The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

Her (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 February 2014

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become 'Samantha'.

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.

A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.

I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).

The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography is by the Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.

There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.

I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.

Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.

Posted in American Independents, Comedies | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

BIFF 2012 #8: Avé (Bulgaria 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 April 2012

Kamen and Avé have missed the last ferry across the Danube

Avé is a teenage girl who arrives at a roadside outside Sofia and starts to thumb a ride. Already there is art student Kamen and he isn’t too keen to have competition. Inevitably though, the two get a ride together and the adventure begins. This is a road movie/romance/coming-of-age drama with a leavening of humour, mostly supplied via the performances of Andjela Nedyalkova as Avé and Ovanes Torosian as the long-suffering Kamen.

As the journey continues, Kamen discovers that Avé likes to reinvent herself for every new situation and he tries to separate from her when her fantasies threaten to involve him. But we know he can’t – this is a road movie and they’ll get back together. A prologue has already hinted at Kamen’s need to travel to the town of Ruse on the Danube across from Romania for the funeral of a friend, but it’s some time before we learn the reason for Avé’s journey – and should we believe her anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Bulgarian film before but I recognised the region. The ‘Scope digital print looked very good and I enjoyed the film very much. It’s a first feature by co-writer and director Konstantin Bojanov who has previously been involved in documentary production. It was a pleasure to take in long shots of landscapes. Although Bulgaria isn’t at its best viewed from major roads, there is still a sense of adventure and who can resist a story that holds out the promise of a trip to Varna (from whence came Nosferatu/Dracula)? Avé tells us at one point that she has lived in Delhi and that you can find Indian girls in Bulgaria. Again this could be a fantasy but it is a road movie staple, that sense of wanting to be somewhere else. In reality, the distances the couple travel are not very long (300 kms from Sofia to Ruse) but they seem greater in narrative terms.

This interesting interview with the director reveals that the film was completed for around 600,000 Euros and that it s story was partly based on his own experiences. Bojanov has lived in New York for the last 15 years but he tells us that his self-education in films (he was at art school in Sofia) was of 1960s and 1970s European and American New Wave films. He cites Y tu mamá también as the kind of modern road movie he likes – and that makes sense. I’m not sure if Konstantin Bojanov is a diasporic director as such – are there Bulgarian communities in the US? – but his film certainly has both a ‘local’ and a ‘global’ feel. Nice music too.

Avé is a specialised film, not a commercial mainstream film so don’t expect a Hollywood ending. I’m glad about that because it meant I could leave the screening thinking about travelling by train through Bulgaria and wondering what happened to Kamen and Avé. I expect to see more of Andjela Nedyalkova who has genuine star quality. This is one of the six films in competition in Bradford and it stands a good chance of winning. It has already been picked up for distribution by Network Releasing so watch their website for details of screenings.

Here’s a pretty good trailer:

Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 February 2011

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Les herbes folles (Wild Grass, France 2009)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 July 2010

The stylised cinema sequence in which Marguerite stalks Georges.

I’ve seen relatively few films by Alain Resnais and certainly nothing since the 1970s. However, I was primed for Les herbes folles because several people had asked me to explain it. They seemed angry because it had been so frustrating.

Approaching the film from this perspective, I rather enjoyed the whole thing, but it did feel like an extended joke about cinema, narrative and the emotional responses of audiences. No bad thing perhaps? My enjoyment was heightened because three of the leads were familiar from many of the French films from the last few years. I hadn’t noticed before that André Dussollier has worked consistently with Resnais for many years, as has Sabine Azéma. I don’t remember seeing her before, but she seemed familiar somehow. (She is also Resnais’ partner.)

Plot outline (no major spoilers – they probably wouldn’t help anyway!)

