Category: Comedies

Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018)

Crazy Rich Asians was broadcast on BBC1 late night before Christmas. I think it would have been interesting for it to be on Christmas Day. I missed the film in UK cinemas by accident so I welcomed the chance to watch a release that performed well at the UK box office. What I saw was an accomplished romantic comedy set amongst the super-rich Chinese community of Singapore and Malaysia (many of the locations that purport to be in Singapore are actually in Malaysia). The film is conventional in terms of Hollywood genre titles but also has elements of ‘local’ culture that could help it to appeal to both the Chinese-American and the broader Chinese diasporic audience. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kevin Kwan, a Singapore-born American author. Having said that, I can see that the film could be seen as offensive to some audiences – especially the other ‘Asians’ who are not rich and not Chinese. Box Office Mojo figures suggest that the film’s main audience was in North America (whereas most Hollywood films now sell the majority of their tickets in the ‘international’ marketplace). It appears to have had only a restricted release in China but has performed well in Australia, the UK and Indonesia as the biggest markets outside North America.

It’s possible to outline the plot without spoiling the story. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a young woman in New York, is invited to a wedding in Singapore at which her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Goldingwill be best man for his old schoolfriend. Rachel is unaware that her boyfriend is heir to a massive fortune with interests across South East Asia. She also doesn’t realise that the news of her relationship with Nick is already spreading through social media networks and causing some concern in Nick’s family in Singapore. Rachel is an Economics professor and a single parent child from a relatively poor background. Fortunately she has Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a college friend now based in Singapore, to act as support so she will not be completely defenceless when she meets Nick’s formidable mother and grandma as well as his wealthy friends.

Meeting your prospective mother-in-law for the first time is always stressful, especially when she is as talented and formidable as Eleanour Young (Michelle Yeoh, left)

The ingredients of the romcom are laid out before us with the added element of the difference in ‘family values’ between the Singapore-Chinese and the ‘Chinese-American’ families. The film’s casting is interesting in that three of the principals are played by actors educated in the UK, two of whom have British nationality. In a sense this adds some authenticity to the casting while at the same time creating links between British colonial backgrounds and traditional Chinese families as opposed to the ‘freedom/modernity’ tag associated with the Chinese-American characters. This is most evident in the confrontations between Nick’s mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Rachel. Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh in Malaysia and developed her career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema after training in the UK, initially as a ballet dancer. She has been arguably the most versatile and successful global star of the Chinese diaspora with major roles in Hollywood films as well as ‘international’ productions. Nick’s older sister Astrid is played by Gemma Chan. The rising British-Chinese star was born in the UK to parents who had both lived in Hong Kong before settling in the UK. Henry Golding as Nick is perhaps the most controversial casting – and, I understand, it was actually a late decision. Golding has a British father but he was born in Sarawak and though he was educated in the UK, he returned to Malaysia when he was 21 and began his career in Kuala Lumpur. The issue for some audiences appears to be his Malay heritage (actually the indigenous people of Borneo) and that he is not Chinese. This in turn refers to one of the criticisms of the film overall which is that the focus on the super-rich Chinese in Singapore means the exclusion of the other two main communities in Singapore, the Malay and the Indian.

The magnificent Michelle Yeoh plays mahjong with Rachel. Who will win the game?

Singapore is an interesting setting for this film for several reasons. It is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world having developed its full potential as an entrepôt – a trading and distribution centre – and then diversifying to cover finance, oil refining and electronics as important industrial sectors. It also has a history of ‘strong’ government that has attempted to mould a disciplined and meritocratic society. This has produced high standards of education but also great economic wealth disparity. Two other distinctive features of Singapore are the division between the roughly 60% ‘resident’ population and the remainder of ‘guest workers’. But against this, Singapore is a country that recognises its different communities by making its four main languages equally important in public services. I can’t think of anywhere else where the public transit system routinely presents information in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Crazy Rich Asians is an ‘entertainment’ and the film doesn’t have to explore all the social issues that run through the lives of ordinary Singapore families. On the other hand, a romcom that is built around social class differences and national ideologies about family values does need to be a little careful, I think.

