Category: Comedies

Blinded by the Light (UK-US 2019)

An iconic British image composed in relation to the Motorway sign. Eliza (Nell Williams), Javed and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.

The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).

Javed in full Bruce mode and inspired to write

Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).

The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?

Javed’s family with Dad (Kulvinder Ghir), Mum (Meera Ganatra) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta)

The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.

Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.

Examples of the creative visual use of Springsteen’s lyrics

I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.

All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.

The Lift Boy (India, English 2019)

Raju (Moin Khan) ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) and her mother (Shilpa Iyer)

This second film in the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ was screened at HOME in Manchester. It’s a first feature written and directed by Jonathan Augustin who I take to be from the Roman Catholic community long resident in Bombay/Mumbai. Augustin trained at Bournemouth University and after returning to Mumbai he began work in advertising and TV. The background to the production of The Lift Boy is described in the radio interview below. The film dialogue is 60% English, 35% in Hindi and the remainder in Marathi. The film has relatively few ‘sets’ – a traditional Victorian school, a bar/restaurant, a multiplex, a residential tower block in an affluent area and the poorer dwelling where the central character lives. Apart from these there are a few street scenes. Overall the film reminded me of a British TV series from a while back (Mumbai Calling, 2007-8). The cinematography is bright and ‘clean’ but lacking any kind of realist ‘feel’.

The cast includes several first-time performers and some local Marathi actors. That is remarkable as I would say that the narrative is held together by the performances of four or five main characters. The story, sparked by the director’s encounter with a lift boy, features a 24 year-old young man Raju (Moin Khan) who has just failed his engineering drawing exam for the fourth time. He’s already in the multiplex cheering himself up when he learns that his father Krishna has collapsed at work and is in hospital. With his father required to rest for several weeks, Raju is pushed into deputising for him as the lift boy in a residential block in an up-market neighbourhood. Raju has always looked down on menial jobs like operating a lift, thinking it beneath anyone who has attended English medium school. He expects to become an engineer but he really wants to be a writer. But knuckle down he must as the owner of the building Madame D’ Souza, who lives on the top floor of the block, appears to be a stern taskmaster. The only compensation appears to be the presence of ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) the 18 year-old model and actor whose mother is pushing her into a Bollywood career that she’s not sure she wants. The film includes several familiar themes about contemporary young Indians.

Raju at first feels uncomfortable meeting Madame D’Souza and giggles a lot

Raju is a very likeable character who oddly has only one close friend (who has successfully made it through the exams) and no girlfriend. He turns to reading The Great Gatsby sitting on his stool in the lift. He’s at first wary when Madame D’Souza starts to take an interest in him but eventually he realises that he has plenty to learn when he is invited into her apartment. (His mother warns him about getting too familiar with his boss, but don’t jump to conclusions!) The director reveals that his crew found Nyla Masood who plays Maureen D’Souza by following his advice and looking in the shopping malls for what he describes as ‘posh Catholic aunties’. She gives a very convincing performance. The cast developed their performances through extensive rehearsals after working on their own dialogue.

The London Indian Film Festival brochure describes The Lift Boy as “a heart-warming entertainer” and that’s not a bad description. I enjoyed the film and particularly the performances. I did worry that it might tip over into mawkishness. This was mainly because of the music. I don’t really want to criticise but I thought the music was just too much at times and undermined the playing. From the interview I learned it was composed in the US. I think the film is a little too long for the narrative and I’m not sure about the short coda that finishes the film. The story is fairly predictable once you’ve asked yourself the question “how does the son of a lift boy get to go to a fee-paying English medium school?”. On the other hand, the plot did remind me in an odd way of one of the first (and best) English language parallel films, 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981).

The writer-director Jonathan Augustin with his two leads at one of the 21 film screenings.

The radio interview reveals the film’s unique release pattern. In a tie-up with the PVR cinema chain, the film opened on just 7 screens (3 in Mumbai and 1 in each of Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) with just one evening screening per night over three nights. The film was then pulled. This is a ‘premium release’ strategy aimed at attracting the biggest per screen audience. The film has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK via the Film Bazaar in India and Augustin will be looking for similar deals in other territories. He mainly paid for the film himself and took an active role in marketing and selling tickets. He suggests that he recovered the marketing and distribution costs and that he hopes to recover the production costs from further sales to other territories and TV networks.

Overall, this was an enjoyable watch and an interesting and informative research exercise covering the background. Jonathan Augustin is a bright young man who works hard and deserves to go far.

Hana (Hana yori mo naho Japan 2006)

 

Spanish release poster

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s fifth fiction feature finds him writing and directing what first appears to be a genre film for the major studio Shochiku. Is this going to be a chanbara, a swordfight film, often termed a ‘samurai film’ in the West? It was shot in Kyoto, the traditional home of studios specialising in jedaigeki or ‘period films’. This is, I think, the only time Kore-eda has ventured into historical drama so far. But having established that, the film seems to develop rather differently than might be expected although it does haves something in common with Killing (Japan 2018), the recent chanbara from genre master Tsukamoto Shin’ya.

The setting is a street of hovels on the edge of Edo (later Tokyo) in 1702. Soza (Okada Jun’ichi) is a young and inexperienced samurai who has been charged by his clan with avenging his father, killed in a dispute during a game of Go. But Soza is not an aggressive young man and doesn’t consider himself a skilled warrior. He lives a relatively quiet life in the slums, running an impromptu school in which he attempts to teach young people the rudiments of writing. He is also developing a relationship with Osae (Miyazawa Rie) a woman who appears to have been abandoned by her husband and who is bringing up her small son. It’s already apparent that there is a new potential family here, a recurring narrative element across Kore-eda’s films. There is also a larger ‘communal family’ with a wide range of characters. This group makes fun of Soza but also in its own way takes care of him.

Osae and her son

The people of the hovels

The ‘difference’ in Hana is that Kore-eda provides a parallel narrative in the background. This is introduced by title cards which set the exact date of events as 1702, one year after a dispute in Edo castle in which a court official was killed by a lord who was then forced to commit seppuku. The lord’s lands were taken by the Shogun and his retinue, including his samurai were dispersed. The now ‘masterless’ samurai or ronin stayed grouped together and determined to avenge their late master. These were the ’47 ronin‘ whose story would become legendary in Japan. The many fictionalised versions of the story use the title Chūshingura and it has become one of the best known stories across all forms of Japanese theatre, literature and art. A 1941 film version was directed by Mizoguchi Kenji in two parts in 1941/2. In Kore-eda’s film a small group of the ronin are hiding close to Soza’s dwelling and working on the plan. Kore-reda wrote the script himself and he makes a number of cross-references between Soza’s actions and those of the ronin. The references to the story of the 47 ronin would be well-known to Japanese audiences but outside Japan may lead to bafflement. Because of my struggles to watch a Spanish Blu-ray of the film with downloaded English subs I didn’t fully appreciate the opening titles and I had to rewatch parts of the film. All this perhaps explains why the film itself struggled to obtain a wide international release.

What kinds of audience response was Kore-eda hoping for?  The film opened in Japan on 178 screens and crept into the Top Ten in June 2006 making over $400,000 in its first weekend but then seemingly disappearing. Spain seems to be the only other market in which the cinema film was released. Predictably the American fans of Japanese action films who came across the DVD generally didn’t like it. Given that there is no swordplay in a film featuring samurai these fans felt short-changed. However, those who knew Kore-eda and his films were generally appreciative. The film offers many pleasures. Okada Jun’ichi was known in Japan mainly as a pop star in 2006. He has continued to have a film career and has been used to voice characters in anime hits such as From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011). Ironically his bio suggests he is also a martial arts instructor. Hana looks great with the authentic looking settlement of suitably grimy hovels on the outskirts of the city and close to the river and the woods. There is plenty of humour in the daily goings-on of the street (especially around the communal toilet and use of ‘night soil’) and in the local celebrations of festival days. By creating an implied contrast between Soza’s reluctance to carry out the revenge attack decreed by his clan and the plotting by the 47 ronin, Kore-eda appears to be inviting the audience to consider what the ‘samurai code’ means at a time of peace. He may also be making a comment about masculinity in Japan more broadly, given that one of his familiar concerns is to explore social issues in contemporary Japanese life.

A rare moment outside Edo – this forest setting by the water’s edge is only a short distance from Soza’s home

The film was shot by Yamazaki Yutaka who was Kore-eda’s regular DoP at the time (he shot six of Kore-eda’s films). The look of the film is also attributable to costume design by Kurosawa Kazuko, daughter of the master of jedai-geki and also to production designers Baba Masao and Isomi Toshihiro. I really enjoyed the music in the film. It seems that Kore-eda decided he wanted something ‘completely different’ so he put together a group of European musicians playing 18th century instruments and asked them to improvise. It works very well (see the clip below).

One dissenting voice that I saw in a review compares Hana to Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) a film by the genre master Yamada Yoji with some similar plot details but set in the 19th century when the samurai life is coming to a climactic point with the approaching opening up of the country during the Meiji Restoration. I think this writer has a point but it doesn’t negate what Kore-eda is doing here. Shochiku also funded Twilight Samurai which was a huge commercial success in Japan (and a relatively big budget film) and a critical success internationally, getting an Academy Award nomination.

If you can find Hana (US DVD and Spanish Blu-ray) I think it works very well and shows both Kore-eda’s adaptability and his commitment to humanist values.

Eaten By Lions (UK 2018)

Eaten by Lions poster

After Morecambe and The Bay, Eaten By Lions felt even closer to home. This creatively ‘Mancunian’ film was mostly shot in Blackpool and Bradford. It premiered in Edinburgh last year and also won an audience prize at the London Indian Film Festival. It’s finally got a limited release this year, including Bradford and Manchester screenings with cast members. It will also be screening more than once in the ‘Up North Film and TV Festival’ in Halifax later this month. Check other future screenings (not just in the North!) here.

Written by David Isaac and Jason Wingard and directed by Wingard, Eaten By Lions began life as an award-winning short film titled Going to Mecca. That title, like Eaten By Lions, has a certain kind of resonance when used to describe a trip to Blackpool. Blackpool’s Mecca Ballroom was a major venue for Northern Soul fans in the 1970s and the most famous lion reference for older Blackpool fans is the Stanley Holloway monologue ‘Albert and the Lion’ from the 1930s. Though neither of these references is directly relevant for the film, they aren’t wholly irrelevant either.

Omar (Aakeel Antonio) and Pete (Jack Carroll) on North Pier.

Omar (Antonio Aakeel) and Pete (Jack Carroll) are half-brothers in Bradford suddenly forced to think about their futures when their grandmother dies. She’d looked after the boys when their parents suffered the terrible fate referenced in the title. Omar has never known who is father is, only that he is South Asian. Now, with some clues, he sets off for Blackpool accompanied by Pete, a more ‘street-wise’ character, even though, or perhaps because, he needs a wheelchair or walking frame. What follows is a series of comic misadventures leading to the discovery of a reluctant father for Omar.

The film is very funny, gaining a great deal from ensemble performances by a large cast, several playing roles in an extended South Asian family and more individual turns by Johnny Vegas and Tom Binns as Blackpool characters. It’s also an interesting cultural artefact raising questions about representation. I recommend listening to the Britflicks interview with Jason Wingard. He explains the background to the film and how they approached some of the obvious questions.  For instance, he argues that rather than make jokes about Pete’s inability to walk any distance, they simply use the disability as part of a gag about something else. Pete is just a character who happens to need walking aids. (Bradford-born comedian Jack Carroll has cerebral palsy.)