Marguerite (Azéma) is a dentist with a passion for shoes and flying (i.e. being a pilot of a small aircraft). One day she buys some new shoes but has her bag snatched in Paris. Georges (Dussollier) is a (retired?) house husband in a solidly bourgeois outer Parisian suburb. He finds Marguerite’s wallet abandoned by the bag snatcher and eventually takes it to the police. A set of awkward relationships then develop between Marguerite and Georges, the police (Mathieu Amalric), Marguerite’s colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny). There are clearly ‘back stories’ for the characters that don’t fully emerge, so as an audience we must try to make sense of where these relationships might lead and what the characters’ motivations might be – or whether this is indeed important or not.

Resnais and narrative

There are several clues to the Resnais style/approach that make it much more accessible. First, Resnais is a fan of theatrical comedy and in particular the British writer-director Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais has adapted two of Ayckbourn’s plays. He also draws some of his cast from the Comédie-Française. I got a strong whiff of Ayckbourn in many of the encounters in Les herbes folles – which often seemed to comprise a series of sketches. Resnais has generally adapted either plays or novels as the basis for his films and in his early career he was associated with the avant garde nouveau roman movement, adapting works by the leading figures Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Les herbes folles is an adaptation of a novel by Christian Gailly called L’incident (1996). As far as I can make out, Gailly is also interested in narrative and self-reflexivity. I think I read somewhere that Resnais makes two jokes about adaptation in Les herbes folles. First he has an extended sequence in which Georges goes to a screening of a re-released Hollywood film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a Korean War drama with William Holden and Grace Kelly. Resnais is often associated with the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. I’m not sure he actually ‘fits’ that description, but showing visits to the cinema is a central feature of the films of Truffaut and Godard. You know that they will have chosen a specific film for a reason. Here, however, Resnais stages the sequence in a highly artificial way and he claims never to have seen the film – he is only using it because it is in the novel. At the very end of Les herbes folles, there is a short scene that appears to have no connection to anything else. Resnais says that it does occur in the novel – but elsewhere in the narrative.

Yet, to return to film references, the approach to narrative in Les herbes folles seems to invite audiences to think about other films that they might have seen. The opening of the film is quite striking, focusing mostly on the feet and legs of Marguerite with her yellow handbag. One of my first attempts to study film in terms of its textual detail focused on the opening to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) – which begins with a close-up of a yellow handbag and pulls back to follow the handbag’s owner, shown only from the rear and mostly from the neck down. Another famous Hitchcock opening, Strangers on a Train (1951) begins by following two pairs of feet/lower legs arriving at a railway station. I don’t know the extent to which Resnais was a Hitchcock fan but there are Hitchcockian elements in the humour/farce here. In fact the film moves easily between romance, film noir, comedy and horror. Rona watched the film with me and commented at the end that Resnais should leave ‘Lynch country’ to David Lynch. I’m not much of a Lynch fan, but I could certainly see something of Blue Velvet, especially in Resnais’ use of a bold of palette striking colours. The other strong thread running through the film is flying with Georges as what in the UK would be called an ‘anorak’ (having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific topic, usually requiring technical terminology/detail) and Marguerite referred to in terms of the female aviation pioneers of the 1930s. One film that also came to mind in the aerodrome sequences was Patrice Leconte’s Tango (1993). The Bridges at Toko-Ri also features a flying narrative.

So, Les herbes folles is an elaborate puzzle narrative – but don’t go expecting a satisfying resolution, there isn’t one. Enjoy its playfulness, lovely performances, glorious colours etc. Personally, I found it very funny. I’ve seen it described as ‘youthful’ and ‘skittish’ but it seems more like the (confident and assured) work of an 88 year-old who knows everything about cinema and feels able to indulge himself.

Here is the (terrific) American trailer in HD which illustrates most of the above. Enjoy!

. . . and here is the opening to Marnie (watch at least the first 7 minutes):

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

An Education (UK 2009)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 November 2009

A star is born? Carey Mulligan as Jenny.

I’m not sure that I should write about An Education as my critical faculties more or less went out of the window after a few minutes of watching Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a 16/17 year-old schoolgirl in the suburban London of the early 1960s. A great deal has already been said about her performance and I can only concur. Her impact in this film can only be compared to Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar or, more recently, Reese Witherspoon in Election or Ellen Page in Juno.