Rachel in the car with Peik Lin on the way to the Young mansion with the Indian security guards

The film’s aim is clearly to emphasise glamour and to this end the different locations used range from the tourist region of Langkawi, the island group in North-West Malaysia, through Penang and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore itself. This is of course a traditional Hollywood ploy. When big budget romcoms are made in the UK, they focus on the tourist parts of London and then other hotspts such as the Lake District, Scottish highlands, Bath, Oxford/Cambridge etc. The same is true of major Bollywood productions that set their narratives in London and attractive tourist centres. The Bollywood connection is in fact something I would like to follow up. This Asian American romcom is similar in several ways to those films which explore the Indian diasporas and the clashes over changing family values. I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK-US-India 2004) and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India-US-UK 2001) as films by diasporic directors plus countless mainstream Hindi films. But I wonder if any of these Indian narratives stumbled like Crazy Rich Asians in representing other cultures? I’m referring here to the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin travel to the Young mansion for the first time (Rachel is not staying with Nick). They find the massive house and extensive gardens in the middle of a wooded area along a private road which the satnav is unaware of (the house is actually in North Malaysia). It’s dark and at the gates of the mansion they are met by two Indian security officers. Awkwafina’s reaction (IMDb suggests that she improvised much of her dialogue) is to freak out at the sight of a dark-skinned man, even to the extent of raising her hands and saying “we come in peace”. She also makes a reference to the area as ‘jungle’. The guards themselves say nothing though their body language is a little strange. I’m not sure if they are meant to be Sikhs (Sikhs have traditionally been over-represented in the Indian armed forces) but they are turnbanned, bearded, dressed in a military type uniform and carrying what look like ancient .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, just as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure film.

Astrid (Gemma Chen) with her husband Michael (Pierre Png)

The film does attempt to represent Singapore culture via a sequence set in a food court with different types of street food and at one point Rachel plays mahjong on a street that looked familiar to me in terms of architecture but then I realised the scene was shot in Penang, Malaysia. In a sense none of this ‘inauthenticity’ matters but I find it irritating mainly because the narrative could have been ‘smaller’ and more realist. I realise that that is not the point of romcoms and so I accept the film for what it is and reserve my disappointment. I thought all the principals were very good in their roles and particularly Constance Wu as Rachel who puts across her character as an intelligent and attractive young woman without being over-glamourised – and she can stand up to Michelle Yeoh in full spate of motherly control. Accents in the film are important and I noted that the Japanese-born Sonoya Mizuno has an impeccable British accent, as did some of the Singaporean actors. The Brits are the bad guys again in a Hollywood film but Nick and Rachel make a winning pair and I had a tear in my eye at the end of the film. I must also give a shout out to Gemma Chan and the sub-plot that she leads which illustrates the different kinds of problems the Young family wealth creates for Nick’s sister.

I understand that perhaps not all of the original novel was used in the film so there may be more to come. The film made a heap of money and that might trigger further films. Crazy Rich Asians is on iPlayer for a further 10 days. It’s a fun picture to brighten up a January day.

It Must Be Heaven (France-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Qatar-Palestine 2019)

Elia Suleiman as ‘ES’, always centre frame

Elia Suleiman’s fourth fiction feature in 23 years (he has also made a documentary and a handful of shorts) is perhaps his most beautiful and most perfectly formed yet. It won a prize at Cannes in 2019 and finally reached the UK in Summer 2021. The film works on two levels. On the surface it is a deadpan, absurdist silent movie which follows Suleiman himself (‘ES’) as the central character, a filmmaker who travels from Nazareth to Paris and to New York/Montreal. But this ‘comedy’ is underpinned by a sometimes obvious, but often disguised, critique of not just the Israeli occupation of Palestine but also the ways in which Palestine’s situation is viewed in Europe and North America. There is also a ‘third dimension’ in which the kinds of oppression felt in Palestine are also spreading in other cultures but are not always understood in the same way. Suleiman himself offers us this explanation:

If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world; my new film It Must Be Heaven tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine. (from the film’s Press Pack.)

