Szabo Istvan’s second feature takes Billy Liar‘s (UK, 1963) premise and makes it philosophical rather than funny. Takó is growing up in post-War Budapest and trying to come to terms with his dead father; the same situation as Szabo found himself. However, the director insists that the film is not autobiographical because, he states, 60% of the children in his class had lost their fathers; it is, he says, ‘the autobiography of a generation’ (quoted in Hungarian Cinema: from coffee house to multiplex by John Cunningham). Takó’s, like Billy’s, fantasies are made flesh by being dramatised in the film but, unlike Billy, the father is the hero of the scenarios rather than himself.
The film starts with stunning archive footage from the war, including a devastated bridge and a man sawing off a dead horse’s leg, before segueing to his father’s funeral. Takó’s remark that he was impressed by how many people came to the funeral immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator as there are few there.
So Takó imagines his father in a variety of heroic roles that makes him a national hero. However, we learn right at the start, he only has three very brief memories of his dad who was an ordinary man; like Szabo’s father, a doctor. Although the fantasies, unlike in Billy Liar, do outstay their welcome the narrative conceit is quite brilliant, as coming to terms with the loss of fathers stands in for recreating a past after the devastation of war. The trauma of war has to be healed but Takó comes to realise, as a young adult, that he needs to deal with reality rather than fantasy. In a marvellous sequence, Takó interviews people who knew his father and most don’t have anything more to say than he was ‘nice'; a bland but positive epitaph.
Women aren’t completely marginalised in this entirely ‘vital’ Oedipal activity, Takó’s friend Anya is a Jew who would rather forget the past, her parents were victims of Auschwitz, in order to forge her identity as a Hungarian Jew. The print, of the Second Run DVD, is immaculate and shows Szabo’s imaginative direction, characterised by the use of telephoto lens, to best advantage.
This is, very simply, one of the best and probably the funniest, films of the year. I laughed in recognition all the way through the film, even though I have very little experience of how 13 year-old girls behave. I was worried by that fact going in to the cinema but, of course, the experiences are universal. The three girls who shout out the title are three non-conformists in Stockholm in 1982 who tell us with force that “you may think that punk is dead – but we are here to tell you it’s alive!”. They do and it is.
Lukas Moodysson was seen as the great hope of Swedish cinema in the late 1990s when he released his first feature Fucking Åmål in 1998. That story involved two young girls bored by the limited opportunities in their local town of Åmål in Western Sweden. In the UK and US the title was changed to the mundane Show Me Love. I guess I should warn you that if you are offended by ‘bad language’ there is plenty in We Are the Best!, but the overall feel is warm and life-fulfilling. It does mean however that the film has a 15 certificate in the UK, ironically excluding its young actors from watching themselves on a cinema screen. Moodysson’s second feature was the even more successful Tilsammans (Together) in 2004. This featured a hippy commune of sorts in the mid 1970s in a gentle satire. After that Moodysson’s gaze turned to some very dark subjects which garnered critical attention but relatively small audiences.
The return to form for the popular audience comes via an adaptation of his partner’s graphic novel. Coco Moodysson’s story (drawing on her own teenage adventures) sees two teenage girls demanding to use the facilities of their local youth club to make music, even though they have no musical knowledge as such. They simply want to have the same access to facilities as the boys. Realising that they really need some input by someone who knows something and can play an instrument they approach a girl who is a year older but is generally ostracised in the school because she is a devout Christian. This is Hedwig, an intelligent girl who doesn’t like being left out and is open to persuasion. There is very little ‘plot’ in what is quite a long film (102 mins) for this kind of subject. Little plot but tons of observation and insight. Any audience will see themselves in this film – remembering how it felt, how families and friends reacted and what pleased them most at 13. The parents are skilfully represented and not lampooned. Instead they are gently satirised but also allowed to be human. The three girls were selected after a long casting exercise in which Moodysson had to make choices based on the three who worked together best. He chose well. In the press notes he puts a special emphasis on the costumes they wear and their overall look which, including the hair, is wonderful. The detail I like is that Klara wears a Palestinian keffiyeh which contradicts the fashion code but perfectly fits the mixture of rebellion, cool and joyful rejection of authority. Lukas and Coco appear to work well together and I’m not sure how much of each partner appears in the film. The graphic novel connection is interesting and I was sometimes reminded of Persepolis in terms of the ‘tone’ of the film. (Lukas Moodysson talks about ‘tone’ quite a lot in the notes – “I wanted to replicate the tone of the book . . . I’m not really so thorough with the storyline, I’m more interested in the tone, the mood, the details.”) I wonder if some enterprising publisher will bring out Coco Moodysson’s 2008 novel Aldrig godnatt (Never goodnight) in the UK/US? (Read an interview with Coco Moodysson at Female First.)
