I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.
The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.
To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yamada Yusuke’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.
It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.
I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.
The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.
In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.
Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.
If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.
Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.
Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.
Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.
This film was in the LFF programme but I watched it at home on MUBI. The streaming service is making three titles from LFF available for streaming. Zombi Child appeared in the festival’s ‘Dare’ section, a decision I find completely baffling. The French auteur Bertrand Bonello is a director whose name I recognise but whose films have had a relatively low profile in UK distribution. I remember the releases of a couple of his earlier films but I didn’t get to see them. I’m not sure if Zombi Child is typical of his work but it is certainly an interesting and intriguing film which I enjoyed. MUBI also has an earlier title from him which I will consider watching.
The film’s title uses a mixture of English and Haitian French. This is because Bonello wished to go back to the original meaning of ‘zombi’ and to try to avoid the American conception of ‘zombie’. The difference as I understand it is that ‘zombification’ is the process by which a person can be put into a trance-like state, losing any sense of personal will and therefore proving an effective slave worker in the plantation fields. In this instance a man in Haiti in 1962 (the character ‘Clairvius Narcisse‘ is based on a real person whose case was discussed in the 1980s) is zombified using dangerous toxins and buried alive but unconscious. Later he emerges from his grave and joins the workers in the cane fields. What happens to this figure becomes one of the two parallel narratives in the film. The other one deals with a teenage girl from Haiti who is a new arrival at a girls boarding school in Saint-Denis near Paris. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) is the daughter of a woman who died in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The school (the real school was used for 12 days of location shooting) was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte and opened in 1812 as a Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, educating the children of holders of the award. Mélissa’s mother was a recipient of la Légion d’honneur for civil duties in Haiti. Mélissa makes friends with a small group of her fellow students, all studying for the Baccalauréat. The girls have a form of secret society and Mélissa is initiated when she tells the group a ‘personal secret’ about life in Haiti. Mélissa has an aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her mother’s sister, who lives in Paris.
Eventually it becomes clear that a second girl is also important. This is Fanny (Louise Labeque). She was the one who invited Mélissa to join the group. She has, or perhaps had, a boyfriend who she sees in her dreams, a beautiful bare-chested, long haired young man called Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). His name suggests a Spanish young man or possibly a Roma. The actor’s name suggests a Maghrebi. Either way it doesn’t matter, he is an ‘exotic other’ as a partner for Fanny. Fanny is an adventurous young woman and her actions will lead to an overwrought conclusion to the narrative.
The key to the narrative enigma – who is Mélissa and what does she represent? – comes, according to critics, when the first cross-cut comes from Haiti in the 1960s to the school ‘today’ (Bonello helpfully provides dates on screen). The girls are in a beautiful spacious classroom listening to a history lecture. The lecturer is actually a well-known French historian, Patrick Boucheron, and his lecture discusses the image of France from the end of the 18th century, associated with ‘Revolution’, the subsequent history of ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century and the way that France would be accused by its colonised peoples. I confess that I didn’t read the subtitles very carefully so this scene didn’t stay with me as perhaps the director intended. What I saw was a very traditional pedagogy, lecturing a group of 15-16 year-old girls, some of whom were attentive, some bored and some like Fanny, obviously distracted. Something similar happened in a later scene in a Literature class – no engagement by the teacher with the students. But still, I did get the connection because I knew that Haiti was the first French colony and the first slave colony anywhere to rebel in the 12 year war which saw Toussaint Louverture deliver the first ‘Black Republic’ in 1804.
In the Press Notes, Bonello discusses several aspects of the production, revealing that the budget was €1.5 million which is low for a French production, especially given the several trips for preparing and shooting in Haiti. Shooting was completed in four weeks, three in the school and Paris suburbs and a week in Haiti with no extra lighting and a skeleton crew. I think the results are remarkable and this certainly doesn’t look like a low budget film. I was particularly impressed by the Haitian footage. I don’t know Haiti at all, but the imagery was evocative of other parts of the Caribbean that are more familiar. The Haiti images also provide a link to Claire Denis, whose White Material (2009) was also shot by Yves Cape. I made this connection while watching the film and confirmed it later. There is a fascinating piece on the website of the French cinematographers’ website AFC in which Cape explains how he shot the film using “a RED Monstro with a set of Summilux lenses”. He explains how he coped with the lack of artificial lighting, trying to produce the most detailed 5K or 6K image which could then be cropped and manipulated in post-production. We often have debates on this blog about projection prints of digital film. I’m not sure if what I saw on MUBI was 2K or 4K but it looked very good. The possible supernatural aspects of the film and the overall theme also linked the film to Mati Diop’s Atlantique, also in the festival with review to come.
One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the mixture of different genre forms. The two parallel narrative might be seen as informed by the specific sub-genre of the girls’ boarding school (Yves Cape comments that this was very much in mind for the scene in the washroom) and the Haitian narrative draws on the history of both colonial melodramas and supernatural/horror stories. Bonello tells us that he did indeed re-watch Jacques Tourneur’s fabulous I Walked With a Zombie, the Val Lewton production from 1943. In his AFC piece, Yves Cape suggests that Bonello also moves between “ethnological documentary, historical recreation and fiction”. I think it is an achievement to meld all these different forms in such a way as to produce a coherent single narrative. The last part of the film is a challenge, when the two separate narratives come together. I’m still not sure exactly what happens and what the resolution actually means. Bonello himself suggests that the whole Haitian narrative might simply be how Mélissa imagines how the memories and stories from her childhood might be put together. But that doesn’t explain what might be in Fanny’s head!
As well as the cinematography and imaginative use of locations, the film stands or falls on the performances of the four leads. The two young women were both found through open casting for five moths and Wislanda Louimat actually came to France from Haiti when she was 7. Katiana Milfort was found in Haiti and so was Mackenson Bijou, who plays Clairvius. All the Haitians had some kind of experience of performance, singing or dancing on stage. The music in the film is also important. I hadn’t heard of Damso, who I understand is a Belgian-Congolese rapper but what truly knocked me back was to have Liverpool’s football anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers, close the narrative. But then I thought about the song’s original role in Carousel (1954) and it made a certain sort of sense. If you have access to MUBI in the UK, do try and watch Zombi Child.
Here’s the trailer. Beware it delivers SPOILERS that I’ve been careful not to divulge. You have been warned!
Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.
The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.
Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.