This statement perhaps doesn’t make immediate sense, but it is worth pondering and thinking through as the incidents during Suleiman’s journey play out. I suspect that different audiences will react differently towards what they see on screen. Some of these differences are evident in the (generally very positive) reviews of the film. However, a good example of what I mean is that some reviewers and scholars still persist in referring to Suleiman’s comedy as based on or similar to Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. I like Keaton very much and though I don’t know Tati’s films very well, I can understand to some extent why these references are used. But there are three problems here.

ES in Paris where the police are checking the café’s encroachment onto the pavement

The first is that Suleiman himself says that he has not been influenced by these two film artists and that if he has been influenced by other directors it is Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Second, Keaton and Tati have been seen as creating ‘universal’ characters understood through their mute responses to the trials and tribulations of the situations in which they find themselves. It is often their actions that trigger the chaos around them. Suleiman is quite different. He is a passive observer, he doesn’t get involved – the craziness is ‘out there’ and he just watches. In this film he speaks just once, to a taxi driver, and acts only to command a small bird to leave him alone when he is writing. Significantly, he breaks his rule of passivity on only one other occasion when he engages with a security official at the airport in a hilarious spoof of martial arts combat. I think this might be a reference back to one of his earlier films in which he pole-vaults over the security wall which divides Israel from the West Bank.

Elia Suleiman has an unusual history. He was born into a Palestinian Orthodox Christian family in Nazareth in 1960. He has always maintained his Palestinian identity. He lived in New York as a young man (1981-93) where he began his involvement in filmmaking. Later he set up a Film and Media course at Birzeit University in the West Bank as part of a European-funded project in 1994. His feature films from 1996 onwards have been funded from various international sources and usually co-ordinated through Paris where he has based himself for the last twenty years or so. It Must Be Heaven thus presents not a ‘voyage of discovery’ but rather a set of observations linking contemporary Nazareth with what Suleiman sees as the changing worlds of Paris and New York (I’m assuming some of the New York scenes were shot in Montreal for funding purposes). Anyone who has seen Suleiman’s earlier films will also note that he makes references back to his own films and his own history and to his collaborations with others.

ES waits in the foyer of a film production company with his friend Gael García Bernal

The character Suleiman plays in It Must Be Heaven is perhaps a version of himself, as a filmmaker travelling abroad and looking for funding. There is the suggestion that someone in his Nazareth family has died and this refers us back to his previous film The Time That Remains (2009) which engages with his family history from the time of the 1948 war which saw Nazareth ‘incorporated’ in the new state of Israel. Suleiman is an actor in several of his own films and also one of the guests in a fantasy sequence featuring in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali-France 2006). It’s no surprise then to find other directors and film industry figures popping up in Suleiman’s films. Vincent Maraval, the co-founder of Wild Bunch and a prolific producer ,appears as a film producer and Grégoire Colin, an actor associated strongly with Claire Denis, as a menacing man on the Metro, both appear in the Paris segment of It Must Be Heaven. In New York, Suleiman is greeted by the actor-director Gael García Bernal in the foyer of a film production office. This is an important scene partly because of Bernal’s dialogue (he refers to his friend the ‘Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’).

This is the POV of ES as he watches what happens to the girl with the angel wings

It Must Be Heaven has a very distinctive aesthetic. The cinematography by Sofian El Fani is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 according to IMDb. This is wider than even original CinemaScope (2.55:1). El Fani’s work on Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) included some memorable compositions in ‘extreme long shots’. In It Must Be Heaven, there are many wide shots, though perhaps not so many extreme long shots. But many compositions are geometrically designed with Suleiman himself central in the image, i.e. either central in the frame or with a POV which is from a central position. Suleiman’s aim as stated in the Press Pack is to present:

. . . the moment in the margin, the trivial, or that which is usually out of focus. Consequently, it approaches what is intimate, tender and touching. It’s the personal and human stories that are based on identification which raise questions and raise hope.

