Category: Romance

Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018)

Crazy Rich Asians was broadcast on BBC1 late night before Christmas. I think it would have been interesting for it to be on Christmas Day. I missed the film in UK cinemas by accident so I welcomed the chance to watch a release that performed well at the UK box office. What I saw was an accomplished romantic comedy set amongst the super-rich Chinese community of Singapore and Malaysia (many of the locations that purport to be in Singapore are actually in Malaysia). The film is conventional in terms of Hollywood genre titles but also has elements of ‘local’ culture that could help it to appeal to both the Chinese-American and the broader Chinese diasporic audience. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kevin Kwan, a Singapore-born American author. Having said that, I can see that the film could be seen as offensive to some audiences – especially the other ‘Asians’ who are not rich and not Chinese. Box Office Mojo figures suggest that the film’s main audience was in North America (whereas most Hollywood films now sell the majority of their tickets in the ‘international’ marketplace). It appears to have had only a restricted release in China but has performed well in Australia, the UK and Indonesia as the biggest markets outside North America.

It’s possible to outline the plot without spoiling the story. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a young woman in New York, is invited to a wedding in Singapore at which her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Goldingwill be best man for his old schoolfriend. Rachel is unaware that her boyfriend is heir to a massive fortune with interests across South East Asia. She also doesn’t realise that the news of her relationship with Nick is already spreading through social media networks and causing some concern in Nick’s family in Singapore. Rachel is an Economics professor and a single parent child from a relatively poor background. Fortunately she has Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a college friend now based in Singapore, to act as support so she will not be completely defenceless when she meets Nick’s formidable mother and grandma as well as his wealthy friends.

Meeting your prospective mother-in-law for the first time is always stressful, especially when she is as talented and formidable as Eleanour Young (Michelle Yeoh, left)

The ingredients of the romcom are laid out before us with the added element of the difference in ‘family values’ between the Singapore-Chinese and the ‘Chinese-American’ families. The film’s casting is interesting in that three of the principals are played by actors educated in the UK, two of whom have British nationality. In a sense this adds some authenticity to the casting while at the same time creating links between British colonial backgrounds and traditional Chinese families as opposed to the ‘freedom/modernity’ tag associated with the Chinese-American characters. This is most evident in the confrontations between Nick’s mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Rachel. Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh in Malaysia and developed her career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema after training in the UK, initially as a ballet dancer. She has been arguably the most versatile and successful global star of the Chinese diaspora with major roles in Hollywood films as well as ‘international’ productions. Nick’s older sister Astrid is played by Gemma Chan. The rising British-Chinese star was born in the UK to parents who had both lived in Hong Kong before settling in the UK. Henry Golding as Nick is perhaps the most controversial casting – and, I understand, it was actually a late decision. Golding has a British father but he was born in Sarawak and though he was educated in the UK, he returned to Malaysia when he was 21 and began his career in Kuala Lumpur. The issue for some audiences appears to be his Malay heritage (actually the indigenous people of Borneo) and that he is not Chinese. This in turn refers to one of the criticisms of the film overall which is that the focus on the super-rich Chinese in Singapore means the exclusion of the other two main communities in Singapore, the Malay and the Indian.

The magnificent Michelle Yeoh plays mahjong with Rachel. Who will win the game?

Singapore is an interesting setting for this film for several reasons. It is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world having developed its full potential as an entrepôt – a trading and distribution centre – and then diversifying to cover finance, oil refining and electronics as important industrial sectors. It also has a history of ‘strong’ government that has attempted to mould a disciplined and meritocratic society. This has produced high standards of education but also great economic wealth disparity. Two other distinctive features of Singapore are the division between the roughly 60% ‘resident’ population and the remainder of ‘guest workers’. But against this, Singapore is a country that recognises its different communities by making its four main languages equally important in public services. I can’t think of anywhere else where the public transit system routinely presents information in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Crazy Rich Asians is an ‘entertainment’ and the film doesn’t have to explore all the social issues that run through the lives of ordinary Singapore families. On the other hand, a romcom that is built around social class differences and national ideologies about family values does need to be a little careful, I think.

Rachel in the car with Peik Lin on the way to the Young mansion with the Indian security guards

