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.
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.
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.
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 (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.)
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.
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.
This was the third film in the festival to feature a father/grandfather and young son/grandson. In Formentera Lady the focus is on the grandfather and in La teta y la luna, it’s on the son with the father only appearing at crucial moments. In En las estrellas, however, the father and the son appear together for most of the time. ¡Viva! 25‘s theme is serious fun and this film fits the bill with its credentials emphasised by the producer’s credit for the cult hero of Spanish cinema, Álex de la Iglesia.
Victor (Luis Callejo) has been devastated by his wife’s death, especially because he thinks he didn’t do enough to save her. He was a filmmaker, a creator of special effects and sets for science fiction and ‘monster movies’ – so talented that he was asked to work with ‘the Americans’. But now he has lost himself and any chance of employment. He is drinking heavily and inveigling his son ‘Ingmar’ (named after the director not the boxer) played by Jorge Andreu to help him make no budget films using a cheap video camera.
The only recreation for father and son is an old cinema which still operates even though it has no customers. But down in the basement are hundreds of reels of classic SF and monster films. Back in their rundown apartment every square inch is taken up by books, videocassettes, robot toys etc. It’s an existence that cannot continue indefinitely and there is a social worker sniffing around. The other major feature of the plot is a series of fantasy sequences in which Victor tells his son the stories that he would like to film. Inevitably these involve memories of the missing wife/mother Ángela (Macarena Gomez) and they are illustrated by quite beautiful painted sets and fuelled by an inventive imagination.
I enjoyed this film very much. It follows a Spanish tradition of child-centric films, once revered by Franco’s censors as ‘innocent’ but since the 1970s used to critique fascism (e.g. in The Spirit of the Beehive and later in Pan’s Labyrinth. More recently the Spanish director J. A. Bayona made A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016) with some similar elements. As well as the role of children, Spanish cinema is also known for its interest in SF/fantasy/horror genres. Up Among the Stars is a title that also recognises cinema history and in particular the monsters and robots who are the stars of classic movies. The obvious references are to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) which is arguably the basis for the father’s fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the legacy of King Kong. I was also intrigued by a 1934 colour cartoon of Don Quixote from UB Iwerks shown on a TV set. I wonder also if writer-director Zoe Berriatúa was influenced in any way by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (US 2011) and its portrayal of the Méliès studio?
I realise that I’ve focused mainly on the cinematic references to the monster/robot films and also on the child in the film. I’ve underplayed the element of the father’s grief and guilt about his wife’s death and I guess that there are other cinematic references to horror films/ghost stories and romances that I haven’t really thought about. There is also a gentle critique of the film industry and the way it funds/doesn’t fund creativity. I doubt the film will appear in UK cinemas which is a shame. I think it may be available on Netflix or Amazon. I’d recommend it as a diverting 86 minutes but its ‘Scope presentation would work much better on a big screen.
Here’s a trailer. There are no English subs but it does give you an idea of the wonderful mise en scène and the music:
This year’s ¡Viva! included a retrospective tribute to the Catalan director Bigas Luna who died just six years ago. The festival screened his ‘Iberian trilogy’ and a documentary BigasXBigas (2016) was screened alongside a video art exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Deansgate. The exhibition runs until April 13. The whole tribute was curated by Prof. Santiago Fouz Hernández of the University of Durham and Betty Bigas, multi-disciplinary artist and daughter of Bigas Luna.
The screening of La teta y la luna was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool and she and Prof. Hernández conducted a Q&A/discussion after the screening. Unfortunately I could only stay for the first half of this. The screening used an archive 35mm print from Metro Tartan and on the big screen in Cinema One at HOME we noted all the problems with an aged film print but also the real pleasure of watching a well-made ‘film’.
The two previous films in the trilogy Jamón, jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro (1993) were set in Aragon and Alicante respectively but in La teta y la luna the setting is the coast of Catalunya. Like the other two films, La teta y la luna is also concerned with ideas about masculinity and identity presented through comedy and a celebration of eroticism in cinema. The narrative is presented through the eyes and voiceover of Tete (Biel Durán), a nine-year old boy who feels threatened on two fronts – first by his father’s insistence in instilling him with the fearlessness of machismo and secondly with his possible displacement from his close relationship with his mother prompted by the imminent arrival of a younger brother. Tete’s ‘test’ set by his father is to be the boy (enxaneta) who has to climb to the top of the human tower (castell) formed by the local men in an annual local celebration. His fear of doing this becomes displaced into an obsession with his mother’s breasts. If he loses these to his baby brother, he feels he must find another pair of equally fine breasts to take their place.