A good example is the sequence in Paris which focuses on a square with an ornamental pool and fountain around which various people are enjoying sitting in the sunshine. Suleiman watches on as others arrive and try to find an empty seat, sometimes moving the chairs around. There are small acts of rudeness and meanness in this sequence, as well as less offensive struggles to find a chair. Any reading of the film has to try to connect together the different observations in Paris and New York with those in Nazareth. To give just one example, in Nazareth Suleiman watches as his neighbour steals/takes without permission lemons from Suleiman’s tree. This has obvious connotations about the daily small acts of theft by Israelis, supported by their government, which sees Arab houses in the West Bank demolished, especially currently in East Jerusalem, and eventually replaced by houses for Israelis. Suleiman is arguing that some similar kinds of issues to those in Palestine are beginning to be experienced by Parisians and New Yorkers. They are relatively benign at the moment but the connections are there. I should emphasise that Suleiman doesn’t speak during his observations but some are accompanied by an eclectic range of music tracks including a song by his partner Yasmine Hamdan and other Arab performers plus Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone (singing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – the same song appeared in an earlier Suleiman film sung by Natacha Atlas). It Must Be Heaven is a film to watch, admire and re-watch. The trailer below offers glimpses of several of the extended sight gags, pointing to another issue – how Suleiman’s films are promoted to international audiences. The film is on several streaming services, including MUBI – which also offers 7 Days in Havana (Cuba-Spain-France 2012) including a segment by Suleiman which in some ways pre-figures It Must Be Heaven.

Lucky Chan-sil (Chansilineun bokdo manhji, South Korea 2019)

Chan-sil and Kim-yeong, the French teacher

This lovely little film is one of two recent South Korean titles to turn up on MUBI. It’s an interesting mix of romance, fantasy and gentle humour with an underlying dramatic edge. Writer-director Kim Cho-hee is making her feature début as a director after working for several years as producer for the celebrated auteur director Hong Sang-soo. I’ve only seen one of Hong’s films and I found it slightly irritating so I was at first apprehensive about Lucky Chan-sil, but I needn’t have worried.

Moving house . . .

The film opens with a celebratory drinking session for a film crew at which the director suddenly collapses with a fatal heart attack. The future for the crew looks uncertain. The title credits are offered as simple text against a hessian background, familiar from classical Japanese films from the 1950s and especially the later colour films of Ozu Yasujiro. We realise then that we’ve been watching an opening sequence in Academy ratio. With the last title the ratio widens to 1.85:1. (I was reminded of the sequence at the start of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It when Academy becomes CinemaScope and B&W becomes Technicolor.) We might guess that this Korean film is going to offer film references and we won’t be wrong

The landlady

Sophie and her French teacher with Chan-sil in her cleaning mode

The film’s protagonist emerges as ‘Producer Lee’ or Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-Geum). This 40 year-old finds herself without a job and few prospects after working with the same arthouse director for some time. She realises that her job as producer was one that most people she meets don’t really see as important. “But what do you actually do?” She is forced to move to a room in a house on top of the hill overlooking the city. It’s such a steep climb that she must recruit three of her younger ex-colleagues to carry her belongings. When she gets to the house with its views out over the city, we meet her landlady played by Youn Yuh-Jung, the beloved grandma in Minari (US 2020). As Chan-sil gradually begins to understand her situation she realises she needs to earn some money and ends up cleaning house for her friend, a successful but empty-headed young actress named Sophie. Her relationships with Sophie and with her landlady (who is struggling to overcome her own illiteracy because of her poor education in the 1950s) help us to understand the changes in women’s lives in Korea but also the still powerful restrictions of traditions. Chan-sil has not had a relationship for a decade. Does she need one now? She could test one out with Sophie’s French teacher perhaps. But Chan-sil is not sure. Trying to push her into looking inside herself is a surprising extra character, the ghost of ‘Hong Kong Cinema Legend’ Leslie Cheung, played by a young Korean look-alike. Cheung was a beautiful young man who took his own life aged only 46 and depressed by the celebrity gossip about his sexual identity. He has been sorely missed by everyone who admired his great range of work in Hong Kong and later mainland Chinese cinemas. Cheung’s ghost is inappropriately dressed in the singlet and boxers he wore in one of his iconic roles in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1991). He shivers in Korea with the coming of winter – he’s a very corporeal ghost.

