This online event took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th June. It was organised by Adrian Garvey of Birkbeck, London University and Vicky Lowe of the University of Manchester. The event comprised four main sessions plus ‘Speakers’ Roundtables’, a discussion about music and performance featuring Neil Brand and Stephen Horne and a video essay presentation from Catherine Grant. Online events like this offer anyone interested in the subject the opportunity to join part or all of the sessions as a spectator. The sessions were accessible through Zoom but the only chance of interaction was via the ‘chat’ function which allowed questions to be put to panellists. (Questions were only visible to the panellists.) Being able to access what was in this case quite a ‘starry’ selection of film scholars was very welcome. I was able to follow only parts of three of the main sessions on what was otherwise a busy weekend so my apologies to contributors to the other presentations I wasn’t able to see.
I’m sure that we have all experienced a wide variety of online events over the past 15 months and as someone who has been on both ends of Zoom technology in events I’m all too aware of what can go wrong and how difficult it is to construct a presentation and deliver it by sharing your screen. I congratulate Adrian and Vicky for getting the show together and co-ordinating contributions from various sources so effectively. This was an impressively ‘collegiate’ event and when the inevitable glitches occurred, everybody was patient as they waited for problems to be dealt with. There is nothing like physically being at a conference/symposium, but online events do have a future I think.
The conference blurb opened with this passage:
Hitchcock’s professed disdain for actors is belied by the extraordinary range and depth of performances featured in his films. It might even be argued that many stars gave their richest and most complex performances in his work. Hitchcock’s films are also imbued with the theme of performance, as when his fugitive men and errant women assume fragile new identities and move between roles. Actors and other performers also often feature as characters.
Hitchcock scholarship has been extensive and the multi-layered concepts of stardom, acting and the exploration of ‘performances’ in Hitchcock’s films suggested a potentially fascinating mix of ideas. The second session on Friday afternoon saw Charles Barr open his paper with a surprising comparison of Julia Robert’s face and the face of her dog, which one of the Monty Python team had suggested could be read in much the same way. Hitchcock was very fond of dogs and many appear in his films. But he knew that you could usually easily tell a dog’s feelings from its face but that actors could present expressionless faces that could provoke very different readings depending on how they were shown in relation to other images as demonstrated by the Pudovkin/Kuleshov Effect. Charles explored Hitchcock’s ideas and how he used the effect before discussing the two Hitchcock shorts that he made in 1944 in London on behalf of the French Résistance. I’d never seen these before or thought about Hitchcock’s use of long takes after the war, partly linked to wanting to avoid the artifice of cinema when he worked on a concentration camp documentary. This was a fascinating presentation with a great deal crammed into 30 minutes. It was followed by Adrian Garvey on Claude Rains as a character actor in a leading role in Notorious, focusing on his ‘underplaying’ and his voice qualities. Alex Glancy followed this by looking at the working relationships between Hitchcock and Cary Grant, both men holding firm convictions about their work as director and star respectively. Alex’s discussion of Grant’s approach made an interesting comparison with the presentation on Claude Rains.
The programme was organised chronologically in terms of Hitchcock’s films so I had missed the silent period and ‘English Hitchcock’ on early Friday afternoon. The third session began on Saturday with Melanie Williams explaining how ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. I was particularly interested in Stage Fright (1950) which I managed to watch again before the Symposium. Melanie’s approach as a British Cinema scholar seemed germane to me since I feel strongly that this is a ‘British’ film, partly because of the range of British character actors featured. Richard Todd is a strange British actor for me. His sudden rise to stardom with The Hasty Heart (UK-US 1949) and his slow decline after The Dambusters (UK 1955) structured a career covering the period of ‘postwar British masculinity’ that has been worked on for a while but still offers new findings I think. Todd has never appealed to me but I learned plenty from the presentation to get me interested in looking at more of his work.