The film’s aim is clearly to emphasise glamour and to this end the different locations used range from the tourist region of Langkawi, the island group in North-West Malaysia, through Penang and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore itself. This is of course a traditional Hollywood ploy. When big budget romcoms are made in the UK, they focus on the tourist parts of London and then other hotspts such as the Lake District, Scottish highlands, Bath, Oxford/Cambridge etc. The same is true of major Bollywood productions that set their narratives in London and attractive tourist centres. The Bollywood connection is in fact something I would like to follow up. This Asian American romcom is similar in several ways to those films which explore the Indian diasporas and the clashes over changing family values. I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK-US-India 2004) and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India-US-UK 2001) as films by diasporic directors plus countless mainstream Hindi films. But I wonder if any of these Indian narratives stumbled like Crazy Rich Asians in representing other cultures? I’m referring here to the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin travel to the Young mansion for the first time (Rachel is not staying with Nick). They find the massive house and extensive gardens in the middle of a wooded area along a private road which the satnav is unaware of (the house is actually in North Malaysia). It’s dark and at the gates of the mansion they are met by two Indian security officers. Awkwafina’s reaction (IMDb suggests that she improvised much of her dialogue) is to freak out at the sight of a dark-skinned man, even to the extent of raising her hands and saying “we come in peace”. She also makes a reference to the area as ‘jungle’. The guards themselves say nothing though their body language is a little strange. I’m not sure if they are meant to be Sikhs (Sikhs have traditionally been over-represented in the Indian armed forces) but they are turnbanned, bearded, dressed in a military type uniform and carrying what look like ancient .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, just as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure film.

Astrid (Gemma Chen) with her husband Michael (Pierre Png)

The film does attempt to represent Singapore culture via a sequence set in a food court with different types of street food and at one point Rachel plays mahjong on a street that looked familiar to me in terms of architecture but then I realised the scene was shot in Penang, Malaysia. In a sense none of this ‘inauthenticity’ matters but I find it irritating mainly because the narrative could have been ‘smaller’ and more realist. I realise that that is not the point of romcoms and so I accept the film for what it is and reserve my disappointment. I thought all the principals were very good in their roles and particularly Constance Wu as Rachel who puts across her character as an intelligent and attractive young woman without being over-glamourised – and she can stand up to Michelle Yeoh in full spate of motherly control. Accents in the film are important and I noted that the Japanese-born Sonoya Mizuno has an impeccable British accent, as did some of the Singaporean actors. The Brits are the bad guys again in a Hollywood film but Nick and Rachel make a winning pair and I had a tear in my eye at the end of the film. I must also give a shout out to Gemma Chan and the sub-plot that she leads which illustrates the different kinds of problems the Young family wealth creates for Nick’s sister.

I understand that perhaps not all of the original novel was used in the film so there may be more to come. The film made a heap of money and that might trigger further films. Crazy Rich Asians is on iPlayer for a further 10 days. It’s a fun picture to brighten up a January day.

Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale (France 1992)

Félicie (Charlotte Véry) leaves Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) at the station with a Paris address

A treat from MUBI, this entry into Eric Rohmer’s last collection of ‘tales’ was a wonderful way to end Christmas Day. Rohmer’s films often have the same ingredients, usually involving sets of relationships within which a central character tries to find the right partner. In this case it is Félicie, a young woman whom we see trying to decide between two potential partners. But we know that she really wants a third who somehow she’s lost.

Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Félicie in Nevers

The opening credit sequence introduces Félicie on holiday by the sea. A summer holiday romance is in full flow and a montage shows us Félicie with a rather beautiful young man, swimming, sunbathing, cycling and making love. The couple are naked much of the time but it is light-hearted and innocent rather than raunchy. Félicie gives him an address in Paris and heads home. Five years later we find her waking up in the house of Loic, a serious young man. Félicie dashes off to work to discover that her boss Maxence, a slightly older man, has decided to move to another salon in the franchise. He invites Félice to accompany him to Nevers, a small town 150 miles south of Paris. Here is a classic dilemma for Félice. Two men are vying for her favours. The other vital ingredient is her little daughter Elise.

Félicie with Loic (Hervé Furic)

I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I realised after a while that the narrative had some ingredients shared with an earlier Rohmer classic, Ma nuit chez Maud (France 1969). Like that film, Conte d’hiver is set over the Christmas holiday period. The earlier film has a male central character who faces a choice between two women. He’s a Catholic and his reasoning about how he approaches his choice includes consideration of ‘Pascal’s wager’ about the existence of God. Félicie is not a devout Catholic but she’s pragmatic enough to pray for a solution to her dilemma. The ‘night with Maud’ is spent in the provincial city of Clermont-Ferrand. Félicie spends a little time in the cathedral at Nevers and she also has discussions with Loic that involve Pascal’s wager.

Félicie with Elise on one of their journeys across Paris

The other notable aspect of the narrative is a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe. Félicie is taken by Loic and she is emotional watching the play. If you know the play, you will recognise why. Literature was Rohmer’s first love and he saw a BBC TV production of the play before he wrote the screenplay. If this had been a Truffaut or Godard film in the 1960s or 1970s, the couple would have been at the cinema.

