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

Monday, 29 September 2008

L'Avventura (1960, Italy/France, Michelangelo Antonioni)

One should be careful about making judgements upon the first impressions of an Antonioni film. If ever a film maker requires a second, if not several, viewings of his films, then it's Antonioni. My first experience of Antonioni was approximately a year ago, when I saw a double bill of 'L'Eclisse' and 'Il Deserto Rosso'. These are two of Antonioni's best known and most acclaimed studies of alienation. But his films have always divided audiences, with some critics bemoaning the slow pacing and the cynical portrayals of a jaded Italian middle class. The first screening of 'L'Avventura' at Cannes in 1960 is arguably the most famous first screening of any film ever, with much of the audience booing the film, forcing Antonioni and star Monica Vitti to flee the screening. In response, the films' supporters issued a statement declaring 'L'Avventura' one of the most important films not just in recent cinematic history, but the entire history of cinema. Indeed only two years later, the film ranked second in Sight and Sound's poll of the greatest films of all time behind perennial favourite 'Citizen Kane'. To this day the film remains notoriously divisive, and it's well accepted that Antonioni's films require numerous viewings to fully comprehend, so as I said in my opening, it's perhaps best not to rush in with a definitive statement.

The film starts with the three principal characters, Anna (Lea Massari), her on-off boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Vitti) embarking on a cruise around the Sicilian islands. At this point, we consider the main emphasis of the film to be about the relationship between Anna and Sandro, which is uncertain. Anna could be in love with him, but then she might not. Their sex is indifferent and they barely communicate. As Sandro explains "words are becoming less and less necessary. They create misunderstandings". In Antonioni's universe, shown in subsequent films also, his characters never have fulfilling relationships, and Anna and Sandro perhaps represent the archetypal Antonioni couple. Much like the most famous film from this year, 'Psycho', 'L'Avventura' then pulls the rug from under our feet with an incredible narrative twist - the disappearance of its most central character to this point, Anna. Intriguingly, Anna mentioned spying a shark earlier in the film, which she confessed to Claudia was a lie. However before she disappears, we ominously see something swimming in the water, but there's no doubt that this is a Macguffin, much like the money that Marion steals in 'Psycho'.

After the initial search, life seems to return to normal and Anna is seemingly forgotten. It's as if seismic events such as a disappearance cannot affect or change the entrenched sense of alienation amongst this bourgeois class. Claudia and Sandro's growing closeness, albeit frustrated and uncertain in nature, begins to resemble the previous relationship between him and Anna. Perhaps all bourgeois relationships are doomed to this sense of unease and anxiety. Claudia is unable to commit one way or the way, and it's evident that she feels guilt about Anna's disappearance, even if it goes unsaid. Sandro, who later takes up with a call girl, perhaps represents the jaded playboy that Alain Delon did in 'L'Eclisse'. Antonioni was always far more sympathetic towards his female characters in this series of films focusing on alienation. With Vitti as his muse, she was always unable to commit to love (when asked "why not?" she replies "I don't know why", whereas the men who desired her were not equally in tune with their emotions, although the final scene in which Sandro breaks down might represent a final acknowledgement of guilt. It should be noted here that this scene, like the final scene of 'L'Eclisse' is a superb demonstration of the use of settings and environment to reflect the inner emotions of the characters. Here, Sandro is flanked by Claudia, with Mount Etna in the background, threatening to erupt. Much like their emotions perhaps.

I have only seen four Antonioni films to date; this, 'L'Eclisse', 'Il Deserto Rosso' and 'Professione: Reporter', and each film I have only seen once. As I mentioned, the critical consensus suggests that you must see these films more than once for them to reveal their magic and meanings. At the moment, my reactions have been a combination of admiration and bewilderment. I daresay that sits in the middle between Antonioni's supporters and his critics; a kind of neutral, sitting on the fence position that fails to commit one way or the other. Like his characters. 4/5

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Liar (1981, West Germany/Finland, Mika Kaurismaki) and Zombie and the Ghost Train (1991, Finland, Mika Kaurismaki)

Whilst his brother Aki is quite a respected name on the arthouse circuit, it's easy to forget that his brother Mika was the first sibling to release a feature; 1981's 'The Liar'. Scripted by and starring Aki, it's an amusing homage to the French New Wave, most notably the early black and white Godard features. Whilst one scene in a cinema features clips from Bande á Part, the film it's closest to in tone is 'Breathless'. Ville Alfi is a hyperactive and articulate drifter who spends his time chain smoking, chatting up women and borrowing money from those he knows using numerous different excuses. He also reminds me of Johnny in the Mike Leigh film 'Naked'. Although not quite as bitter or corrosive, Ville Alfi is a man who escapes all situations, who's full of big words but small thoughts, and doesn't do anything because there's nothing worth doing. He's proud of his lack of accomplishments and in a sense of deadpan irony well associated with the Kaurismaki's finds his comeuppance in a fashion one never expected.

