This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):
I’m against the idea of ‘Best Of’ lists, no matter how they are compiled. I just want to remind myself of the films I saw in 2016 and which ones I enjoyed most and hope to remember or return to in the future. This year I saw over 100 films in a variety of cinemas and probably as many on DVD or recorded from TV. This year, for the first time, I also watched a few films online, mostly for work purposes. Wherever possible, I prefer to see a film on a cinema screen. In my selection below, I’ve chosen just from films on release in the UK in 2016 and I’ve excluded festival screenings and archive films unless they made it into (re-) distribution this year.
So, in no particular order, here are eleven titles that represent one person’s UK perspective on global cinema in 2016:
Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015) This was the surprise arthouse hit of 2016, perhaps helped in the UK by the success of the crime serial Trapped on BBC4. Though quite different as a narrative, the TV serial (watched by perhaps a million viewers) may have piqued interest in Icelandic stories.
Court (India 2014) An astonishing début feature that offers a satire about the Bombay court system explored through the lives of a judge and two barristers engaged in the kind of case that clutters up the courts for no good reason.
Güeros (Mexico 2014) Actually released in the UK in November 2015 but still making its way round community cinemas in early 2016, this beautifully shot (black & white, Academy ratio) film is both nostalgic for 20th century ‘New Wave’ cinema and at the same time ‘modern’ in its feel for aspects of Mexican film culture.
Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015) Although too ‘sweet’ for some critical tastes, this film by Naomi Kawase seemed to me to tell its simple story very well and it delighted those audiences perceptive enough to pick it out.
Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015) This film probably gave me more pleasure than any other I saw in 2016. Kore-eda Hirokazu consistently scores for me and I always try to see his films. Two of the excellent performances in Sweet Bean above came from actors associated with Kore-eda.
The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switzerland 2015) This was the film which impressed me most at the Glasgow Film Festival early in 2016 and again on its UK release a few weeks later. The detailed presentation of social and political history is important, but especially so when presented with such creativity.
Hell or High Water (US 2016) I enjoyed this film immensely and I include it here simply because it represents a return to a form of genre filmmaking for adult audiences that has been missing for far too long in American cinema.
Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015) This film, about a community of nuns attacked and assaulted by soldiers and then supported in recovery by a French doctor, had a powerful emotional effect on me. In a strange way it seemed to link to the smaller community of women in Our Little Sister, whose problems were less traumatic and life-threatening. In both cases I wanted to know more about the communities. Anne Fontaine is a remarkable director.
A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016), L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016) and Arrival (US 2016) are films released in the UK in last three months. I found all three to be riveting viewing and I intend to write about them at some stage. They each raised different ideas in their storytelling and their use of ideas.
The eleven titles here include four directed by women and since I didn’t make my selection on gender criteria that is a hopeful sign that more films by women are getting into distribution. There are two films by Japanese directors, two by Brits and two by French directors (both women). I don’t see many American films these days and the two American films listed here were directed by a Canadian and a Scot. I’m disappointed there are no Chinese films and only one Indian film. Partly this reflects the quality/appeal of the commercial releases available from these territories and partly the lack of theatrical releases for independent films from South Asia and East Asia in the UK. I did consider putting Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016) on the list and I did enjoy aspects of the latest Rajnikanth film, Kabali (India 2016) but mainstream Hindi films didn’t really attract me.
Films on release that could have been included on the list include Dheepan, The Measure of a Man and Julieta. I surprised myself by not including I, Daniel Blake. It is an important film and it has ignited a debate and attracted audiences beyond Ken Loach’s usual supporters. In many ways it is a fine example of film craft and it has moved audiences profoundly. But I was still disappointed that it didn’t argue for a coherent organised resistance to what is happening in the UK. I hope the social media campaign promoting it will generate something substantial. (However, like all Loach’s films, it has been seen by more people in France than in the UK.)
In 2016 I still managed to find the major foreign language films on release, but the number of cinemas showing them continues to shrink. Films released by Curzon Artificial Eye rarely turn up at Picturehouse in Bradford and I’m now even more reliant on trips to HOME in Manchester. Over the Christmas period, foreign language cinema seems to have disappeared completely – on cinema screens and TV. I fear the situation will only get worse in 2017. One slight cause for hope is that the Odeon circuit seems to have expanded its releases of mainstream Chinese and Polish films as well as generally offering more diversity than the other multiplex chains.
France has the largest cinema market in Europe with annual audiences consistently above 200 million. Given that France and the UK have roughly the same population, the extra 30 million plus admissions in the former are worth exploring in terms of differences in exhibition structure and practice. On a simple level, France has more screens per head of population suggesting that French audiences have more choice and a shorter distance to travel, wherever they live, than their UK equivalents. It isn’t so much the number of screens, however, but the number of cinema sites.
My impression from these figures (and trips to different parts of France) is that more small cinemas have been retained in small towns in France. In larger towns/cities, existing buildings have been more carefully preserved and turned into small multi-screen venues. Multiplexes seem to have been built in France on out-of-town sites or in new shopping developments, but certainly not on the scale that this has happened in the UK.
