Tagged: thriller

Night Train (Pociag, Poland, 1959)

Humanity in microcosm

Humanity in microcosm

Like Knife in the Water Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s (he directed and co-wrote) Night Train emphasises the claustrophobic setting by utilising the space close to the camera through deep focus cinematography and, much in the same way 3D works, having characters appear in the frame, from the side, closer than you’d expect given the scene’s composition. That, and great black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski, means I’m already likely to enjoy the film. However, Night Train also has a tense Hitchcockian narrative and an unhinged climactic chase through a graveyard (yes, most of the film is set on a train), making it an essential one to watch.

The promise ‘Polish Spring’ of 1956, when Gomulka’s government looked like it might break free of (the recently diseased) Stalin, had evaporated by 1959 and the petty voyeurism, and mob mentality of many passengers, who consist of what I take to be a cross section of Polish society, give the film a cynical edge that might reflect political disappointment.

Night Train is a film that grips immediately with the distinctive angle (see below), used for the credit sequence, which reminds me of Harry Lime’s speech, in The Third Man (UK, 1949), of how people look like ants from high above.

People swarm into the station

People swarm into the station

The protagonist, Jerzy, is played Leon Niemczyk who also appeared in Knife in the Water; Niemczyk is a powerful lead whose morally ambiguous character is in keeping with the cynicism of the film. Zbigniew Cybulski, who starred in the Polish classic Ashes and Diamonds (1958), plays, typically, a rebellious young man, Staszek, infatuated with Lucyna Winnicka’s Marta (see below); but she’s more interested in Jerzy.

Youth's desperate infatuation

Youth’s desperate infatuation

A couple of times in the film Staszek is warned about jumping onto a moving train; tragically Cybulski was to fall under a train when jumping off eight years later.

Fatherland (UK-West Germany-France 1986)

Klaus in the machine shop where his stepfather works. The sign says "This machine does the work of 40 men". The added graffiti says "Bet it won't replace the Central Committee [of the Party]"

Klaus in the machine shop in East Berlin where his stepfather works. The sign says “This machine does the work of 40 men”. The added graffiti says “Bet it will never replace the Central Committee [of the Party]“

Fatherland was the only cinema feature by Ken Loach that I hadn’t seen so I was pleased to find the Region 2 DVD from Park Circus. This is an unusual film for several reasons and although it presents some problems I did enjoy watching it. It raises a range of interesting questions.

Loach found it extremely difficult to work in the UK in the 1980s, partly because of the lack of television commissions in a climate of Thatcherism and partly because the UK film industry hit bottom in terms of audiences and films produced. Fatherland was the last cinematic outing for Loach with Kestrel Films, the company he founded with Tony Garnett, and funding was forthcoming from the only source readily available in the 1980s – Channel 4. Even so the film needed to be a co-production with French and German partners. Although the European market had been a consideration for earlier Kestrel/Loach films (e.g. Black Jack), Fatherland was Loach’s first venture abroad in terms of production. Later he would make films in Spain, Nicaragua, the US, Ireland and Italy etc. Fatherland was a genuine international co-production and Loach shot partly in Germany with a German crew and UK department heads.

Outline

This is one of the relatively few Loach films not written by one of his three regular writers Jim Allen, Barry Hines and Paul Laverty. However, Trevor Griffiths had been on the Loach/Garnett radar for some time and by the mid-1980s he had become well-known as a playwright and a film and television writer – often of stories with a political setting. Fatherland refers quite literally to ‘my father’s country’ and also to the wider usage of ‘my homeland’, in this case Germany – in the guise of East Germany (the GDR). The central character is Klaus, a ‘protest singer’ (played by the real singer Gerulf Pannach, who had a similar biography and who provides some of the music – which I liked very much). He finds himself persona non grata in East Germany because of his songs and is effectively deported (given a ‘one-way visa’) to the West. There he finds himself caught up in a propaganda war and treated like a commodity by an American record company which offers him a lucrative contract in return for exploitation of an image as a ‘defector’. But his family circumstances are of more immediate concern. Before his departure his mother gives him the key to a safe deposit in West Berlin where some of his father’s papers have been stored. Klaus hasn’t seen his father, also a dissident musician, since 1953 when he left the GDR. Where is he and what has he been doing all this time? Klaus sets off to find him with a young Dutch-French woman who also seems to be searching for him and already has a lead.