Zombie (Silu Seppala), the eponymous character in the second Kaurismaki feature, could be Ville Alfi ten years later. We first find him homeless in Istanbul, pale and ghost-like in appearance. In true flashback fashion, Kaurismaki shows Zombie six months previously, much healthier, and then charts his decline. Another drifter who can't stick to one thing, his musical talents are his only possible route out of his rut. However he has a self-destructive streak a mile long, scuppering his chances of enjoying a career with Harry and the Mulefukkers, a US-influenced rockabilly band that might as well be The Leningrad Cowboys (a film that featured Seppala). Seemingly followed and influenced by The Ghost Train, a much cooler leather clad trio who might as well be the devils to Harry and the Mulefukkers guardian angels (their effect is vampiric - sucking the life out of Zombie), Zombie turns to alcohol and his whole life falls apart when his girlfriend and mother leave him. Only Harry offers a chance of redemption.

There are obvious similarities between the two Kaurismaki films. Both feature protagonists who are drifters, without purpose and prone to self-destruction. The tone of the two films though couldn't be more different. Ville Alfi's a charming liar - you can understand how he manages to convince people to believe his stories. He's an articulate and thoughtful guy whose inability to get anything done is born out of some existential belief. Zombie however is a man whose soul is a bottomless abyss, whose alcoholic decline can't be arrested. Perhaps the fate of Zombie is a warning to Ville Alfi. This is what he might become. This is part of the issue I have with 'Zombie and the Ghost Train'. If this is true deadpan humour of the Kaurismaki trademark, then it's positively six feet under. The film is so unremittingly grim that each self-destructive episode of Zombie's life becomes more difficult to bear. Ville Alfi's scrapes seem slightly more harmless and the humour in his concocted lies is more apparent. Zombie cannot accept the help of others, throwing goodwill back in the face of those who offer it. Kaurismaki's career is rather idiosyncratic, making films in the US and Brazil, but Finland seems the natural home for these brothers, where their deadpan humour seems to work best.

The Liar: 3/5
Zombie and the Ghost Train: 2.5/5

Both films are released by Bluebell Films on 22 September.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov)

An incredibly rare screening of Parajanov's film, part of the 'Today is the Tomorrow of Yesterday' season at the BFI Southbank, which focuses on erasure. In this case, the erasure of love, culture and ultimately life. Until this point, Parajanov had made a number of pro-Soviet propaganda films and was considered a safe director. This reputation changed for good with 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors', a film that was commissioned as nothing more than a love story in the Romeo and Juliet style, but ultimately became a celebration of Ukranian culture, specifically that of the Hutsul culture in the Carpathian mountains. This culture had been practically destroyed by the time the film was made, so reviving it obviously was something the authorities were going to take issue with given the promotion of a homogeneous Soviet identity. Parajanov's difficulties with the authorities would increase when he made 'The Colour of Pomegranates' four years later, a film I recently reviewed. In many ways 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' can be seen as something of a dty run, where his interest in looking into minority cultures and aesthetic radicalism would take greater shape.

Set during the 1860s (the first was partly made to commemorate the centenary of Mykhailo Mykhailovych Kotsiubynsky's birth), Parajanov starts with an absolutely breathtaking scene of a tree falling, killing a man. Starting with an overhead shot, the camera then follows the point of view of the falling tree. And this is one crucial difference between this film and 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. This film favours very athletic camerawork, also seen in a 360 degree shot circling two lovers later - all thanks to the efforts of DoP Yuri Illienko. This contrasts with the long takes and lack of camera movement in 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. What follows is a tale of warring families. Ivan's father is killed by Marichka's father in another superbly shot scene - as the fatal blow is struck, the blood literally spills onto the lens, and the two children (played by Ivan Mikolajchuk and Larisa Kadochnikova as adults) soon fall in love. Set to marry, tragedy strikes when Marichka accidentally drowns. Grief-stricken, Ivan becomes a hermit, but later marries Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), though this is an uneasy union since Ivan is evidently haunted by and in love with Marichka, and is inevitably destined for a tragic end.

Aspects of 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' seem to be filmed as if Parajanov was showing the customs and traditions of this community in documentary fashion. It certainly would come as no surprise to learn that non-professionals were used as Parajanov meticulously documents these customs. The spiritual values of the Hutsul community seem to be a careful mish-mash of Christian and Pagan rituals. Just look at Ivan and Palagna's wedding, which is performed in traditional Hutsul fashion, with the bride and groom blindfolded and yoked together. Every festival has its own rituals, and as well as this, there's the local sorcerer, whom everyone allegedly has a need for. Palagna herself practices black magic in order to fall pregnant. This black magic at work is another of Parajanov's technical flourishes; there's an evident change in the elements (storms, winds), flashes and freeze frames, as well as a tree spontaneously combusting. Although the film has a more conventional narrative than 'The Colour of Pomegranates' as well as great aesthetic imagination, it doesn't have the same mind-blowing effect that the latter has. An artist incredibly singular in his vision, Parajanov's films have impressed me on certain levels but I've not been totally won over just yet. 3.5/5