The ghost wearing warmer attire!

I don’t want to say much more about the plot and, to be honest, there isn’t that much plot to discuss. If you are looking for a conventional romance, comedy or even psychological drama with a clear resolution, you won’t find it. But spending 95 minutes with Chan-sil was a real pleasure for me. Some reviewers seem concerned that the film might be too autobiographical and self-reflexive about cinema. I didn’t get that feeling. There is an entertaining comparison of Ozu and Christopher Nolan at one point and we learn later that Chan-sil’s love affair with cinema began with Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia-Italy-UK 1988). The final short sequence of the narrative is also a filmmaking reference, but in a more abstract sense, unless I’ve simply misread it.

All of the performances are very good and the presentation of naturalistic photography and well-chosen settings work well. Music is used sparingly but effectively. I was intrigued to read that the the lead actor had come to professional acting quite late. Overall this does seem to me a serious and sensitive portrayal of the possibilities for women in South Korean society presented as a moving personal story. I look forward to seeing more films by Kim Cho-hee.

LFF 2021 #2: Queen of Glory (US 2021)

Sarah Obeng (Nana Mensah) is back in the Bronx

This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.

After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.

One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.

A rather dazed Sarah is measured for a new dress for the Ghanaian funeral gathering . . .

From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.

. . . emerging transformed in this stunning outfit

I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.

Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.

Limbo (UK 2020)

Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.

(from left) Omar (Amir El-Masry), Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Farhad (Vikash Bhai) share a house

Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.

Boris and Helga role play an encounter on a dance-floor . . .

. . . to the bemusement of the asylum-seekers

The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.

Omar speaks to his mother, a refugee in Turkey

Farhad examines the oud that Omar always carries

Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.

Omar meets some locals including these quizzical young women . . .

. . . and the Sikh who runs the mini-market

Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.

One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.

Bank Holiday (UK 1938)

Bank Holiday is notable for several reasons. It’s an early directorial effort from Carol Reed, borrowed from ATP for a Gainsborough production. It’s also an early outing for Margaret Lockwood, already looking ‘smashing’ and an experienced ‘leading lady’, but not yet the huge star she became in the 1940s – it was the third of her seven films made with Carol Reed. In her autobiography she argues that the success of this film made her a real film star in the UK. The photography is by Arthur Crabtree who would go on to become a major director at Gainsborough Studios. The strong supporting cast includes several notable players including Kathleen Harrison in her ‘Cockney’ persona. The film is a comedy-drama mixed with a romance. (In the US the film was retitled Three on a Weekend with one sequence excised to comply with the Hollywood Production Code.)

Margaret Lockwood in serious romantic drama mode as Nurse Lawrence.

The first half of the film perhaps provided the model for the later propaganda picture Millions Like Us (1943) with its depiction of a seaside holiday in Brighton (disguised here as ‘Bexborough’). Reed and Crabtree offer us an almost documentary record of the British working-class August Bank Holiday (which was thensensibly at the start of August, rather than the end as currently). I particularly enjoyed the sequence at the London railway terminus (presumably meant to be Victoria). There are two, for me, unusual features of the film. The first is the casting (with top billing) of John Lodge, possibly for the US market. I confess that I wasn’t aware of Lodge as an actor and an American ‘blue-blood’. Lodge was a tall man with a severe demeanour and a face seemingly etched from marble. I’m not surprised that his biggest role was opposite Marlene Dietrich in Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, early in his short acting career. Later he appeared in several British films plus a French production but he gained a naval commission in 1942 and never returned to acting. He was part of the two great New England families, the Lodges and the Cabots, and after the war he became first a US Senator and then Governor of Connecticut. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 he moved into diplomacy as an American Ambassador. With his background, Bank Holiday sounds an unlikely production on which to utilise his talents. In fact Lodge as ‘Stephen Howard’ provides the serious drama which to some extent bookends the comedy and romance. As the film opens, he is waiting for the birth of his first child and his wife is being tended by hospital nurse Catharine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood). The birth is difficult and the mother dies. Catharine is very moved by Stephen’s distress but like so many other workers in London, she is expecting on this Saturday lunchtime to travel to the seaside with her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams). Can she enjoy the Bank Holiday with Stephen’s despair hanging over her? On her train journey we meet the other characters who provide the two main comic adventures.

