Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Moving on

I have decided to move the blog to Wordpress, a more contemporary and sophisticated form of blogging. As it's unlikely I will move these reviews to Wordpress, the blog will remain active, but not added to.

You can find the new blog at the following address:

The new blog will feature a more professional writing style, adhering to Sight and Sound's guidelines. Since I have started a postgraduate course in film journalism, co-established by Sight and Sound, I thought it would be appropriate.

I hope you all visit the new blog as much as this one. Many thanks.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Yol (1982, Turkey/Switzerland, Serif Goren/Yilmaz Guney)

Winner of the Palme D'Or in 1982, it's frankly a miracle that 'Yol' was made at all. Co-director Yilmaz Guney was formerly one of Turkey's most prominent and popular actors. Imprisoned in 1961 for publishing a Communist novel, his relationship with the state continued to deteriorate and he was imprisoned on a murder charge in 1974. During this period of imprisonment, he remained creative, writing screenplays which were directed by colleagues upon his advice. Though the film was directed by Goren, Guney later escaped from prison and fled to Switzerland where the film was edited. The film was banned in Turkey until recent years. One shouldn't think though that the film was rewarded with several prizes at Cannes because of its remarkable history. It's truly an exceptional film on its own merit.

Made in the immediate aftermath of the 1980 coup by the army, which led to a state of emergency and the suspension of human rights, Guney's film is a realistic portait of Turkey at the time. The army remains active in all elements of public life. Curfews exist, roadblocks are everywhere and fear reigns given the arbitrary behaviour of the army. In this context, five prisoners from an open prison on the island of Imrali are given a week's leave. These are men from every corner of Turkey, all of whom seem to have unfinished business at home. One is Mehmet (Halil Ergun), who abandoned his brother in law during a botched robbery. His wife's family have now disowned him, and his wife is torn between her family and her husband. If she joins her husband, she will be cursed and no longer part of her family. Seyit (Tarik Akan) discovers that his wife prostituted herself in his absence. He is charged with deciding whether to commit the honour killing her family believes she deserves or whether to leave it to her. Seyit is torn between pity and hatred and must wrestle with his conscience on this matter. Another prisoner returns to his village in Kurdistan which is regularly attacked by the army, whilst another loses his papers and spends his entire leave in army custody, unable to see his family. Cutting between each prisoner's story, Guney weaves a tale of men who must deal with events that lead to their imprisonment and events that have taken place in their absence, with every possible emotion felt along the way.

Guney's indictment of contemporary Turkish society is powerful. This is a country that is politically volatile, taking an uneasy route towards democracy, where the power of the army during this period extends of every aspect of daily life. This is a country which is trying to modernise in many ways, but still a hostage to traditions, and each prisoner must deal with this natural conflict. Though Seyit is not as vengeful as his wife's family, he agrees to commit the honour kill because it is he who has been dishonoured above all. Mehmet is torn by the guilt of the death of his brother in law, which he admits to his wife, who still loves him and is willing to risk losing her family to be with him. Guney's portrait of his country is not a sympathetic one, and as he makes clear over the final credits, it was a film made under the hardest possible conditions. Whilst Turkey has now firmly been established on the cinema map thanks to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Fatih Akin, 'Yol' is arguably the strongest and most powerful film to come from this country, at least in regards to what has been seen in the West. 4.5/5

The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1967, Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev)

Until the emergence of Emir Kusturica in the 1980s, the sole Yugoslavian director of any international reputation was Dusan Makavejev, best known for his 1971 film 'W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism', which was included on Derek Malcolm's Century of Film list. I've yet to see this, but understand it's typical of Makavejev's style, combining satire with sexual anarchy, as well as references to sexuality from an academic perspective, with its title based on Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. 'The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator' similarly uses the study of sexuality as its foundations, with an opening lecture from an academic, who believes that sexuality is "more whispered than spoken about". Makavejev then uses images of sexuality throughout the ages over the lecture, with plenty of pornography from yesteryear.

Using editing between the past and present, Makavejev documents the ill-fated relationship between Izabela (Eva Ras), a switchboard operator and Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic), a sanitary inspector. Intriguingly, both Izabela and Ahmed are of minority descent; she's Hungarian, and he's Bosnian. What this shows is the ethnic and racial melting pot that Yugoslavia was, and this diversity and its historical conflict was only contained through totalitarianism. As soon as Communist fell, these historical conflicts spectacularly exploded. Perhaps their unstable union reflects the unstable union of the entire nation. Under the influence of early Godard, this relationship is shown in a breezy and whimsical fashion initially, with their trivial conversations in bed reflecting those of 'Breathless'. Contrasting these scenes are clips of Communist propaganda, which might initially seem non sequiturs, but perhaps make sense upon consideration. In a highly politicised society, Makavejev's films reject politics entirely. By showing the domestic and not the political world, he's perhaps more subversive than he would be by making a film that directly responds to the current political landscape. Sex is the best reaction to politics.