Commentary

The first thing that I want to say is that the presentation of the film on the Park Circus DVD is very good and that Chris Menges’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. Menges worked with Loach intermittently over a long period between Kes (1969) and Route Irish (2010) and by my count is second only to Barry Ackroyd in terms of Loach collaborations as a cinematographer. He brings a certain kind of ‘romantic naturalism’ to Loach’s films, unlike the documentary style of Ackroyd (which I think is still the defining Loach ‘look’ for many audiences). Menges works here with the other long term Loach collaborators, Martin Johnson as ‘Art Director’ and Jonathan Morris as editor, offering us contrasting views of East and West Berlin and finally of a trip through East Anglia to Cambridge. Menges is also required to present some black and white ‘dream/nightmare material’ – representing Klaus’s disturbed state. I mention these aesthetic ‘tasks’ for cinematographer and art director because they have been picked out by John Hill, one of the film scholars most associated with studies of Loach’s films, as indicators of the problems in the film. Hill (1997) argues that the script pushed Loach towards the European art film and away from his familiar sense of using characters and locations he understood so well. Loach doesn’t speak German and much of the dialogue in the first section of the narrative is in that language. Similarly he had some difficulties working with the German crew. The ‘modernist’ devices such as the dreams, the use of intertitles for the three separate locations (political slogans in German) and the jumps in narrative time created through editing were part of Loach’s repertoire in the 1960s but again here they disrupt the transparency of realism/naturalism. Loach himself in Graham Fuller’s book of interviews (1998) argues that he ‘failed’ on the film and was unable to deliver what the script required. He refers to his own ‘observational style’ as inappropriate for the material.

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

. . . and with the American record label representative (played by Cristine Rose) in an apartment in West Berlin

I’m not going to disagree with John Hill and obviously I can’t argue with how Loach himself felt about the film, but I do want to suggest another approach. Hill uses the Bordwell and Thompson definition of art cinema but doesn’t refer to any specific films. I was struck by similarities with various German films both closer to the period of Fatherland‘s production and more recent. Such comparisons also suggest the generic concerns of German (and other European and American) films. For instance, there is a mix here of two familiar narrative themes. Klaus faces similar questions as a dissident in the East who moves to the West as do some of the characters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) and Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Once in the West the search for the father takes on a familiar thriller mode and given the real sense of being ‘watched’ ties together Klaus’s fear of the Stasi in East Germany and the conspiracy thrillers of US and and UK filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill argues that Loach is not able to develop his usual approach to characters and locations and that he ‘resorts’ to shooting Cambridge as a tourist destination. I think that this misses the point. Cambridge is the appropriate location for these genres – it is home to exiles, fenland villages are the preferred ‘hiding places’ for certain kinds of exile and East Anglia in the 1980s ‘fits’ the conspiracy thriller because of the American air bases still in use and relatively close in Mildenhall and Lakenheath. In addition, I don’t think Loach treats Cambridge as a tourist destination. Apart from one shot down a main street, the main location is the open-air market where Klaus and the journalist/investigator Emma go to buy second-hand clothes.

The main problem with the narrative is that the two stories don’t really mesh and that Loach’s discomfort with Griffiths’s script is evident in the seeming lack of confidence with which Loach handles the narrative and the actors. Or at least that is what I get from Loach’s own comments. He tells Fuller that his own observational style didn’t fit with Griffiths’ more literary script – he just couldn’t do it justice. The action needed to be more plot-driven whereas he was more used to allowing actors to find the ‘natural’ way to act out the scene. Loach implies that it wasn’t that he and Griffiths had a disagreement, rather that their approaches were simply different. Loach also admits that at this point he simply wasn’t “competent at filmmaking” (Fuller 1998: 60) – the difficulties he faced in getting work transmitted/screened were presumably having an effect on his confidence.