René Ray and Merle Tottenham as Doreen and Milly exploring the cocktail bar at the Grand Hotel

Kathleen Harrison plays the mother of three young children, travelling with her not very supportive husband. This Lancashire actor (born in Blackburn) solidified her persona as a cheerful Cockney character in the post-war ‘Huggets family’ films at Gainsborough, starting with Holiday Camp in 1947 (which is also ‘topical’ in detailing the post-war surge in holiday camps). The other main comic narrative in Bank Holiday features René Ray as Doreen, the winner of the ‘Miss Fulham’ beauty contest hoping to win a prize in a contest at the Grand Hotel in Bexborough. With her is her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham) and this narrative also plays on the social class differences as all the film’s characters end up at the Grand Hotel for various reasons. (There is an interesting glimpse into the world of ‘girls’ papers’ discussed by Doreen and Milly at the newsstand in this piece from the Jill Craigie Project.) The original story idea and final script for Bank Holiday were written by Rodney Ackland (with Hans Wilhelm and Roger Bruford). This was Ackland’s first major success and he went on to have a hand in many more stories and scripts.

Hugh Williams as Geoffrey and Margaret Lockwood as Catharine at the open air pool

I’m interested in Bank Holiday partly because it seems like Gainsborough’s answer to ATP’s success with Sing As We Go (1934) starring Gracie Fields on her trip to Blackpool. Fields was the biggest British female star of the 1930s and Blackpool was Brighton’s main rival as the premier seaside resort. I’m biased in favour of Blackpool, but I’m intrigued by some of the Brighton footage, especially the outdoor swimming pool which I’m assuming was the Black Rock Pool. The 1930s was the age of the Lido in the UK, with 180 built between 1930 and 1939 (see the history of Grange-over-Sands lido). Margaret Lockwood in 1938 couldn’t match Fields, but she was at the top by 1945. They were, however, very different kinds of film star. Lockwood could sing but I don’t think she did in films?

Catharine can’t forget Stephen (John Lodge) after meeting him at the hospital

The film’s script cleverly brings the three narratives together through the Grand Hotel (and the idea of the ‘dirty weekend’ as Geoffrey finally gets a room with a double bed for his girlfriend Catharine). I find the tonal shift between the drama of Catharine’s concern for Stephen and the comedy of the Brighton adventures to be startling and Stephen’s behaviour at the hospital is shocking by modern day standards but it doesn’t seem to have bothered the 1938 audiences. In some ways the film feels like a war-time picture with its tragedy and comedy mix and the fears of war are presented through newspaper hoardings. Reed and his crew are I think quite brave in the way that they represent dreams and interior thoughts, such as Catharine’s about Stephen as she handles the cigarette lighter that he left behind at the hospital. Linden Travers has the small but significant role as Stephen’s dead wife Ann. The first occasion, when Catharine thinks about Stephen is presented, I think, as a parallel narrative, with Stephen staring into the Thames while Catharine gazes into the sea. The second longer sequence, when Catharine plays with the lighter, offers something I haven’t seen before. Catharine’s thoughts about Stephen conjure up a flashback to Stephen and Ann together watching a royal event which could be the Coronation of George VI in 1937. Has anyone else seen this kind of narrative device? Does it have a special name?

But above all this is Margaret Lockwood’s film. She went to Hollywood soon after her next film, The Lady Vanishes for Alfred Hitchcock, but she didn’t enjoy her time at 20th Century Fox (Fox had a ‘star-exchange’ scheme with Gainsborough and Ms Lockwood found herself playing opposite Shirley Temple rather than Tyrone Power as she hoped. After a second Hollywood production loaned out to Paramount she came back to the UK with her husband just a few weeks before war broke out in 1939.

Here’s the Talking Pictures TV trailer for Bank Holiday: