Category: Melodrama

Exit (Taiwan 2014)

Chen Tsai as Ling

Chen Shiang-Chyi as Ling

Released in UK cinemas by Facet Film in April and now out on DVD and online from iTunes and other services, Exit is a perfect example of an East Asian art film. The writer-director Chienn Hsiang has a reputation as a gifted cinematographer and the film’s central character is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi, best known for her roles with the auteur Tsai Ming-liang. Exit is clearly a cinematographer’s film. Every shot is beautifully composed – perfect for the meaning of the narrative. At the same time this is an actor’s film. Chen is on screen in virtually every shot and she completely inhabits the character of Ling, a 45 year-old woman living in a block of flats in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city. When her daughter (who doesn’t seem close to her mother) returns to university in Taipei, Ling is alone – her husband is working in Shanghai but never answers his phone. Ling is employed as a seamstress in a small clothing workshop but this too is moving to Shanghai. She spends her spare time sitting with her non-communicative mother-in-law in hospital. The older woman is waiting for a hip replacement operation.

Ling’s loneliness is compounded by the fact that she has been told that she is entering early menopause. Without support from husband or daughter, the loss of her job is doubly damaging. Ling responds by trying to find new points of contact. A friend gives her a dance instruction video and in hospital she develops a wordless relationship with an injured man recovering in the same room as her mother-in-law.

From this brief plot outline it’s clear that this isn’t a date movie and it’s also true that it isn’t a plot-driven drama. Instead it’s a meticulous character study constructed with great care. Chienn has said that the underlying theme of employment moving to China is a major social issue in Taiwan and that he wrote the story after one day sitting on a bus and noticing what he termed a ‘middle-aged woman’. He created the character as one of those ‘left behind’ by the move to Shanghai. The notion that at 45 you are more or less finished as a social being if you don’t have family around or employment is disturbing. How much is this a function of the representations of women in East Asian films? I think many 45 year-old women in the UK would find this an offensive description with its suggestion that 45 is ‘old’. It might be interesting to compare Ling’s character and her story to that of the older but more adventurous woman in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (China 2006) by Ann Hui. But perhaps Ling is very recognisable for Taiwanese audiences? I don’t know the answer to that question but I do recognise a fine performance. Chen Shiang-Chyi is a beautiful woman who is able to move with the gait and expression of someone who is facing defeat and she conveys the emotional impact of her situation perfectly. She won two Best Actress awards in Taiwan and nominations in other festivals during 2014.

The way in which Ling is represented/presented in Exit raises questions about melodrama and realism/naturalism. Most reviews suggest that Chienn avoids melodrama and chooses realism. But I think that the cinematography and mise en scène are in a way ‘excessive’ in their presentation of the marginalised and isolated figure trapped in an environment. If I’d watched a sequence from this film without knowing anything about its production background I think I would still have placed it as Taiwanese based on my memories of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. As well as any cultural signifiers in the images it’s a matter of style and specifically the long take/long shot sequences. Here are a series of images demonstrating how Chienn and his camera operator Howard Hsu frame Ling in doorways, corridors, windows etc., emphasising her isolation and round corners and columns, from above or below suggesting her marginalisation:

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It’s the tension between the isolation produced through the visual imagery and identification with the character via Chen’s performance which makes the film work for me. Most of the scenes use only diegetic sounds so the the single prominent use of non-diegetic music associated with the promise of the dance class has more resonance. I don’t want to spoil moments in the film so I’ll just mention that there are several interesting examples of ‘real’ issues about living in her flat that also represent symbolically Ling’s sense of being trapped and isolated.

Exit is perhaps an unfortunate English language title but I recommend the film as a character study and an excellent example of camerawork and mise en scène.

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Facet Film website for further details. The DVD has interviews with both the director and leading actors.

UK trailer from Facet Film:

West (Westen/Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Alexei and Nelly

Alexei (Tristan Göbel) and Nelly (Jördis Triebel)

West is likely to be one of my films of the year. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Jördis Triebel in the central role and at times I found her mesmerising. I’d go as far as saying that the film reminded me of aspects of Fassbinder’s films and that Triebel made a similar impact on me as Hannah Schygulla when I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun. I’ve seen West described as a psychological thriller but, although I can understand why, for me it seemed more like a melodrama.

Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her small son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) are introduced first in 1975 when Alexei’s father, a Russian physicist, is about to go on a trip and gives his son a warm sweater to protect him from the cold. Three years later we meet Nelly and Alexei again, this time attempting to leave East Germany for the West with a man who Alexei calls “my new Dad”. Nelly is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search but is eventually released by the East German border control staff and she and Alexei arrive at a reception centre for refugees (Notaufnahmelager) in West Berlin. Lagerfeuer (‘campfire’) is the title of the original novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. I think this helps to explain why it felt very much like a female-centred melodrama.

