Tokyo! is a triptych, a three part ‘compendium film’ made as a Japanese-French co-production partnership and featuring two of the quirkiest French directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. The reason for writing about it now is that I am researching the third director, the then rising star of South Korean cinema, Bong Joon-ho. All three directors were asked to make a film lasting roughly 36 minutes set in Tokyo. This follows similar projects set in Paris and New York. I don’t know how the commission was worded but the three films take quite different approaches. Two of them do focus on ‘living in Tokyo’.
Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ is up first. He adapted a graphic novel story, ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell, and presents it as a young couple driving into Tokyo and then sleeping on the floor of a university friend’s apartment. Space is at a premium in Tokyo so all the apartments are cramped and expensive and there is nowhere to park the car. The guy in the couple is an aspiring filmmaker with some novel ideas but the woman has not yet decided what she wants to do and the experience of coping with Tokyo (and how it changes their relationship) affects her much more than him. Gondry finds a fascinating and delightful way of visualising how she feels and I greatly enjoyed his film.
The middle film by Leos Carax is titled ‘Merde’ and features a demented character emerging from the sewers and racing down the streets in Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, knocking down shoppers and stealing odd items to chew on. Dressed in a vivid but filthy green suit the man is played by Carax’s ‘go to’ actor Denis Lavant with relish. He has a milky eye, a red beard, sooty hands and feet and gurns enthusiastically. His rampage is repeated a little later but this time he stages a terrorist act and is arrested. In what follows, Carax offers a satire on a range of social and political issues that are universal but here they are made specific to Japan. The final section utilises the judicial system in Japan as a narrative device to pick out specific Japanese issues about wartime atrocities and immigration policies and also offers a prescient commentary on how populist media campaigns are fuelled (and contested) by the ways in which incidents are reported. A caption at the end promises us a ‘Merde in New York’ follow-up.
Bong Joon-ho’s film completes the triptych with a more composed and beautifully designed film, ‘Shaking Tokyo’. The central character is a hikikomori – a recluse who lives alone in an apartment from which he never emerges, only opening the door to the delivery drivers/riders who bring his food and drink and other necessities. Even then he doesn’t look up to make eye contact. He hasn’t left the apartment for more than 10 years. He is still relatively young and receives money from his father each week. One day he opens the door for his Saturday pizza delivery. As usual, his gaze is lowered to focus on the pizza box onto which he will place the cash for the deliverer, but today his eye catches the leg of the person holding the box. There is an almost fetishistic suspender joining the person’s shorts and leggings. Our recluse hero looks up and sees this is an attractive young woman who delivers pizzas using a motor scooter. For a moment their eyes make contact and then a rumble announces an earthquake. The apartment full of supplies and carefully stored pizza boxes etc. starts to shake and the young woman faints. The recluse is forced to act. I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the narrative, but after this classic ‘inciting incident’ the hikikomori can’t just carry on as he did before. He feels compelled to leave the apartment.
Bong’s film is beautifully shot by Fukumoto Jun. Kagawa Teruyuki, playing the role of the recluse, makes almost imperceptible movements in close-up to convey his thought processes (which are sometimes confirmed by his voice-over thoughts). Within the confines of the apartment and an exquisite mise en scène comprising neatly stacked boxes, bottles and toilet roles, Bong is still able to construct an engaging narrative. How do we relate this to Bong’s concerns in his features? Unusual for a Bong film there is no form of family or social group to enable a commentary on society – perhaps because this is Japan rather than South Korea? Instead the film demonstrates Bong’s mastery of design and choreography of action. And the hikikomori is a familiar marginal character who is forced out of his home to search for the young woman. Once out of the apartment and out on the street, perhaps Bong does critique Japanese society, albeit obliquely and in a way that might only be possible for a Korean. Whatever you make of the last few minutes of Bong’s film, he has done what all the best short films should do in my view – produce a narrative with ideas and try to make it as ‘filmic’ as possible. I don’t how his crew were able to create the final scenes but it works very well. I would recommend the the triptych for Bong’s film alone with Gondry’s as a bonus. I know Leos Carax has his fans and they may enjoy his contribution.
Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.
Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.
It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.
I’m not sure why this 1997 film features in the 2020 My French Film Festival. It’s directed and part written by Jean-François Richet, a singular figure with an unusual career trajectory. The strange title makes use of the extended verlan (slang) spoken in les banlieues – the high-rise blocks built on the outskirts of Paris which by the late 1990s mainly housed the families of Maghrebis, Caribbeans and West Africans alongside white working-class families. ‘6T’ refers to the cités, the individual groups of high rises separated by open spaces. The overall title then refers to ‘my neighbourhood is cracking up’. The use of ‘crack’ may refer to the drug cultute as well as the sense of conflict. The film must in France have been compared with La haine (1995) which had caused such a stir a couple of years earlier. I’ll try to make some comments on the comparison later on.