The French system puts much greater emphasis on the ‘cinémas art et essai‘, the official designation of the French version of specialised cinema, with emphasis on the concept of art cinema. Each year there is a published list of ‘approved’ films and cinemas that screen these films are able to apply for the ‘art et essai‘ designation which enables them to receive public support. In 2015, 1159 cinemas received the designation (see http://www.art-et-essai.org/7/le-classement-des-salles). The total support came to €14.5 million euros. With 20% of cinema screens subsidised in this way, it’s no surprise that French audiences have easier access to cinema. I do note that the art et essai cinemas are not evenly spread. The figures suggest that the ‘Lille Region’ had only 48 such screens in 2015 while other regions such as Lyon and Bordeaux had over 200. Lille, France’s fourth city/urban region has only three cinemas in the city centre, all of which show a diverse range of films.
Subtitling and dubbing
The real distinction between types of cinemas in France comes with the approach to dubbing. Given that American films had 52% of the market with French films at 35.5%, over 60% of films originated in a language other than French (CNC 2016) – the exact figure depends on how many ‘non-French’ films actually came from francophone countries and how the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) defines a French film. France is one of the four largest European language groups that supports a professional dubbing industry. As in Italy, Germany and Spain (i.e. the FIGS group), all foreign language films can be dubbed into French. Cinema listings show these dubbed films as ‘VF’ (version française). Native French films are also described as VF. ‘VO’ is ‘version originale’ and usually means that the film is subtitled in French, so ‘VOST’ (version originale sous-titrée) or ‘VOSTF’. As the illustration here demonstrates, an out of town multiplex may dub everything not in French, but cinemas in the centre hoping to attract a cinephile audience will play non-French films as ‘VOST’. Children’s films that are not in French, especially animations, will however be dubbed everywhere (as they are in nearly every cinema market).
Two of the Lille cinemas shown in the listings mag above (i.e. Majestic and Le Métropole) focus primarily on specialised titles but the UGC (see photo above) covers both specialised and mainstream, showing US blockbusters in both dubbed and VOSTF versions. The other two cinemas listed on this page are specialised cinemas for young audiences (L’univers) and for independent film/shorts/documentary (L’Hybride). I find the cinema offer in the centre of Lille to be more diverse than in UK cities of a similar size. I was struck by how comfortable and welcoming the foyer of the UGC seemed to be compared to the soul-destroying emptiness of my local Cineworld in Bradford.
Ciné Sémaphore, Nîmes
Ciné Sémaphore is the art et essai cinema in the centre of the old city of Nîmes in Southern France which is currently seeking UNESCO World Heritage status. Nîmes has a population of around 146,000 yet it supports this six screen artplex plus a four-screen traditional cinema, Kinepolis ‘Forum’, also in the city centre, and a modern suburban Kinepolis multiplex with 12 screens. The Sémaphore is a cinephile’s dream. The six ‘salons’ come in different sizes and seat 654 in total. I visited one of the smallest (40 seats) and a slightly larger 90 seat screen. There is a pleasant café bar with a good selection of food and the ticket prices are a reasonable €7 (with a full array of the usual discounts). It produces an excellent monthly brochure which includes events for children, students and community groups. Later I discovered that the cinema is one of five owned by the arthouse distributor Haut et Court, having been bought last year – though it still has the feel of a locally-controlled cinema. I also learned that the Sémaphore (which has been open for 38 years) holds an annual ‘British Screen Festival’ in March each year, organised by volunteers – see this English language website.
My experience watching two films in the Sémaphore mirrored my experience in similar cinemas in other parts of France. In the UK we are used to programmes, even in art cinemas, with up to 20 minutes or more of advertisements, trailers and cinema announcements. Increasingly these ‘preambles’ are shown with the houselights partly up (a horrible state of affairs that damages viewing conditions in otherwise good cinemas). As a result, many of us attempt to enter the auditorium at the last minute to avoid the ads. When we arrived a minute or two after the stated start time in the Sémaphore screen, we stumbled into pitch darkness. With difficulty we found the empty few rows at the front. The feature started almost immediately after just one trailer and proceeded in almost complete dark. What a relief after the compulsory bright ‘exit’ lights and seat guidance lights in UK cinemas. I’m not sure how French Health & Safety regulations work but French cinema operators would struggle in the UK. I think the French approach is to make the audience responsible – i.e. to take their seats before the lights go down.
This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:
Selma USA 2014.
A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.
Mummy Canada 2014
The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.
Phoenix, Germany 2014
A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.
Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014
A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.
A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.
The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.
Timbuktu Mauritania 2014
The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.
45 Years UK 2015
Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.
Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015
Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.
The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015
Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.
Carol USA 2015
What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.
Song of the Sea Eire 2014
Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.
White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.
The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.
National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014
Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.
Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013
The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.
Best wedding on film:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014
The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.
Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:
Les Misérables France 1928
This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.
Best film accompaniment:
This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Best early sound film:
Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.
The film most worth waiting for:
The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.
Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.
The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015
Steve Jobs USA 2015.
Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.