under the skilful direction of Lee Chang-dong, this slow-paced psychological drama, atmospheric and at times surreal, builds up to an unpredictable dramatic climax. Even without this, it repays watching for its insights into life in South Korea, with the bizarre contrast between the high rise development and brash consumerism of a western-style city and the enduring, unmaterialistic, traditional life in the countryside, given a bizarre twist by proximity to the border with North Korea, its watchtowers blaring out propaganda are within earshot.

Jong-su is a young graduate with a dead-end job, whose expressionless, somewhat pudgy features belie his internal drive to be a writer, like his western idols including William Faulkner. On an errand in the city, he is accosted by an acquaintance from his schooldays on the family smallholding, the flirtatious Hae-mi who seems possibly a little unbalanced. They begin a sexual relationship, but when Hae-mi returns from a brief holiday with a suave, rich young man called Ben in tow, Jong-su does not react much, yet perhaps still waters run deeper than one imagines.

Meanwhile, his father’s imprisonment for a violent incident triggered by ongoing anger management problems, again an indication that Jong-su himself may not be as calm as he seems, obliges him to return to the village to look after his father’s property. On an unexpected visit, Ben talks of his obsession with setting fire to greenhouses, of which there are quite a few in the area. Then Hae-mi disappears and the once passive Jong-su becomes intent on finding her, together with keeping an eye on the local greenhouses.

An intriguing and memorable film about obsession and jealousy.

“Peterloo” film by Mike Leigh” – “By the law or the sword”

Review – 

Apart from 2019 being the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo massacre  when 60,000-80,000 people marched to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, director Mike Leigh may have seen parallels with Brexit: two examples of British society sharply polarised to breaking-point and possible violence.

The director’s clear aim is to demonstrate injustice through a systematic, step-by-step reconstruction of the detailed events building up to the debacle. He wants us to be in no doubt that high grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars and  continued restrictions on imports owing to the infamous Corn Laws led to intolerable hardship amongst the working poor. This made them receptive to the call for “one man one vote”  (women supporters seeming to accept without question that they were not to be included in this) and the creation of a new constituency  in the burgeoning city of  Manchester to rectify the out-dated situation in which the whole of Lancashire only had two MPs.

Mike Leigh is of course famous for his minutely observed dramas involving the interplay between ordinary people, developed through painstaking improvisation. It is unclear to what extent the actors were encouraged to shape the dialogue in this case. I rather formed the impression that Mike Leigh has drawn heavily on the speech patterns  and existing political writings of activists of the day. Certainly, some of the soldiers’ reported instructions are included verbatim: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” and “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”

The director is right in thinking that Peterloo has become a forgotten blot on our history, neglected in schools, but I agree with the critics who find his approach  too didactic rather than dramatic. There are simply too many lengthy rabble-rousing speeches, all tending to  bludgeon us with the same points. Yet it was interesting to see the divide between those making the simple case for the vote, and the more radical young hotheads who wanted to march on London with a petition, and  depose the Prince Regent and his mad father George III with violence in the event of a refusal to meet their demands. The orator Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd  brought another angle to events with  his flamboyant style and egotistical self-regard, yet more worldly-wise, shrewder assessment and awareness of the dangers of risks involved.   In the main, the other characters tended to be stereotypes in the case of the poor, and caricatures as regards the uncaring mill-owners, brutal magistrates, and Blackadderish, pantomime figure of the effete, hopelessly out-of-touch Prince Regent.

When it eventually comes, the massacre is convincingly staged in its progression from a joyous break from the daily grind drifting into apprehensiveness,  disappointment that Hunt is inaudible for the majority in a world without microphones, then disintegrating into the bloody confusion of fear, outrage, and grief. Journalists  of the day hit on the name “Peterloo” to draw a bitter contrast with the recent victory of Waterloo, but the film fails to leave us with a footnote  about  the ensuing crackdown on reform – few of the surviving demonstrators would live to see anything approaching votes for all.

I admire Mile Leigh’s integrity and refusal to bow to commercial pressures,  but this potentially excellent film suffers from an excess of speechifying,  is probably at least thirty minutes too long, and, in the dramatic build- up as the crowd gathers, the switching between different groups and locations appeared quite disjointed and clunky.  The director’s skill  in marshalling details, examining ethical issues and exploring emotions seems shown to better effect in films with the focus on a small tightly knit group of people rather than a largescale thud and blunder epic.

 

 

“Graduation” – Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu


This is my review of the Romanian film “The Graduation”.

Hospital doctor Romeo may have become estranged from his chain-smoking librarian wife through their mutual disillusion with life in post-Communist Romania, which has not live up to their expectations. Their hopes are pinned on their bright daughter Eliza who is set to win a scholarship to study in England. As a result of an ill-timed mugging, her hand is too injured for her to write in the final exams. Determined to act out of character and pull strings to ensure his daughter obtains the necessary grades, Romeo finds himself in conflict with both his wife and the daughter they have taught to be honest. Eliza’s infatuation with her biker boyfriend, who ironically has no compunction over having cheated in his own exams, may be an additional factor in her desire to stay in the dead-end community from which her parents are so keen to save her.

