Category: Canadian Cinema

Old Stone (Lao shi, China-Canada 2016)

Gang Shen as Lao Shi, the unfortunate taxi driver.

Gang Chen as Lao Shi, the unfortunate taxi driver.

The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.

The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.

Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).

I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.

Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.

Race (Canada-Germany-France 2016)

jesse-owens-race-movie-poster

This film is being distributed in the UK by Altitude Films and I saw it as a Vue Cinema. You have to estimate the adverts and trailers if you do not want to sit through them. But when they are over there is a warning about the use of mobile phones, tablets and all the other electronic clutter. Then the feature  begins. However, on this occasion, after the BBFC certification, (PG – infrequent racist language, mild bad language, sex references, violence), I found we were watching contemporary sports people! This was not recognition of the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens, the film’s subject, but some sort of promotion. This is another of those really bad ideas made easier by digital technology, the cinematic equivalent of those annoying trailers that television often runs over the end credits.

So, after a couple of minutes, we did actually get the movie, a biopic. The film starts in 1933 when Jesse Owens won a scholarship to Ohio State University. Apart from his physical prowess the early stages of the film present his personal life, including marriage to his partner Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) who has already born him a child. At the University there is a clear presentation of the racism that separates black students from white. Here we meet coach Larry Snyder full of aphorisms and nearly always hugging a bottle.

The film becomes more interesting when the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics rises. In the USA, as elsewhere, there is a debate about a possible boycott because of the Nazi oppression, especially against Jews. The debate is dramatised through Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), for a boycott, and Avery Brundage, for participation. Avery Brundage journeys to Berlin where he meets Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazi leader agrees to ‘tone down’ their actions for the duration of the Olympics. So Jesse goes to Berlin and wins his four gold medals.

The US characters are generally well played though fairly conventional, Stephan Jones as James Cleveland Owens (his actual names) is credible as the  athlete and Jason Sudeikis’ coach is engaging and suitably liberal. The athlete/coach relationship is full of recognisable scenes and tropes: there is even a variation on the classic ‘I was made to run’ line. Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage brings a Machiavellian quality to his character and steals most of the scenes in which he plays. Barnaby Metshurat’s Goebbels is equally Machiavellian but also monosyllabic and malevolent. Carise Van Houten’s Riefenstahl is well done but bears little resemblance to the actual character.

Carise Van Houten as Riefenstahl

Carise Van Houten as Rifienstahl

Riefenstahl provides an angle to the script which makes much of the filming of the Olympics, though it is only infrequently reflexive. Riefenstahl also acts as an interpreter tween Brundage and Goebbels. These scenes are the closest that the film comes to addressing the political substance of this story. Predominately this is a sporting film, so the various obstacles  in Jesse’s path merely delay his triumph. There is a token appearance of a representative of the NAACP, which organisation supported a boycott. And when two US athlete who are Jewish are blocked by the Nazis, they still turn up and tell Jesse to win for ‘America’.

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

The film does address the vicious racism in the USA. However, probably unintentionally, the racism of the Nazis tends to be balanced by this. There is a telling scene where Jesse and Ruth, even after his medal triumph, have to use the staff entrance when attending a celebratory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. In neither case does the film address the actual nature of the racisms. The racist attitude of the crowd at a US college sporting occasion turns easily to cheers when Jesse wins. I doubt it was that simple.

The film is overall entertaining. There is a lot of CGI, but mostly well done if noticeable. The camera work and editing are generally fine, though at time parallel editing is somewhat clumsy. The Sight & Sound review notes that Owens was a life-ling Republican  who argued against the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a logic of sorts in that view. The film was completed long enough ago to have a release in Canada in February this year. So there is no attempt to address the ironies of Olympic boycotts including the current one.

GFF16 #11: Speed Sisters (Palestine-Canada-US-UK-Qatar-Denmark 2015)

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.

Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.

The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.

Marah's father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Marah’s father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:

While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)

Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.

Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!

Informative Press Notes here.

Room (Canada-Ireland-UK 2015)

Jack (Jack Tremblay) and Joy (Brie Larson) in ROOM

Jack (Jack Tremblay) and Joy (Brie Larson) in ROOM

Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.

The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.

Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.

I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).