The relationship turns tragic when Izabela has a one night stand with the switchboard centre's resident skirt-chaser, Mica (Miodrag Andric) who she'd previously rejected numerous times after becoming dissatisfied with Ahmed's seriousness ("Damn this for a life!" she exclaims at one moment) and the overbearing domesticity in their relationship. The scene in an early part of the film when a body is found in a well, and a criminologist lectures us about the act and psychology of murder, now makes sense to us. Though in a moment of tremendous irony, the whole incident turns out to be an unfortunate accident. And that's probably how we should consider this film; as a blackly comic and ironic film. The use of sexuality is indeed subversive. Both this and 'WR...' were offered to sex theatres by the director as a means of getting distribution abroad. However, I should add that I wasn't overly enamoured by this film. Some of the documentary footage used didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the film, e.g. the footage regarding the rat problem in Belgrade, unless its meaning goes over my head, but makes for a fairly disjointed film overall. It's clearly the work of a fertile imagination, but I'm not sure that creativity makes a coherent product. 3/5

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Red Sorghum (1987, China, Zhang Yimou)

It's probably now hard to imagine that Zhang Yimou, artistic director of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games and preferred film maker of the Chinese Communist establishment, was once its film industry's enfant terrible. He started as the DoP on Chen Kaige's debut feature 'Yellow Earth', considered the first modern Chinese film or at least the first prominent film to emerge from the Beijing Film Academy which reopened in the late 1970s. Zhang Yimou then progressed to directing his own features, and his debut 'Red Sorghum' sets the benchmark for the fine films he made in the early 1990s. His masterpieces 'Ju Dou' and 'Raise The Red Lantern' would soon follow 'Red Sorghum' and in many ways explore similar themes. Each of the three films features Zhang Yimou's muse, Gong Li, as a young woman coerced into marriage to an older man. Each film is set in the pre-Communist past, usually the 1920s/1930s. These two factors are important if we want to consider this trilogy as acting as allegories on the Chinese present. Some critics have read these films, with their portrayal of a patriarchal and repressive society, as a reflection of the modern China, but obviously Zhang Yimou could not be too overtly critical of the present regime, hence setting these films in the past. Not that he didn't fall foul of the authorities, who banned his films. This makes his rehabilitation at the hands of the same authorities all the more intriguing.

'Red Sorghum' uses a narrative tool that Zhang Yimou would also use in 1999's 'The Road Home'; an unseen narrator tells the story of his grandparents. As mentioned, Jiu'er (Gong Li) is a young woman sold into marriage to an old, leprous winery owner in exchange for a mule. The opening scenes which explain her misery and confusion at these set of events is stunningly done. On her way to her wedding, she is carried in a sedan chair. Zhang Yimou uses extreme close-ups on her face, showing her intense sadness, but uses colour in an exceptionally spellbinding fashion. The chair is covered in red fabric, thus the interior is consumed by a bright and suffocating deep red. The use of such colour recurs in this film frequently, reflecting the colour of the wine Jiu'er produces. This isn't the sole use of colour; using expansive long shots and the natural environment, Zhang Yimou captures the gorgeous yellow and orange backdrops.

Jiu'er's marriage is ominously cut short when her husband is murdered. Although we don't know exactly by whom, the narrator suspects it's his grandfather (Wen Jiang), a hired hand who aided Jiu'er when she was attacked en route to her wedding. He later rapes her in a field, though Jiu'er's reaction seems rather submissive. Between them, they revive the ailing winery, much as Gong Li and her lover do in 'Ju Dou'. Until this point, 'Red Sorghum' is something of a fable but enters much more gruesome and graphic territory with the Japanese invasion of China, and Zhang Yimou doesn't shy away from highlighting the atrocities that occurred, which claims Jiu'er and her lover as its victims. This narrative twist comes so far out of nowhere that the film seems rather disjointed when viewing its second half, like it belongs to another film entirely. And that's probably why 'Red Sorghum' doesn't satisfy as much as Zhang Yimou's next two films with similar themes, although of course as debuts go, 'Red Sorghum' is exceptionally impressive and laid the groundwork for the following masterpieces. It's incredibly moving and aesthetically breathtaking (just look at that final eclipse scene). Although 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers' were perfectly good, one wonders whether Zhang Yimou's current place in the bosom of the Communist establishment will prevent him from making films of this quality again. 4/5