Political discourse

Whether or not we accept Loach’s comments at face value, the script and the completed film still offer some interesting ideas about politics in the mid-1980s. Klaus is a hero for the anti-Stalinist socialist. His dissent in East Germany is voiced against the regime, not against socialism and it does not imply any compromise with ‘social democracy’ in the West. The press conference at which Klaus is introduced to Western journalists is shown twice – once in the title credit sequence and then again in the chronology of Klaus’ journey to the UK. Klaus refuses to say he is happy in the West and then insults the West German Minister for Culture when the politician trots out the “I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it . . .” line. Klaus says that he sees West Germany as a continuation of the ‘fascistic state’ under the Nazis. I enjoyed this sequence very much – it’s so refreshing to see someone not prepared to kow-tow to convention and to maintain a thought-out political position. The exchange reminded me of the time around the late 1970s/early 1980s that teachers in the UK were asked to support their fellow trade unionists in West Germany who were faced with the Berufsverbot – a ‘professional ban’ on political activists from appointment to various public sector jobs, including teaching. These responses are matched later when Klaus under pressure to sign a recording contract, does so only after crossing out the majority of its clauses. It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that the three slogans which introduce each location are: ‘Actually existing socialism’ (Ost Berlin), ‘Grosse Freheitstrasse’ (Great Freedom Street – West Berlin) and ‘Stalinism is not socialism, capitalism is not freedom’ (on the train to the ferry in Holland).

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a 'stakeout' of a post office in Cambridge.

Klaus and Emma (Fabienne Babe) in disguise in a ‘stakeout’ of a post office in Cambridge.

The link between Klaus’ experiences of the FDR (West Germany) and his ‘quest’ in travelling to Cambridge is his father’s letters and the other materials in the safe deposit box. These refer back to his father’s journey to to fight in Spain in 1936 as a German communist – but what then put him in back in Germany under Hitler and then exiled him to the US before his final exile in the UK? At this point the thriller/conspiracy narrative takes over. (Ironically of course, Loach would return to related questions about socialists fighting in Spain in (Land and Freedom, 1995). When I think about it, the two plot points in the car journey to Cambridge do seem rather heavy-handed in showing the UK to be just as repressive as West Germany (which was probably ‘true’ in 1986). What is odd, perhaps, is that a socialist like Klaus would come to the UK with a young woman he didn’t really know (i.e. in regards to her politics) without seeking to find some British socialist contacts who might help him in his quest. This for me is the ‘disjuncture’ with Loach’s British films rather than the aesthetic differences noted by John Hill. Dialogue with Brits at this point might help the political discourse to cohere. The introduction of Emma also tends to hint at a possible emotional involvement that I’m not sure the script knows how to handle (or perhaps it was intended to but got cut?). Klaus is concerned about his son but his divorced wife has re-married. Personal emotions are part of the political but we don’t really see this with Klaus.

Fatherland is certainly flawed, but its problems are interesting and now I feel that I need to re-watch Riff-Raff (1991), usually seen as the ‘comeback’ or ‘re-launch film for Loach  and to consider it alongside Fatherland and Hidden Agenda to appreciate the changes.

References

Graham Fuller (ed) (1998) Loach on Loach, London: faber & faber

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in FatherlandHidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books

Waar (Strike, Pakistan 2013)

On the shoot for WAAR, lead actor Shaan Shahid is on the left and director Bilal Lashari on the right.

On the shoot for WAAR, lead actor Shaan Shahid is on the left and director Bilal Lashari on the right.