For the uninitiated, Carey Mulligan was 22 when she started work on An Education after supporting roles in UK TV drama productions, including classic serial adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Ironically, she and Rosamund Pike – her co-star in An Education – both played as sisters to Kiera Knightley in the recent Pride and Prejudice film (UK 2005). I think Ms Knightley might be looking over her shoulder now (and she has the chance in Never Let Me Go, currently filming with Knightley and Mulligan in leading roles). But perhaps we should be wary of conferring star status quite so quickly. Also in the cast list of An Education is Olivia Williams, one of several bright and gifted young British actors who went to Hollywood with high hopes and despite some very good performances (e.g. in Rushmore (US 1999)) never quite made it in the big league.

Carey Mulligan's first appearance in 2005 as Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Anyway, enough gushing. If you are outside the UK, you might need a bit of background to this film which several commentators have suggested will be on Nomination Lists for Awards in the New Year. That is, if you didn’t already know that Carey Mulligan was pronounced as the ‘It Girl’ of this year’s Sundance Festival where An Education was a big hit. The narrative is based on a short memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber that first appeared in the literary magazine Granta (and has subsequently been expanded and published by Penguin – if you don’t mind spoilers, Lynn Barber explains the whole story in the Guardian). The adaptation took several years to be teased into shape by Nick Hornby, the well-known novelist whose other film work includes adaptations of his own novels, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy – all in their own terms successful small films. But Hornby has generally been seen as a ‘new man’, ‘young Dad’ kind of writer. Would he be able to write a convincing script about a bright schoolgirl in an earlier era? Hiring a woman to direct must have seemed a good idea, but Lone Scherfig as a Dane of a similar age possibly faced the same problems as Hornby. Although she has worked in the UK for some time, as far as I know, Scherfig is more familiar with working-class Glaswegians than the lower middle class in Twickenham (she created the characters for Andrea Arnold’s Red Road). But I guess that the story is universal and since Barber is such a good writer, the raw material was probably all there. Nevertheless, hats off to Hornby and Scherfig who provide the support/direction for Mulligan’s performance.

An Education is a clever title for an unusual ‘coming of age’ story. Jenny is a bright girl and seemingly destined for a place at Oxford. But this is 1961, that very strange and quite precise period in the UK before the explosion of creativity after 1963. The country was virtually out of austerity but hadn’t yet been given the signal to get started on the real social revolution. Life was pleasant, but not exciting. That’s not to say that the country hadn’t changed since 1945. If you were an intelligent working-class or lower middle class teenager, for the first time you now did have the option, as a grammar school boy or girl, of working hard and getting free higher education (read and weep if you are a current student). The numbers who were able to take advantage were small but significant.

Jenny has a chance encounter with an older man who seduces her into his very upmarket roadster (a Bristol, no less) and then cons Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to concerts, dinners and more. The parents in the film are played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour and they do good jobs in what are very difficult roles. I think the writing of the parental roles is nearly always the weakest part of these stories. The narrative always obliges us to focus on the exciting possibilities of youth – never on the feelings of parents who have struggled through the war and austerity and now see their unthinking offspring breaking free from the boredom of suburbia. There’s a different kind of film to be made about that.

There are several important incidents in the film that pin down the period and which need a little explanation. ‘Popping over’ to Paris was still a very exotic thing to do in 1961. You had to be either very rich or up to no good or a modern languages student on an exchange or a school trip. Jenny has a romantic weekend in Paris at the high point of the French New Wave – which she has been experiencing on trips to arthouse cinemas in London. The obverse of this is the film’s accurate and now very shocking references to the blatant racism/colour bar in London and its exploitation by the notorious Peter Rachman, who would later emerge as a key figure in the Profumo Affair in 1963. This reference points towards Scandal (UK 1989) the undervalued Michael Caton-Jones film that features Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda as ‘goodtime girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There are moments in Jenny’s seduction into the world of conmen, racketeers and high living (especially those with Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) that are reminiscent of Scandal – the costumes in particular are a very good indicator of period.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler at the time when the Profumo Affair broke.

