Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.
Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.
There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.
I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.
The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.
I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.
A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.
The second Chinese film I saw in Glasgow offered both similarities of theme and great contrast in aesthetics. Dearest directed by the Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan is more commercial and possibly more exploitative for some than Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia – but it is also a much more popular film at the box office taking $54 million in Summer 2014. Peter Chan has a strong track record in various genres and I was very impressed by his 1990s melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story (HK 1996). Recently he made the timely mainland film about the new private schools in China, American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013).
This new mainland film is set in Southern China with Mandarin as the main language, but also some local dialects (the different status of the two languages is an element in the dialogue). The story is adapted from a news story in 2011 in the city of Shenzhen close to the border with Hong Kong. The social issue here is the criminal activity of child abduction – and the subsequent legal wrangling over the future of abducted children, which I take to be a partial outcome of the ‘one child’ policy which existed for several years in China. Tian Wenjun is divorced from Xiaojuan who has remarried. On the day that she brings their son Peng-Peng back to Wenjun’s computer parlour, the 3 year-old wanders off and disappears. Both parents feel guilty and they join a group of parents whose children have been abducted. Wenjun tirelessly searches for his son. One day all his advertising and offers of rewards finally pays off. Without wanting to spoil the narrative, I’d just like to report that the narrative then takes a sharp turn to focus on the seemingly unwitting ‘mother’ of the abducted boy. She is played by one of the leading stars of Chinese Cinema Zhao Wei (‘Vicky Zhao’) and the emotional levels are raised when she begins to seek legal help to keep her other child, also an abductee, who she will maintain was abandoned. This character is in some ways the traditional ‘suffering woman’ of the East Asian melodrama.
Dearest is a powerful emotional film and there are moments when it seems similar to the family melodrama scenes in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013) – especially in the family court scenes. However, while Kore-eda’s film negotiates the melodrama with some delicacy, Chan ramps up the emotion. Regular readers will know that we are not against full-blown melodrama and I found Dearest to be engaging throughout, offering just the kind of narrative I like. However, this kind of East Asian popular drama is a hard sell in the West and it is noticeable that whereas Red Amnesia has a UK distributor, Dearest has so far not been picked up for the UK. I think it’s our loss if we don’t get to see both films and are able to compare them. Having said that I worry about how Dearest would be received.
The first part of a double bill of new Chinese films at the Glasgow Festival (see comments on Dearest to follow) is Wang Xiaoshuai’s third part of a loose trilogy about the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ‘rightist’ families from the East of China sent to factories in the Western part of the country. The first two parts dealt with life in the Western cities in Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers. The third film focuses on the Deng family in Beijing and it is some time into the film that we realise the connection to the other two films.
Wang is a ‘Sixth Generation’ director who, unlike his peers such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, has tended to produce films that seem to be more like the social realist art films of the West. Red Amnesia begins as if it is going to be a form of ‘social issue’ film in which the central character is Mrs Deng as a woman in her late 60s who is seen as something of a nuisance by her grown-up sons. She lives in her old apartment in Beijing after the death of her husband and visits both her married son and her gay son, as well as her own mother in a care home. Is the issue the care of the elderly (or merely ‘old’) in a society which for generations has venerated them? Certainly her daughter-in-law, a thoroughly modern, ‘globalised’ woman, doesn’t want her ‘interference’. Soon, however, the film changes genres and we seem to be in thriller mode with mysterious phone calls and other disturbances. At one point I thought that the intention was to enter J-horror territory as Mrs Deng, who regularly converses with her dead husband, seems to be being followed by a teenage boy who doesn’t seem quite real when she invites him to dinner. (I’m thinking here of Nakata Hideo’s films like Dark Water.)
Eventually, we will learn that the boy is a link to Guizhou in South-West China where Wang’s family were placed and he was born. Did the Dengs do something which has prompted retaliation now they are back in Beijing? The Guizhou references reminded me a little bit of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City with its tales of workers being sent to a factory in the South-West for strategic reasons. Only in the later sequences do we realise that the credit sequence at the beginning of the film had actually shown us the abandoned factory in Guizhou.
As Mrs Deng, the theatre actor Lu Zhong is wonderful and the other performances are strong. This well-made film should attract audiences but in the West, as the years go by, I wonder how many of the younger audience will appreciate the points about the Cultural Revolution?