Strangers on a Train (1951) followed Stage Fright and we were offered some ideas about casting and performance by Alex Clayton. I was pleased to see this being tackled as I think casting is one of the least researched aspects of film studies. The background to this second Hitchcock film for Warner Bros. is fairly well known with the difficulty of developing a script from Hitchcock’s ideas about adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel being matched by similar difficulties in getting all the actors Hitchcock wanted. He did get Robert Walker from MGM, a casting often referred to as a ‘casting against type’, an idea which Alex explored in his presentation. But Hitchcock failed to get William Holden as the Guy Haines character and instead went back to Farley Granger who he had used in Rope. Finally, Ruth Roman was forced on him by Jack Warner to play the Senator’s daughter. It’s not difficult to see why Alex chose this film for his research. He questioned ideas about ‘miscasting’ and as in some of the other presentations, briefly discussed the idea of the commutation test first suggested by John O. Thompson. It’s difficult now to imagine William Holden playing Guy. Hitchcock perhaps got some of his casting ideas ‘wrong’ first time round but he was certainly successful in casting Walker – or should we instead state simply that it would have been a different film with Holden? Alex explained that his research has been restricted by the pandemic in the last year since he has not been able to access Hollywood archives or to shadow a casting agent which would, he hopes, give him another perspective. I look forward to what might eventually emerge from the project.
The third paper in the session took us in a slightly different direction when Tamar Jeffers McDonald explored the singing performances of Doris Day as Jo Conway in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Tamar offered both a detailed look at some of the nuances of Day’s singing and her emotional renderings of songs associated with the abduction of her son. She also explored Day’s dual persona of a singer who acts and an actor who can (really) sing. This was a very interesting paper and I wish I had seen the film more recently to have better appreciated some of Tamar’s analysis. I managed two papers in the fourth session. The first by David Greven offered ‘When the Villain Winces: Ray Milland and Villainous Empathy in Dial M for Murder (1954)’. In a way this seemed slightly out of place because the film preceded the Doris Day film. But then again it could also have followed the two papers dealing with Claude Rains and Cary Grant. I think this shows how interconnected these papers were. David did offer us some thoughts about how the comparison with Grant and the different performances of villainy from Rains, or in Grant’s case in Notorious at least ‘unsympathetic’ men, could be productive. I’m afraid I lost some of this presentation because I became distracted from my screen but I can see that there is something here. It would be interesting to include Stage Fright in which the usual suave Englishman type preferred by Hitchcock is played by Michael Wilding and the ‘villain’ is Richard Todd, a rather different type altogether.
Finally, I caught Lucy Bolton’s paper ‘Polished to perfection: the role of neatness and grooming in the performances of Tippi Hedren’. I had been looking forward to this as Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock film and I’ve always thought Tippi Hedren has been misrepresented as a performer. I wasn’t disappointed and I enjoyed learning things about Hedren that I didn’t know before or perhaps had forgotten. Lucy spoke about Hedren’s long career as a model and her professionalism on photo shoots and, as the title of her paper suggests, the way in which she could not only wear the clothes so effortlessly but also know how to use clothes and accessories to create meanings. I think I know almost every line of dialogue and every image of Marnie but now I’m determined to look at Hedren’s performance in The Birds again.
I enjoyed all the parts of the symposium that I was able to watch and I would like to thank Adrian Garvey and Vicky Lowe for putting it all together and all the panellists for their contributions which should prove useful and productive for all of us in the online audience.
Independent films set in Jammu and Kashmir seem to be appearing more often on the festival circuit. This is an unusual film that draws inspiration from various sources. It presents a folkloric tale in a modern context with a narrative divided into seven chapters, each titled with a song. The songs are from a variety of sources around the Himalayan region and the film is influenced by Sufism. The focus is on a community of shepherds who range across a wide area from Northern India and Kashmir and Ladakh to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now recognised as a ‘scheduled tribe’ in India, the Bakarwali are Muslims. As is common in South Asia, they are also seen as part of a bigger group that includes Gujjars, more associated with North Indian states such as Rajasthan. The writer-director of the film is Pushpendra Singh. He was born in Agra and attended FTII in Pune, initially training as an actor but later moving into direction and this is his fourth feature which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was shown in festivals in Calcutta and Kerala before lockdown denied an expected run in PVR multiplexes. The director was able to introduce his film and to offer a Q&A at Borderlines.