This novel is a fascinating study of ethics and morality in a society which has slipped into bribery through custom and practice. How can one live with integrity in such a world. To what extent may the ends justify the means?

In addition to the convincing character studies and well-developed plot, there is a strong sense of place. My only criticism is that the meaning of certain scenes, apparently peripheral to the main plot, remained unclear to me. I also found the ending somewhat downbeat. Yet as a naturalistic, authentic piece of drama this is very powerful. The title is a little misleading, since “graduation” is normally applied to leaving university rather than school.

“The Wife” – Behind every great man…..


This is my review of  “The Wife”    starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price

When Joe Castleman receives the early morning call to confirm his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his supportive wife Joan seems as delighted as he is. It is soon apparent that he is something of a monster: vain, selfish, inconsiderate and unable to resist the flattering admiration of attractive younger women. Yet, such is her admiration for his talent, Joan seems prepared to tolerate all his shortcomings and devote herself to meeting his needs, even when her loyalties are strained by Joe’s conspicuous of interest in their son David’s efforts as a writer. Could it be that Joe would feel threatened if his son’s talents in the same field were recognised?

When Joe’s aptly named would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone comes searching for cracks in the great man’s perfect marriage, even daring to suggest that perhaps it is not so idyllic, given that Joan long ago sacrificed her own writing ambitions, despite being considered very promising, she sends him packing, adamant that she is fulfilled in her role. Nathaniel is astute in his sense that Joan’s self-effacing dedication is over-intense, and he is doggedly persistent in getting at the truth to feed his own ruthless ambition as a writer.

In a series of flashbacks, which sometimes seem too fragmented, we see the early stages of Joan and Joe’s relationship, as the film gradually works up to the climax in which the truth is revealed. In this well-acted film, which provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the rather grandiose annual ceremony in a wintry Stockholm, I was caught up in the plot and it was not until afterwards that I began to question its plausibility. Overall, this is a poignant study of marital relationships formed a generation ago, of self-delusion and the price of ambition.

Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

This is my review of  Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

In an impoverished rural Poland in the aftermath of World War Two which left the country under Communist control, talented pianist  and composer Wiktor tours the countryside with producer Irena to collect authentic folk music sung by ragged, toothless men playing crude string instruments.  This is to be arranged for performance  by troops of beautiful  blonde girls in pristine traditional dress as part of a patriotic drive to raise morale and a sense of common identity. When a Party boss insists on inclusion of songs in praise of Stalin, Wiktor has to bite his tongue. “I was dubious about this music-stuff, but there’s something in it”,  their philistine wheeler-dealer manager Kaczmarek concedes at one point, as the troupe’s popularity grows, and invitations to perform extend to trips abroad.

Wiktor is soon drawn to Zula, a pretty blonde teenager, confident, versatile singer and dancer,  whom it is hard to believe is “on probation” for knifing her father. According to her, this was to put an end to his sexual abuse. The couple’s passionate physical relationship is clouded  by Zula’s casual admission that she is informing on Wiktor at the behest of Kaczmarek, who has a hold on her because of her past.  When the troupe visits Berlin, and the professionally  unfulfilled and frustrated Wiktor makes a plan to defect to the West, will Zula follow him?

There follows a protracted drama in which the two main characters seem unable to live without each other, yet fail  to co-exist in harmony together.  I struggled to grasp exactly why this is the case, or what we are supposed to make of their relationship. They are not necessarily incompatible just because Wiktor comes from an educated, “bourgeois” background, whereas  the more working class Zula succeeds artistically through “gut feeling”, and may feel lost away from the familiar restrictions of Poland in the  freedom of Parisian café culture where the soulful Juliet Greco-style songs which she is well able to perform solo may seem more unsettling than the safe, controlled, traditional  group folk-singing to which she is more accustomed.

Zula appears capricious and unstable, perhaps understandably because of her troubled past. Although he is perhaps too self-absorbed to appreciate her needs, Wiktor’s  patience and forgiveness seem tried beyond belief, until he too seems to suffer a mental breakdown, maybe a kind of “mid-life crisis” by which point I did not care too much what happened to the pair as the film reaches an ambiguous conclusion.

Pavel Pawlikowski dedicated this work to his parents, who apparently had a stormy relationship, but it is unclear to what extent they serve as models for this drama. The choice of black-and-white film adds to its striking visual impact providing a vivid evocation of life in 1940s Poland and 1950s Paris: the recurring face of a Madonna painted on the wall of a ruined church, the nose smashed in some bombardment; the uninhibited vitality of a drunken Zula, jiving to “Rock around the Clock” in a Parisian jazz café, a world away from the precision of her Polish group folk dances.