The Profumo Affair was in many ways the moment of catharsis in British social life. It saw the collapse of the Tory Cabinet and paved the way for the Labour victory in 1964 and all the social legislation that followed. Jenny’s story would not have quite the same impact six or seven years later during the ‘Swingin Sixties’ period in London (roughly 1965-9). Having said that, Darling (UK 1965) with Julie Christie would make an interesting comparison with An Education. On the whole though, the later 1960s films feature working-class girls from the North coming to London and discovering an exciting life.

Back to An Education, I don’t think it is a perfect film. I think the relatively restricted budget shows in continuity errors and an unconvincing rain scene for the crucial first meeting (an almost surreal summer rainstorm perhaps). The final sequence seems truncated and oddly unsatisfying and I think that there are tonal shifts elsewhere that are unsettling. This is inevitable I think given the mix of youth picture, romance, comedy and social commentary. To my taste, Emma Thompson as Jenny’s headteacher is just too much and it seems so unfair to constrain the beautiful Olivia Williams in a role as a repressed English teacher. I understand why the producers want to use star names in small roles to attract audiences, but for me the film would work better with less well-known actors in these roles. One other possible irritation is the music. The original recordings are well chosen: Billy Fury, Floyd Cramer, Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothings’ – terrific), Mel Tormé (inspired), Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Juliette Greco. The modern stuff by Beth Rowley and Duffy is fine, but it sounds ‘retro’ – again it seems to be a nod towards younger audiences? The score is by Paul Englishby who is highly regarded, but the score didn’t work for me.

You can hear some of the music on the official website and in the (very good) trailer below with Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles in the background.

In this American trailer you get some of the score and a Beth Rowley song:

Here’s Carey Mulligan in a Toronto Film Festival interview with some interesting comments on her role:

I hope that this film gets used in A Level classes as it promises to open up interesting debates about the changing representations of young women and about a crucial period of British social history. It also offers many links to British Cinema’s other attempts to represent the 1960s. An analysis of Carey Mulligan’s rapid rise also looks possible and an extensive fansite is already available.

Posted in British Cinema, Films by women | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Zhou Yu’s Train (China/Hong Kong 2002)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 6 August 2008

Gong Li as Zhou Yu

Gong Li as Zhou Yu

I distinctly remember the shock of seeing Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum when it opened in London (in 1988, I think). I was prepared for the look of the film after Yellow Earth, but not for the emotional and physical violence, nor the impact of Gong Li’s first appearance as a star of Fifth Generation Chinese films. Twenty years on, I was drawn to the DVD bargain bin to watch Gong Li again in Zhou Yu’s Train. I’d seen a trailer for the film on Apple’s website, but it wasn’t released theatrically in the UK and the DVD was eventually released in the UK in 2005. Magnificent in Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower and wasted in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I was intrigued as to how ‘the most beautiful woman in China’ would look in a contemporary Chinese film.

Gong Li plays the title role of Zhou Yu, an artist in a ceramics factory who travels twice a week by train to be with her boyfriend, the poet Chen Ching (played by the Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung Ka- fai). On one of her train journeys she meets Zhang, a rural vet (played by Sun Honglei from Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home). A fourth character is also played by Gong Li (with short, curled hair) – a woman who is seemingly searching for Chen Ching, perhaps in a different/parallel time period? The film offers this odd triangle with a possible ‘third dimension’, in a non-linear narrative which jumps backwards and forwards in time.