He explains how the original idea came about:
I had read the folktale in 2010 and was fascinated that Vijaydan Detha [a well-known Marxist writer from Rajasthan] wrote a feminist story in the late 1960s which also dealt with desire and exploitation and how a woman in a conservative feudal society asserts herself and makes her own choices. The idea to adapt it to contemporary times was also a strong drive to choose the subject. (Quoted in a Variety piece by Naman Ramachandran, 26 November 2020)
Pushpendra Singh decided to rework the story in a contemporary political context by locating it in Kashmir and he also decided to take inspiration from the the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded.
The Barkarwali are nomadic shepherds and goatherds who practice annual transhumance, taking their flocks up into the Himalayas in the summer months and returning to bed down in the winter. Their traditions don’t recognise boundaries, but in the contested territory of Kashmir they find themselves being harried by Indian security officials who demand more stringent forms of identity. This is personalised when, during the summer move, the shepherd Tanvir finds a bride in the form of Laila. Tradition demands that he show his strength as a future husband and then ask for her hand. It is when the group return from the mountains that they realise how much has changed. Tanvir is accused of bringing a wife across the border illegally. The Barkarwali don’t recognise borders or ‘lines of control’ – or at least they pay them lip service – but the local police chief demands that they get proper ID cards. He also has designs on Laila. She will have none of it. Both the crossing borders and the potential ‘possession’ of Laila are metaphors for the control of Kashmir as well as male power directed towards women.
The narrative then moves into a kind of folklore farce. The police chief’s assistant Mushtaq assures his boss that he can ‘tame’ Laila and bring her to his chief. Or does he simply want her for himself? She is quite prepared to play a game, but only on her own terms and leads the men on, fooling her husband and frustrating Mushtaq. The Seven Songs take us through the stages of a kind of marital comedy. The folklore elements also produce moments of symbolism. A large tree bursts into flame from a gaping hole in the trunk as a sexual symbol. The end of the film makes a dramatic reference to the 14th century poet and the clear inference is that Laila will not accept the identities that men attempt to force upon her.
The film is very beautiful and I wish I knew more about the music. Navjot Randhawa gives a strong performance as Laila. Most of the other performers are local and non-professional apart from Shahnawaz Bhat who has appeared in other films. I’m not sure if the film has got UK distribution, but if it does appear it is recommended.
This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
A handsomely-produced film with beautiful imagery, You Will Die at Twenty showcases a country and a culture rarely seen on international cinema screens. That it is also a writing and directing début by Amjad Abu Alala adds to its importance. A success in many ways the film also raises a few questions. Amjad Abu Alala was born and raised in Dubai but with Sudanese nationality. He spent a few years in Sudan as a teenager but his university education and entry into the film industry was in Dubai. He returned to Sudan and began working with the small film community. The Sudan Independent Film Festival was held in Khartoum in 2014. You Will Die at Twenty is a feature drawing on significant co-production support and film funding from several countries (and film festivals) and the technical and creative qualities of the film reach very high standards. The film won an award for a first feature at Venice in 2019.
You Will Die at Twenty is adapted from a short story by the Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada, exiled in Egypt. Alala and his co-writer Yousef Ibrahim shift the location of the story from the far North of Sudan to the East-Central area close to the Blue Nile. The location shooting was in the village that was the home of Alala’s uncle (all these details are from the Press Notes). The story events are familiar from other African films but begin distinctively with Sakina (Islam Mubarak) taking her newborn son to be blessed by the local Sheikh. Just as the blessing is taking place one of the dervishes who is chanting collapses when he reaches ‘Twenty’. The Sheikh and the other villagers take this as a sign that the infant has been marked by God and will die aged twenty. The effect on the family is profound. The boy Muzamil (Moatasem Rashed as the younger boy, Mustafa Shehata as the older teenager) will grow up with the burden of the prophecy. He and his mother withdraw to a certain extent from village life and his father soon leaves the village claiming he will earn money to send home from the countries he intends to visit. Muzamil will in effect have two surrogate fathers growing up, the Sheikh who becomes his mentor at the local village mosque and later the returned traveller Suleiman who introduces the young man to cinema, cigarettes, alcohol and women – although it is only cinema that interests Muzamil. He does have two other friends, the girl Naiema who becomes a beautiful young woman (Bonna Khalid) and a young man whose narrative function I didn’t really catch, though perhaps he is the archetypal village character with some form of learning difficulty.
