Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (Taiwan 2014)

The four boys with Lefty second from left.

The four boys with Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun) second from left.

On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.

Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.

The thieves' disguise . . .

The thieves’ disguise . . .

I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?

The original Minnie Mouse

The original Minnie Mouse

The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of  Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.

Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen: 

The Party’s Over (UK 1965)

The charismatic Oliver Reed

The charismatic Oliver Reed

This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting. As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’,  at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.

The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.

It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).

Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.

Popcorn profits

A daily delivery in Leicester Square?  The exhibitor's profits on the pavement.

A daily delivery in Leicester Square? The exhibitor’s profits on the pavement.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a multiplex. It was one of those chains where they force you to buy a ticket for your seat at the same time as they try to force concessions down your throat. The woman in front of me had a small child who pestered her (no, that’s unfair, she asked nicely) for something to eat and something to drink. This took several minutes while the counter clerk scurried between various sticky gadgets squeezing out different kinds of junk. One particular machine was on the blink and the operation had to be repeated several times. In the meantime, feeling restless I tried to move my feet only to find them stuck to the floor. The woman protested to the poor girl behind the counter who explained she’d mopped the floor twice but someone else must have spilt cola. Eventually the woman got her tickets – an adult and a child for an early Saturday evening showing of Jurassic World. The total cost for the ticket and concessions was nearly £31. I’m guessing the tickets cost £13 or £14 for the two, including a premium to see a new film on the opening weekend. That means around £18 was spent on popcorn, cola and something else I couldn’t see. Eventually we all prized our feet from the floor and I paid £15 for two Senior tickets (this was Scotland not London – but still more expensive than Bradford) to see Spy.

This was a small 8 screen multiplex. The auditorium was healthily filled at around 60% for an 18.00 hours screening. It was clean, the seats were comfortable, the projection was fine and we enjoyed the film. Everyone behaved well and no phones went off. It was a pleasurable visit marred only by the wait to buy a ticket and the sticky floor. My real problem is with the pricing policies, the crap food and drink and the treatment of punters at the counter (for which I don’t blame the staff). This little incident underlines the fact that the chains make half their profit from popcorn and it doesn’t really matter what they show as long as people come – and they buy concessions.

At around £8 average for a standard ticket (going up to £15-17 in some parts of London’s West End) the UK now has some of the highest ticket prices in the world. The premiums for 3D, new films etc. are a rip-off. The chains should be thinking of lowering prices to bring audiences back. Cinema is not the worst entertainment offender on pricing. Back in the 1960s, when cinema was still a mass entertainment form in the UK, three things that working-class youth liked to spend its wages on all cost more or less the same. A First Division football match, a stalls seat in the cinema and a pint of beer all cost between ‘One and nine’ and ‘half a crown’ (8p and 12.5p – most young people earned less than £15 a week). The equivalent now might be £30-£50 for the Premier League, £8 for a cinema ticket and £3.50 (or less) for a pint. And we thought it was the brewers who were screwing us!

I don’t like the popcorn cinemas sell. But I recognise that people enjoy it. The real gripe is the amount of sugar, fat and salt in it and the ‘supersize me’ portions. Mostly these are too big and quite a lot of it gets left on the cinema floor. The other gripe is that the punters are being royally duped. They pay pounds for a foodstuff that costs pennies. The chains have to make a profit but film culture would be much healthier if the profits came because of high demand for films that people really want to see. In the current business model that isn’t the case. Admissions in the UK (and the US) are not rising, even though the population is growing. The exhibition sector is heading for the buffers unless it can attract more admissions.

The Everyman in  the Trinity Shopping Centre in Leeds – a cinema or a pizzeria?

The Everyman in the Trinity Shopping Centre in Leeds – a cinema or a pizzeria?

The specialised sector is just as bad. The ticket prices are, in the newer cinemas, even higher and the emphasis is still on food and drink even if it is marginally more healthy food. The Everyman chain seems to be the worst offender in the UK. As one friend told me after being enticed into the Everyman in Leeds, it took him some time to realise that, yes it was a cinema, not a restaurant. I ought to write something about this outfit. Much of my film education was spent in the Everyman in Hampstead, one of the best repertory cinemas the UK has ever seen. The new owners from 2000 have taken the brand and created a chain of new and ‘acquired’ ’boutique cinemas’. The chain claims to be reviving ‘independent cinema’ but as far as I can see shows mainly Hollywood films and live theatre. It advertises its menus alongside its film titles and seems more interested in promoting armchairs and access to bars than anything to do with film culture. Some of the cinemas it acquired include those revived in the 1970s by Romaine Hart including the Screen on the Green in Islington and the Screen on the Hill at Belsize Park (see Anne Billson’s blog for a little entertaining history of the cinema built on the site of the Haverstock Hill Odeon). Now Everyman has got its hands on the great old Odeon at Muswell Hill. These are some of the most important cinemas in my viewing memories – I feel violated in some way. If you have an independent cinema near you, make sure you support it and try to keep it out of the hands of a chain.

I don’t like watching films on a TV screen so my fears about exhibitors are disturbing on a fundamental level. Fortunately for me there is one example of a publicly-funded local independent where with tons of leg-room, a proper mug of tea, a slice of cake and an eclectic film programme, I can really relax and watch a film on a big screen at a very reasonable price. Long may the Hebden Bridge Picture House (not part of the Picturehouses chain) thrive.

¡Viva! Mexico #4: Seguir viviendo (Go On Living, Mexico 2014)

Jade, Martha and Kaleb

Jade, Martha and Kaleb

This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.

In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.

Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.

Alejandra Sanchez answers a question from Rachel Hayward.

Alejandra Sanchez answers a question from Rachel Hayward.

Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.

This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.