The music in the film is well chosen and fits the narrative. I know how important music has been to Swedish teens from the various books and films I’ve come across but I didn’t know anything about the punk scene. The press notes assure us that the music in the film is genuine, apart from, presumably, the great lyrics that the girls write – there one song is ‘Anti-Sport’ directed at their fascist PE teacher. (There is one social type which never seems to disappear, but occasionally the PE teacher can be sympathetic, as in Let the Right One In.) The look of the film is, I think, carefully managed to resemble a 1980s Swedish film. I did wonder if it was shot on film.
We Are the Best! deserves to be loved by audiences everywhere. It’s the perfect night out. Here’s the trailer:
The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-duk, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.
In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.
Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a police officer who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car.
The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; no as not Asia extreme.
Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.
Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.
This charming tale of a 12-13 year-old boy tripped up by the conflicted emotions of early adolescence was my final screening at BIFF 2014. In the end it didn’t win the European Features prize but it has won other international prizes and it seemed to me a genuinely commercial film – although at 82 minutes it is a little short. I’m not best qualified to select films for children but I would want to show it to secondary school children (11+) and possibly younger. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got this wrong.)
The central character is Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) who is small for his age and is at that awkward stage when some of the girls in his class are tall and willowy, towering over him. He attends a specialist ‘orchestra school’ and his instrument is a saxophone. One day he plays a joke on one of the girls that misfires and he is required to take home a behavioural report to be signed by his mother. Mother (Vita Varpina, one of the professional actors) is a hardworking single parent (a doctor/midwife?). Raimonds thinks that she will react badly to his misbehaviour and he removes the page from his report book and prevents her receiving a message from the school. Of course, one lie leads to another and he finds himself in an escalating crisis which his friendship with Peteris, the drummer in the orchestra, unintentionally makes worse. Raimonds’ relationship with his mother will deteriorate further before it gets better but the film ends on an upbeat note.
The film is the second feature by Jānis Nords who trained formally after working in film and television and directing his first film in 2008. Mother, I Love You was shot on location in Riga in just 20 days with most of the cast being non-professionals. It looks and sounds very good and is directed with vitality. It can’t be easy creating a CinemaScope feature on the streets with a non-professional cast but he succeeds and I found it very enjoyable. I’ve seen several mentions of François Truffaut’s work in critical responses to the film and especially to Les quatre cents coups. There are certainly similarities but the tone of this film is quite different. Raimonds is not the ‘wild child’ presented by Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel and there is not that sense of romantic despair. Raimonds’ mother is not an uncaring parent – this trope has been passed onto Peteris who suffers beatings from his mother.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a Latvian feature before but the Press Pack for the film suggests that Raimonds “has to venture into Riga’s thrilling night-life”. This is a little hyperbolic. Raimonds visits a skate park (the actor is, the Press Pack tells us, a very good ‘extreme cyclist’) and he follows a young woman through the dark streets (she has something he needs). That’s as thrilling as it gets. Nords does not make the mistake of shifting the tone of the film. He neatly sums up his approach:
A seemingly minor misdeed can seem like grand offence bound to bring harsh consequences. Though Raimonds is faced with a moral dilemma – to act dishonestly and escape punishment or tell the truth and face backlash – I tried to avoid teaching my protagonist a moral lesson. Instead, I was looking to portray a child, who thrown into the wildest of circumstances and confronted with tough choices, manages to maintain humanity and gain conscience. In other words, a child who “grows up”.
I hope the film has more festival showings in the UK. It should be on general release but I fear it won’t get picked up. If it does get a screening near you, please go.