Tete’s quest takes him to a local carnival show by the sea where he discovers Estrellita (Mathilda May) a beautiful Portuguese dancer who performs with her French husband Maurice (Gérard Darmon) in a variety act. She dances and he farts while astride his motorbike. His farts are very controlled and he uses them to perform stunts. (I’m reminded of that other French entertainer, Le Pétomane (1857-1945) whose family were actually from Catalunya.) Tete discovers where Estrellita and Maurice have their caravan and he spies on them. But he soon realises he has a rival, a young Andalusian flamenco singer named Miguel (Miguel Poveda). I won’t go into more detail on the plot but as we might expect, Tete is exposed to a number of breasts of different shapes and sizes and he will eventually conquer his fear of heights in climbing the human tower.
Before I engage with the introduction and Q&A, I’d like to just share a couple of my own thoughts. I remember watching Jamón, jamón, mostly for the early film appearances of Penélope Cruz (her first) and Javier Bardem. I don’t remember Huevos de oro but I may well have seen it and similarly I can’t be sure about an earlier watch for La teta y la luna. But I can be sure that I enjoyed both Jamón, jamón and La teta y la luna. All three films were photographed by José Luis Alcaine, the last two in ‘Scope. The cast members are all accomplished in these kinds of roles and freely enter the playfulness of Luna’s comic eroticism. Mathilda May trained as a ballerina – I’m not sure if Gérard Darmon ever trained as a flatulist. All the films received an 18 certificate in the UK and YouTube has attempted to certificate the clips that have been uploaded. It seems sad to me that a film with naked breasts could be seen as ‘offensive’ or harmful to younger viewers. Bigas Luna pokes fun at this I think with a surrealist sequence in which Estrellita spectacularly lactates into Tete’s mouth much as wine might be poured from on high from a large flask. There are many other similar visual jokes. Tete’s voyeurism also leads him to believe that women need to be ‘filled’ by their partners before they can produce more milk. Maurice is now impotent so Estrellita needs to be ‘filled’ by Miguel.
The great strength of the film is that everything happens at pace and the rudimentary plot is played out in 90 minutes or less. There is just about enough time to think about identity issues. The title refers to Tete’s appeal to the moon to help him find new breasts. He imagines a moon scene with the flags of Spain and the European Community as it was then. Estrellita’s Portuguese identity is not really highlighted but much is made of Miguel’s Andalusian background and Maurice’s ‘Frenchness’ and Catalunya is represented ahead of Spanish identity as such.
Listening back to the Intro, Abigail Loxham crammed a great deal into her short time allocation. She described the film as a ‘Freudian family melodrama’ and emphasised that Bigas Luna’s main point seemed to be to equate masculinity and nationalism and to see both as inflexible and needing to be treated in effect by feminisation and pluralism. She also noted that although he set this third film in Catalunya, it was not in the urban sophistication of Barcelona but in the pluralist and carnivalesque seaside camp site. She made the point that narrating the film through the child enable Luna to make his points about sexuality and inflexible masculinity without prejudicing the representation of the female characters. I’ve paraphrased what she said and I hope I’ve understood the points. She also commented on how the film, though nearly a quarter of a century old now seems timely as we consider where nationalism is taking the UK (England?) as well as other parts of Europe in respect of Brexit. I’m not sure about the feminine aspect though since we seem to be saddled with the most inflexible female leader (oddly also a ‘May’)!
In the Q&A there was a more detailed discussion of ideas about national identity and Prof. Hernández made several interesting comments about the trilogy of films which made me wish I’d been able to view the other two films this week. He discussed ‘passion’ in the film, relating it back to Loxham’s reference to a similar trilogy of plays by Lorca. It occurred to me then just how much red is used in the film (see the stills above). He also said that he was writing about Bigas Luna at the moment (and he praised Abigail Loxham’s work on Luna). After the screening I looked up the three Spanish film studies texts in my library and was surprised to find that Bigas Luna was completely ignored in one, briefly referenced in another and discussed mainly in respect to Javier Bardem’s involvement in the trilogy. I was surprised that Luna was not recognised in the way he (much like Almodóvar) took his early ideas from soft porn into mainstream films, developing the humour and making possible a deeper understanding of aspects of sexuality. I enjoyed the film and I’ll look out for opportunities to see the other parts of the trilogy.