I was looking for a foreign language film and this Pakistani film looked like it would fit the bill. I was surprised to discover that half the dialogue is actually in English (impeccable English as taught in the best schools in the country) and half in Urdu – not subtitled. All the recent Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in UK multiplexes have been subtitled in English and Waar seemed like a throwback to an earlier era. In terms of the technical quality of the production however this is a very modern film.

I went into the screening knowing only that the film was an action thriller based on ‘actual events’ involving the fight against terrorism in Pakistan. It was only afterwards that I learned that it had the biggest budget of any Pakistani film so far and that it was a box office smash in its domestic market after an Eid release in October 2013. I also read about the controversy generated by its seeming propaganda message about terrorism coming out of India.

The narrative of Waar has a familiar structure found in action thrillers from most film cultures. A ‘super agent’ Major Mujtaba (Shaan Shahid) comes out of retirement to take on a job that may well be ‘patriotic’ – to stop an international terrorist whose mission appears to be to cause havoc in Pakistan – but is also in some way ‘personal’. Was the terrorist also responsible for an attack on Mujtaba’s family? The ex-army Mujtaba is asked to join two younger agents from a special police squad, a brother (Hamza Ali Abbasi) and sister (she’s the IT expert and is played by Ayesha Khan). The terrorist ‘Ramal’ is played by Shamoon Abbasi and his ‘fixer’ (named ‘Laxmi’) by Meesha Shafi. I can’t really comment on the script by Hassan Waqas Rana since I couldn’t follow the scenes in Urdu. I should explain that all the military and police operational dialogue is in English (as is the conversation between the terrorist and his fixer) but all other dialogue is in Urdu and not subtitled. I’m at a loss as to what went on between the ‘commissioner’ of the terrorists attacks (who is hinted to be Indian) and a group of Islamist fighters up on the North West Frontier. Since the Taliban and the Indian armed forces are Pakistan’s two main potential enemies the connection makes sense but it would be good to know how the liaison is supposed to work.

The credits announce that a digital intermediate was processed by Technicolor in Bangkok and reports suggest a high number of VFX. IMDB states that a Red ONE camera was used and that the ratio was 2.35:1 – I thought that the presentation in Bradford was more like 1.85:1 (though the trailer below is 2.35:1). There is a colossal amount of weaponry on show and this seems to have been provided by the Pakistani military – fuelling the claims that the film is a propaganda statement. The young director Bilal Lashari trained at a film school in San Francisco and before this feature had mainly worked on music videos. The direction is accomplished in a technical sense but for me was portentous in terms of low and high angles with fast cutting matched to a heavy rock soundtrack (which was not to my taste at all). Lashari has said that he rarely watches Bollywood and that he is much more influenced by Hollywood. I can see that in his direction and I did feel that James Bond/Jason Bourne etc. were major influences – the film’s climax takes place on the roof of the convention centre in Islamabad. However, I felt that several of the actors, especially Shamoon Abbasi, could easily have fitted into a similarly-themed Hindi action thriller. Ironically the cinema played the trailer for Jai Ho with Salman Khan in the intermission and there was a distinct resemblance to Abbasi. Waar also features a musical interlude in which Ramal and Laxmi dance together – to a track with an English vocal.

Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed the film but certain elements are distinctly impressive in terms of the choreography of the action (and the originality of the actions), including the sequence involving an audacious attack on a police academy (based on events at the Lahore Police Academy in 2009?). The central performances are good but I got bored with the explosions and almost fetishistic handling of weaponry. The lack of subtitles was annoying and I note that the director and producers have spoken about the decision to shoot half the film in English, suggesting that this was a mistake.  I don’t really understand why the whole film isn’t in Urdu with just occasional English – a convention in many similar language cinemas – and English subtitles. A sequel has already been announced so perhaps a different policy will be adopted the second time around. Waar has been seen as reviving a Pakistani film industry in decline. A country of 180 million people with a rich cultural tradition needs a functioning film industry so that must be a good thing. I just hope that the industry will be able to make a variety of films in future.

Here’s the official trailer:

 

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Seeing and being evil

Seeing and being evil

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.