Once Nelly and Alexei have gone through initial processing at the Aufnahmelager Nelly assumes that she will quickly be able to obtain a job. In the East she gained a PhD and worked in an organic chemistry research laboratory. However, her hopes are wildly optimistic. Although some refugees from the East are processed in a few weeks, others are months if not years in the camp. Nelly has left surveillance in the East only to discover that the security services in the West use similar methods. When she is asked why she has left the East she, perhaps naïvely, replies “for personal reasons”. This doesn’t satisfy the security services and the questioning continues. In the meantime life in the camp goes on and the narrative introduces other ‘refugees’ with different individual stories. As the narrative develops, the audience is required to consider whether Nelly really is naïve, whether she knows something she is not telling or whether in fact she is even imagining some of what happens (one reviewer suggests she is developing schizophrenia). The central issue is Alexei’s father Wassilij (who was not married to Nelly – the West German man who helped Nelly leave the East was not a ‘real’ husband either). Did Wassilij die in an accident in Moscow? Is Nelly hoping to find him alive in the West? Is/was he a spy sent to international scientific conferences? A double agent perhaps?

The narrative is not concerned with finding answers to any of the questions above. Instead the focus is on what happens to Nelly and Alexei and how this is represented on screen. For instance, Nelly ‘sees’ Wassilij on the streets of West Berlin or around the camp. These ‘sightings’ are reminiscent of aspects of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007), another narrative about a woman from the East, this time moving into contemporary western Germany after re-unification. Petzold made another melodrama with Nina Hoss, set in East Germany in 1980 in the form of Barbara (2012) and one of the earlier films to cover similar ground was Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) which featured a woman who had left the DDR for the West and the young man (also a scientist) she left behind in the East. All of these film are essentially female-centred melodramas set during the Cold War and featuring the impact of ‘crossing’ the wall built to keep East and West apart. However, the film which drew the biggest audiences in the West was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) – much more clearly a thriller about how the Stasi, the East German security police, spied on citizens. I must revisit that film but my first impression during its successful initial release was that it did not work for me as well as Das Versprechen and then subsequently the Petzold films. I think that it isn’t helpful, as some reviewers have done, to relate West to The Lives of Others. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience of leaving the East and undergoing interrogation in the West has on Nelly.

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the three significant characters who Nelly spends time with is an African-American intelligence agent – a character who once again invokes Fassbinder (e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun the American sergeant who Maria takes up with is played by an actor called George Bird – the character in West is ‘John Bird’). The developing relationship with Bird has a definite effect on Nelly and leaves us wondering about her behaviour. Similarly we wonder about the ‘truth’ behind the story of Hans, a single man who has been in the camp for over a year and is seemingly unable to cope with life in the West. Is Hans a Stasi ‘plant’ sent to spy on refugees like Nelly or a genuine survivor of maltreatment in the GDR? Hans and Alexei become close as the latter struggles with his new life. Meanwhile Nelly befriends a woman nearer her own age, a Polish mother of a small girl and protector of an ageing father. These are German-speaking Poles and so unsure about new life in the West that they are reluctant to reveal their cultural accomplishments. Through these various encounters we gradually begin to recognise that the mistrust between East and West is destroying the possibility of meaningful relationships between people.

The film’s ending is in one sense inconclusive – we don’t get the ‘answers’ a thriller genre narrative promises – but I found it optimistic in terms of potential future relationships. The three writers of this material all made the journey from East to West, either before or after 1989, and I take this to be an informed representation of what that journey meant to large numbers of Germans. I wonder what those same people think about the fate of the Greek population in the current Eurozone banking crisis – with ordinary people trying to live their lives governed by a system that seemingly cares little about their daily lives. I’m looking forward to seeing West again and I’d like to see more by the cast and by the Schwochows. The film’s UK distributor New Wave Films has useful material on its website, including interviews with the Schwochows.

Here’s the trailer from New Wave. Interestingly, the American trailer is slightly different emphasising the thriller, Cold War and geo-political issues.

The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie, France 2014)

Anaïs Desmoustier and Romain Duris (playing together against Claire's husband Gilles)

Anaïs Desmoustier and Romain Duris (playing together against Claire’s husband, Gilles)

I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.

The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.

Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.

Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.

Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.

A good trailer:

Further thoughts on Phoenix (Germany 2014)

A move towards expressionism?  Christian Petzold's 'Yella' (2014)

A move towards expressionism? Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’ (2014)

Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanalec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).  Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis? 

Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian –goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?