My fourth visit to this year’s Leeds International Film Festival offered a mild disappointment followed by one of the best films I’ve seen this year. First I’ll deal with the problematic film. Before 2014 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Latvian film and then two came along with very similar stories. At Bradford’s festival in April I enjoyed Mother, I Love You (Latvia 2013), an engaging film about a young teenager in trouble at school, deceiving his loving mother and having nighttime adventures in Riga and a brush with the authorities. Modris, the protagonist of the more recent film, is older – he has his 18th birthday during the time period of the narrative – but he also takes off after a dispute with his mother (caused by his need to find cash to feed his slot-machine addiction). Again he is in a single parent family but up till now he hasn’t bothered too much to find his father, accepting his mother’s explanation that his father is in prison.
Modris is an apathetic teen, the kind of guy of whom older people are likely to say: “He doesn’t do himself any favours”. While that’s true it doesn’t mean that we can’t have any sympathy for his position, but writer-director Juris Kursietis makes it more difficult for me at least in shooting many scenes handheld in close-up and sometimes very shallow focus. Close-up and handheld here means an extremely off-putting image. And why shoot in ‘Scope if you are going to waste the potential for widescreen compositions? I can cope with handheld if it’s done with care but here it seems to be striving for some kind of effect. The young man playing Modris, Kristers Piksa, was present at the screening and in the Q&A he told us various things about the production. Kristers was not trained as an actor and he got the role almost by accident. A perceptive question from the audience prompted him to tell us that many of the handheld scenes were shot in one take – but that sometimes it might take anything up to 16 takes to achieve the desired result. Researching the film after the screening and taking on board the actor’s comments, I note that director was trained in the UK at the Northern Media School (Sheffield Hallam) and that this was his first fiction feature after documentaries and short films. He seems to have followed the ‘Ken Loach approach’ of giving his actors only the pages of script that they need for a specific scene, so that they remain fresh, reacting to events. I note also that Bogumil Godfrejow, an experienced and award-winning Polish cinematographer and some established Latvian actors in the cast means that even with a limited budget (€350,000?) there was the opportunity to make an interesting film. In the end it is the script that lets the film down. The story is based on a real character (who Kristers Piksa told us is now somewhere in the North of England) so it should have credibility. Kristers himself definitely has a screen presence – tall and gangly with a memorable nose. At times he presents an air of bemusement and incomprehension that reminded me of Vincent Cassel’s performance in La haine. But too much is unexplained or introduced and not followed up, so it becomes difficult to really care about the character. The potential narrative about gambling addiction seems to get lost completely.
There are, however, a number of interesting aspects of contemporary Latvian culture that do come to light in the narrative. The most obvious is the disconnect between what appears to be a society that validates music and other forms of cultural expression and has created a relatively high wage economy but which also operates a draconian criminal justice system that can lock up offenders for relatively trivial offences (i.e. the kinds of offences many teenagers commit. The film also offers the frictions of social class difference (like Mother I Love You) and hints at the legacy of Russian control of Latvia prior to 1991 and contemporary issues about migration. I wanted to like Modris more than I did. Perhaps on another day I would have done – but it needs a better script. I have to point out that the film has received good reviews from various festivals and Toronto called it “tough, but compassionate”. This trailer for the film makes it look much more exciting than I found it in reality:
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.