Ray (Johnny Vegas) is the owner of a downmarket B&B who offers Pete a bed

A second representation question refers to the ambivalent support offered by Blackpool Council’s Tourism Office – on the grounds that Blackpool has received a bad press over the last few years. The production couldn’t use the piers so Blackpool footage sticks to the streets and the pier footage is from St. Annes (except, presumably for the shot above, unless it’s a digital composition). I’m pretty sure that the large home of Omar’s family is also in St. Annes (with interiors shot in Manchester). Ironically, Blackpool looks empty but stunningly beautiful with blue skies and golden sands and with the artworks on the re-developed sea front looking wonderful. DoP Matt North does a grand job. (It would be interesting to programme the film alongside Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of A Taste of Honey (1961) with that film’s sequence on a crowded Golden Mile.)

Another key question is how the South Asian family is represented by two white guys. David Isaac is a writer on Coronation Street and Jason Wingard has worked extensively in and around Manchester for more than twenty years. They decided to write a script, cast the film and then see how their ideas went down with the cast they’d chosen. The South Asian family casting includes Nitin Ganatra, best known for EastEnders and Asim Chaudhry, another London actor with a big following on TV and online. I’ve tried to research several of the other actors who play members of the extended South Asian families. They represent quite a mixed bunch in terms of experience and background but my feeling is that they work well as an ensemble and they do represent the kind of families that are gradually appearing in Northern cities. I was intrigued to discover that Hayley Tamaddon who plays Sara is a ‘sandgrown ‘un” (someone born and bred in Blackpool) and that Natalie Davies is a Bradford actor – both have appeared in Coronation Street.

Nitin Sawnhey, Antonio Akheel and Asim Chaudry

I tread carefully on issues of representation because the South Asian communities in Bradford and elsewhere in the North have suffered from poorly thought out film and TV representations in the past, but now the younger generations are beginning to assert themselves as actors in a variety of roles, just as they are doing in their social lives and employment. Anyone questioning the ‘authenticity’ of the casting in Eaten by Lions might start to raise questions but I think the film answers them. Part of the reason I’m pursuing this question is that Eaten by Lions has been compared to East is East (UK 1999) a strongly autobiographical ‘comedy-drama’ film written by Ayub Khan-Din. East as East was widely distributed and made a substantial killing at the UK box office. However, there were audiences (and scholars and critics) that didn’t like it and I personally found it offensive in a number of ways. The film is set in the 1970s in Salford and focuses on the family of a Pakistani migrant (played by Om Puri) and his British wife (Linda Bassett). The comedy and the drama depend on the resistance the children show towards their strict and very traditional father (and in particular the aggression they show towards the prospective brides their father finds for his sons). I thought much of the comedy was cruel, though probably ‘truthful’ in being based on the writer’s memories. The film’s sequel West is West (2011) was less commercially successful (perhaps because it took the leading characters to Pakistan) and perhaps less coherent as a narrative – but it seemed less offensive. I have no similar problems with Eaten By Lions. Jason Wingard seems to have created a rapport with his cast whose members have ‘bought in’ to the script. I also note that David Isaac wrote a couple of episodes of Citizen Khan with Adil Ray and I wonder what kind of influence that might have had? Perhaps also, despite the rise of Islamaphobia and far right racism in the UK, we are becoming more tolerant of families featuring bi-racial characters? I hope so.

But I wouldn’t want the above discussion to suggest that race is an ‘issue’ in the film. It really isn’t, except for the unconscious racism of the boys’ aunt played by Vicki Pepperdine. Instead the narrative is about class, money and status. Omar is something of a passive character, given that he is the ‘seeker’. Pete becomes the driving force of the narrative in more ways than one. There are other characters and performers I haven’t mentioned but they all pull their weight in what is a fun film which has shown it can make audiences happy. There is an interesting soundtrack too but my one gripe is that it has proved very difficult to find information about the songs used alongside Dan Baboulene’s score. Eaten by Lions joins a long list of Blackpool-set films and it reminds me of two of the most interesting, Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (UK/US 1995) and Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) – both films would connect with Eaten by Lions in their different ways.