The obvious narrative enigmas this plot outline throws up are will the father return and how will Muzamil manage to reconcile his mosque training with the world opened up for him by Suleiman? Can he become the man who can return the love that Naiema offers to him? And crucially, how can he hold himself together as he approaches his twentieth birthday? Sakina’s life is also full of questions, though I’m not sure they are properly explored.
As this outline indicates this is, at least in terms of actions, a simple tale and its familiarity is because of the universal issues of ‘coming of age’, the struggle with a ‘father-son’ relationship (or rather its absence and the need for surrogacy) and the certainty of a defined ending – Muzamil will die or he won’t. It also presents the classic clash between tradition and modernity. Alala tells us in the Press Notes that Sufism is very strong in this part of Sudan and that the cinema element reflects his own interest in the films of the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. The clips that Suleiman shows to Muzamil on an old 16mm projector are from Chahine’s Cairo Station (Egypt 1958) and from a documentary of the same period showing Khartoum and the Sudanese people before the Islamic Revolution of 1989. The actual time period of the narrative itself is not made evident. It could be any time from the 1960s/70s onwards.
This is mostly a realist presentation but there are some symbolic/folkoric shots such as a horse entering a room where Muzamil makes a discovery. Overall the film looks very beautiful in CinemaScope with careful lighting for interiors and stunning colours for the villagers’ clothing and the natural colours of sand, mud and water. The cinematographer is Sébastien Goepfert who is French but appears to have close connections with the Tunisian film industry. The music score is by Amine Bouhafa who trained as a classical pianist in France. One of his early credits was the score for Timbuktu (Mauritania-France-Qatar 2014). Amjad Abu Alala has said that the Heads of Departments on the shoot were mostly Europeans and that he tried to include Sudanese assistants so they would develop skills for the local industry. All of this sounds good and certainly Goepfert and Bouhafa had knowledge of African productions. I did personally find the music score rather distracting on You Will Die at Twenty because of the European classical feel, but the film also contains local songs and singing. Slightly more unnerving is Alala’s statement about the cast and the production:
There is no cinema industry in Sudan, therefore almost no cinema actors. But I only needed professional actors for the Sakina and Suleiman parts. For Muzamil, I met 150 boys, and at the end of the second day, Mustafa appeared . . .
. . . I deeply wish the rebirth of a Sudanese film industry. My film is only the eighth feature fiction film ever produced in Sudan! (from the Press Notes)
These statements need discussion. It has always been the case that film production has struggled in most African countries outside of Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. In most other countries some form of international (usually European) support has been needed. This film is an example of the high standards achievable with co-productions of this kind. But productions from within the country and with support from other African industries is still possible. On this blog in the last couple of years we have written about three Sudanese productions. Akasha (Sudan-South Africa-Germany-Qatar 2018) is an interesting little comedy made by Hajooj Kuka the same director responsible for Beats of the Antonov (Sudan-South Africa 2014) and like Alala, Sudanese by nationality but trained overseas. We also blogged on Talking About Trees (Sudan-France-Chad-Germany-Qatar 2019) the documentary about the Sudan Film Group which was widely praised. The latter two titles are both documentaries not fictions and Alala may be correct about only seven other fiction features but I think he undersells the desire to make films in the country. There is a big difference between the production values of Alala’s film and these three titles, though it is interesting that Germany and Qatar pop up as funding partners in three of them. All four films are of equal interest in telling Sudanese stories and it is worth noting South Africa and Egypt as sources of co-production.
You Will Die at Twenty has been acquired for the UK by New Wave Films so it should be available on a big cinema screen at some point after cinemas re-open. It is certainly worth seeing, especially for the imagery and the performances and the re-assurance that films from Africa are slowly becoming more available. The big screen will give the film the power it deserves.
There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)
Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.
Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.
The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.
I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:
The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)
The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.
Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to re-view parts of the film.
The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.
What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.
Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)
The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.
I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.