Richet made an earlier film Inner City (1995) with a similar setting. It received praise as a first feature and seems to have been part self-financed. Ma 6T va crack-er by contrast had some major backing by French producers and funders such as Canal+ and was theatrically distributed by BAC. Richet later directed American films starting with a re-make of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) before the major France-Canada production of the two Mesrine films in 2008, featuring Vincent Cassel and an all-star cast. I can’t find much about Richet online but his is an intriguing story in outline.
Ma 6T va crack-er was co-written with Richet’s younger cousin, Arco Descat C. who had also appeared in Inner City. The film focuses on the youth of a particular cité, both those still at school and the unemployed older youths in their early 20s. It begins with an incident in the local high school followed by various clashes with the police and and other groups of youths. For various reasons, these scenes are both similar to and very different from those in La haine. Firstly where Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine focuses on three young men in their early 20s, Richet offers a much larger group of characters (and it becomes quite difficult to disentangle the relationships between them). Kassovitz decided to present his film in black and white (though it was shot in colour) and to use a highly stylised approach to cinematography and mise en scène. Richet’s film uses a more direct approach often with a hand-held camera and scenes seem much looser, leading some commentators to refer to an almost documentary style. There are also major differences in ideas about representations. Kassovitz creates a male narrative in which female characters are marginal at best. Richet doesn’t necessarily have more female characters but they ‘speak’ more assertively. The film opens with a credit sequence featuring Virginie Ledoyen (then something of a young star in French film and TV) dancing and posing with pistols against a backdrop of TV images of protest in les cités. She again appears later, non-diegetically ‘imposed’ over scenes of gang violence and protest. Later in the film one of the older youths approaches a young woman who he remembers from school. He asks her for a date and she gives him a lecture about the fact that she is tired after a hard day’s work whereas he does nothing all day. The message is clear. On the other hand, Richet’s male youths are more misogynistic in the ways in which they describe young women than the three young men in La haine.
The main ‘message’ of Richet’s film that has been picked out by the limited number of commentators online is its seeming sense of a political consciousness. During their long discussions, some gang members stress the need to work collectively and to align themselves with workers who have the strike as a weapon and therefore to have an impact on the ruling class. More of this kind of rhetoric is used in the raps delivered by musicians at an organised hip-hop event in the later stages of the film before a full-scale riot breaks out. There are suggestions (backed up by the end credits) that the film is presenting some kind of Marxist analysis of the state of unrest in les cités. This is slightly problematic for me because I’m relying on the subtitles which, as in the cinema version of La haine are mainly translated using American terms. For instance, ‘Cité’ in the dialogue is subtitled as ‘city’ rather than estate, neighbourhood etc.
Music, hip-hop/rap, is an important element of the film and Richet has said it informed the structure and the presentation of the film. ‘White & Spirit’ are credited with the film’s score which includes tracks from other performers some of whom I thought I recognised from La haine. Overall, I’m not sure what I make of this film. I’d like to know more about the production. It seems like Richet was able to mobilise a large number of local residents to play the youths. He also appears in the film himself. Valérie Le Gurun, the film’s DoP also worked on Inner City but in her later career she appears to have worked in TV or part of a camera team. Was she from the same background as Richet? Some of the roles, especially the school teachers, are played by experienced actors, but sometimes the film feels like a community-based production with full industry support. The budget was around £700,000. There is a sense of realism about many of the scenes, oddly heightened by the effect of a grainier image – shot on film, the footage is available online in SD (standard definition) rather than HD. But other aspects of the film seem more fantastical. At one point one of the youths fires a pistol at members of an opposing gang, but they are not ‘live’ bullets. Later on there is a pitched gun battle between two gangs but only one person is hit by what appear to be live bullets and he is carefully shot in the leg. Were the other shots simply a form of bravado? I’m no expert but cars are quickly destroyed and set on fire with their windows smashed by a few kicks.
The police in the film are equally as violent as the youths but because the film is almost plotless apart from the feud between the gangs there is no conventional narrative, no cause and effect for any actions. It may well be that the loosely shot scenes are closer to the reality of conflicts between police and youths in the cités than in more conventional narratives. Apart from La haine and episodes of the TV crime serial Engrenages, we don’t see many of the banlieue films, especially those by directors who are themselves from the banlieues, so it is difficult to judge. I did find the film interesting but I’d like to read more about the film if anyone has references for English language coverage. These kinds of conflict between youths and police flared up again in France in 2005 and the potential for such confrontation appears to still be present.
Here is a trailer. The film is available to rent or buy on YouTube.
This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.
The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)
As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.
I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.
There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.
The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.
I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.