I understand why this film has attracted such plaudits, but for me there was an emotional vacuum at its core, in the “cold war” between the lovers.

 

Apostasy: blood ties

This is my review of the film Apostasy.

Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s witness brought up in what can only be described as a cult following his mother’s conversion, this film has a chilling authenticity, although I am unable to judge the extent to which it may present a distorted picture. Single mother Ivanna devotes her life to keeping her daughters Luisa and Alex “on the straight and narrow” and spreading the word to the wider community. I think there is a hint at one point that her husband has gone away after falling short as a Witness.

Earnest and thoughtful, if somewhat immature for her eighteen years, Alex feels guilt and shame that her acute anaemia required her to have a blood transfusion at birth. Believing that blood contains the human soul and therefore cannot be contaminated by that of another person, she tries to muster the courage, having technically reached adulthood, to reject a transfusion in the future should it be become a matter of life and death. By contrast, the more out-going and questioning Luisa has a boyfriend from outside the Jehovah Witness community, with tragic consequences.

“Apostasy” is likely to resonate strongly with lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even an atheist can become engaged and outraged by the heavy-handed paternalism of the Elders, with the reframing of ideas and twisting of arguments to justify their beliefs and explain away predictions which fail to come to pass, like the end of the world in a particular year. Most shocking is the crude system of social control : the “disfellowship” and “shunning” of those who refuse to conform, the bullying and lack of compassion for those judged in need of meetings to guide them back into the fold.

A gripping experience, this film leaves one feeling a little depressed, but more understanding of those who have found it impossible to “walk away” from the social pressure to continue to belong to a group, and their inability to break away from what looks to the external observer like conditioning, even brainwashing,. One may feel anger at Ivanna’s stubborn intransigence as she encourages Alex to turn the pages of a mawkish book featuring children who have died for their faith by refusing treatment. At the same time, there are occasional twinges of pity for Ivanna when she reveals the pain of having to suppress the innate maternal instinct to preserve one child’s life at any cost, or to forgive the boundary-breaking and mistakes of adolescence.

Some may criticise the film for painting such a joyless picture of a life centred on the unlovely Kingdom Hall next to what looks like a stark ring road. I was surprised by the incongruous visits to a nail bar which supplied a rare bit of colour, and how did Luisa afford to run her car?

It is interesting, although annoying for Daniel Kokotajlo, that this film came out about the same time as Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” on a similar theme, although the two complement each other in their different approaches, and I think that “Apostasy” is more focused, realistic and ultimately moving.

Tanna – a remarkable film

This is a review of the film Tanna

On the South Pacific island of Tanna (part of the Vanuatu archipelago), the women of the Yakel tribe are joyfully preparing for the initiation of the beautiful young Wawa as a woman.  She is turn is delighted by the return to the village of Dain, the chief’s grandson, a Pan-like figure with his pipes and head-dress of long, green leaves. The carefree tropical forest idyll of rhythmic communal dancing and song is shattered by an attack by the neighbouring Imedin tribe, in what has become an ongoing feud. It is decided to cement peace by invoking the tribal laws of Kastom, which advocate arranged marriages between tribes. What will be the outcome of the refusal of the young lovers Wawa and Dain to give each other up?

Based on a true chain of events in the 1980s which led to the recognition of love marriage as a part of Kastom,  this film makes a powerful impact not only through the stunning photography, but also the acting ability of a cast of native tribespeople with no prior knowledge of cinema, or life beyond their village, and also the clear evidence that an apparently primitive residue of “uncivilised native life” may in fact be a cohesive society, based on well-developed values which  can make our media and celebrity-dominated culture seem rather hollow.

The film’s authenticity stems from the fact that at least one of the directors lived with the tribe for months, observing their customs and winning their trust.  Unselfconscious in their semi-nakedness, they go  about their work and communal celebrations, moving with a striking grace or dignity, not to mention their fitness in covering miles of rough terrain. We see how they are at one with the lush forest, weaving skirts and cloaks from grass, twisting leaves into headbands and necklaces, using a small inverted tree as a broom to sweep clear the forest floor around their huts, clearing the ground efficiently for planting aided only by a pointed stick.

When in need of advice they ascend a nearby continually active volcano to sit at the crater rim where the erupting lava is linked to the spirit of the goddess Yahul.  This is not some sugar-coated Rousseau fantasy of life as a savage,  but a convincing portrayal, by turns humorous, violent or poignant, of a vulnerable way of life. This deliberate rejection of colonisation and conversion by missionaries (the background history makes interesting reading) is unlikely to survive much longer, but one understands the desire to preserve it in preference to one in which the villagers  have exchanged their native skills of self-sufficiency for a life of poverty in a money-based economy corrupted by the worst aspects of “civilised western” life, or of parroting some debased form of Christianity. As Dain says of a group of happy-clappy evangelised tribespeople, “These Christians freak me out”.