The film seems to have confused and irritated some American audiences (and reviewers), unwilling to look beyond its undeniable beauty – the only sensible and considered comments I found were generally from IMDB’s users and bulletin boards rather than the professional critics. Surprisingly, I found only one reference to the Chinese film which it most resembles – Suzhou River (China/Germany 2000). There is a direct connection in that the same cinematographer, Wang Yu, shot both films. For Suzhou River he created a romantic and timeless vista of the river in Shanghai, but for Zhou Yu’s Train the emphasis is on the train and the landscapes of both rural China and its provincial cities (the named cities are Sanming and Chongyang, although according to Derek Elley in Variety the actual locations were elsewhere). In fact confusions over geography only add to the mystique – Sony’s press pack says the location is North West China, but the named cities are in Central/South Eastern China and some 600 or more miles apart. In Suzhou River, the two central female characters are again played by the same actor, Zhou Xun. However, Suzhou River was judged to be a small, ‘independent’ Sixth Generation film only getting an international release via its European co-funding. It proclaimed its ‘postmodernity’ through a calculated mix of memory and reproduction and a direct nod towards Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Zhou Yu’s Train is a much bigger budget film from a more prestigious production context. The director had previously worked with Gong Li on Breaking the Silence (2000) and the music is by Umebayashi Shigeru. Although it doesn’t bear comparison with Umebayashi’s great work on In the Mood For Love or for Zhang Yimou (Curse of the Golden Flower), it still adds greatly to the film. There is another Wong Kar-wai connection in the presence of editor William Chang and a further indication of ambition is the presence of producer Bill Kong, another collaborator with Zhang Yimou, as well as Ang Lee. Kong was also a producer on Tian Zhuanzhuang’s remake of Springtime in a Small Town (2002) which was another title that came to mind as I watched Zhou Yu’s Train.

The prestigious nature of the film and its presentation in the West, possibly drew audiences who might not have seen the other films I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps because it seems to offer a straightforward romance, there is less chance that the audience will be prepared to consider it as an ‘art film’? I’m not sure. I enjoyed watching the film but I can see that its non-linearity was perhaps more confusing than in a similar film, like Suzhou River, where the generic clues (film noir etc.) lead us to expect twists and turns and mysteries.

In thematic terms, I took the film to be dealing with some interesting issues. Zhou Yu is clearly a modern woman, unmarried in her thirties and without dependents. She represents a challenge to Zhang and something of a threat to Chen, who takes himself off to Tibet, perhaps afraid of her energy in trying to make a long distance relationship work. The distance that Zhou travels for her twice-weekly trysts is a feature of a society which to a certain extent institutionalised separation/exile from the 1920s onwards. The railway takes on quite a different role from that it has in North American and European contemporary cinema (but perhaps it is shared by Indian cinemas?). The lack of family and ‘tradition’ (and really of ‘authority’ in any form) is quite refreshing, though Zhou is following in her father’s footsteps (he worked on the railway) and the use of poetry in the film does refer back to traditional modes of romance in Chinese fictions.

As well as the remarkable Gong Li herself, there is a great deal of attention paid to landscape and conventional shots of trains. If nothing else, the film does refer to the obvious connections between rail travel and romance. Mostly, the train works as metaphor – its constant toing and froing and the sense of movement between urban and rural life. I was also struck by the use of wide-angle lenses in the indoor scenes and of compositions in long shot for the train and city environments.

But for me, the most pleasure came from Gong Li’s performance. I was taken with the striking difference created between the two characters she played, achieved by changing hairstyle, costume and body movement/gesture. Several commentators admit to being confused about time periods in the film and I think that this might be triggered by Gong Li as the fourth character, who in her denim jacket and short, but styled, hair seems much more ‘modern’ than Zhou. As Zhou, I realise that Gong Li was dressed as I’ve never seen her before – in simple, timeless dresses (rather than the traditional dress of period Zhang Yimou films or the ‘smart’ business dress of Miami Vice. The simple dresses allow her to move more freely and there are several shots/sequences in which the director seems to emphasise this (especially when she is shown running after the train in slow motion). Dress and movement allow her to seem ‘girlish’ (and a mature woman at the same time). In short, she is terrific and well worth pursuing through the bargain bin. I hope she gets more contemporary roles in Chinese Cinema. With her only serious rival, Maggie Cheung, seemingly in retirement, she is sorely needed. Unfortunately, she seems to be mainly employed on American-financed films – I hope the Americans learn how to use her skills and star persona effectively.

Posted in Chinese Cinema, Film Reviews, Melodrama, Romance | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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