Rohmer’s films have been criticised for being too slow and too talky. This film is filled with long sequences of talking as Félicie tries to sort out what’s best for her. It’s a relatively long film and apart from the opening montage and the visit to the play (and to the zoo and various children’s entertainments) there is not much in the way of ‘action’. Nevertheless, I was engaged completely throughout the film. A lot depends on the central performance by Charlotte Véry. She plays Félicie as an attractive, intelligent and charming young woman who is both indecisive but also assertive once she has made a decision. This particular ‘tale’ is very much from a female perspective as Félicie has her daughter and her mother and her two sisters as her family. I read one comment on MUBI which I found astonishing. “This man should not be allowed to write female characters.” I can’t speak on behalf of women, but I think that Rohmer spent plenty of time observing the world and his characters all seem recognisable to me. I can understand why some audiences don’t like his films. They feel so simple but are crafted so carefully with the ‘transparency’ of camerawork and mise en scène – there is nothing to distract from the interaction of characters. Some times I have to be in the mood to get into the groove but when I do I really appreciate his art. This is a perfect Christmas film for me.

And Now Tomorrow (US 1944)

My main interest in this film was its status as the second scriptwriting project for Raymond Chandler at Paramount shortly after his work on Double Indemnity. It certainly seems like a strange choice made by the studio. The only justification seems to be that it was a chance to develop Chandler’s knowledge of scriptwriting by giving him a different partner to write with. Trying to discern what Chandler might have contributed to the script is not easy.

And Now Tomorrow is a familiar studio genre picture, a romantic melodrama using the device of a disease/accident as the narrative disruption in the early scenes. It might also be what in the 1930s and 1940s was known as a ‘woman’s picture’. Partly this is because it was adapted from a hit novel by Rachel Field and partly because it starred Loretta Young and Susan Hayward as central characters. It is essentially a story about the Loretta Young character although Alan Ladd gets top billing. The woman’s picture is usually a film with a central female character who drives a narrative that requires her to overcome a problem arising because she is a woman – conventionally in this case a problem with her intended wedding. The audience is intended to comprise women in the main. Maria LaPlace (1987) points out that in many Hollywood films of the 1930s/40s, women’s stories are inevitably ‘re-positioned’ to in a patriarchal film industry to serve more masculine discourses. This means that it became important for feminist scholars to find those ‘marginal’ areas of cultural discourse which, though still largely controlled by men, are actually sites of production by women and for women. Thus publishing, both of novels and within women’s magazines becomes an important locus for stories.

Early in the narrative, Emily is introduced to Dr Vance by her family doctor (Cecil Kellaway)

Wikipedia suggests that originally Jane Murfin, an experienced scriptwriter with many credits, was assigned to the film, but eventually she was replaced by Frank Partos. There is no mention of a separate writer for the adaptation so Partos and Chandler presumably had to produce a screenplay directly from the novel. This is where the studios use of contracted writers comes in. The idea might have been to provide more experience for Chandler but pairing him with Partos, a Hungarian Jew of roughly the same age as Billy Wilder, did not mean a change. Working with a woman might have made sense. As it is, it is interesting because Partos had worked several times with Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett who Chandler had replaced as Wilder’s partner on Double Indemnity (Brackett didn’t think much of James M. Cain’s writing in the original novel). Partos had just finished working on the script for The Uninvited (1944), a fantasy horror which proved a significant hit for Paramount. Chandler would find his next job at Paramount would be the follow up known as The Unseen (1945), a mystery thriller.

Emily (Loretta Young) with Janice (Susan Hayward)

The plot of the film is straightforward. Emily Blair (Loretta Young) is a wealthy young woman living in Blairtown in New England where her family owns the local mill. Just as her marriage to an ‘appropriate’ young man Jeff Stoddard (Barry Sullivan) is announced, she falls ill with meningitis and though she recovers she finds she has lost her sense of hearing. She postpones the wedding and seeks a cure from international specialists to no avail. The fact that she feels that her deafness is a barrier to a ‘proper marriage’ is the problem she must overcome. Alan Ladd plays Dr Merek Vance, formerly from the poorer part of Blairtown, who now practices in Pittsburgh. He meets Emily by accident, noticing that she is deaf and being impressed by her lip reading. It turns out he is conducting research into hearing loss and eventually he agrees to make her part of his trials of a new serum. You can probably guess what happens. The potentially interesting sub-plot involves Emily’s younger sister Janice (Susan Hayward) who sees Emily’s reluctance to marry until she gets her hearing back as an opportunity to pursue Jeff. As in the best romances there is a stumbling block to Emily switching her attention to Merek and that is the class difference and his sense of grievance against the Blair family.

Does this scene include Chandler dialogue? (Screen grab from DVD Beaver)

I was engaged by the film and enjoyed it up to a point (more Susan Hayward would have been good). I certainly didn’t have the very negative responses of some leading US critics at the time who were especially cruel about Loretta Young’s performance. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it a “stupid picture”. Bad reviews don’t seem to have affected Box Office which was generally very good – as predicted by the trade papers. The director Irving Pechel was not generally liked by the cast and Loretta Young and Alan Ladd didn’t have a strong connection – though they seemed to work together effectively. What might Chandler have contributed to the script? Not much to the narrative structure, I’m guessing, but probably something to the dialogue. I was most interested in the Alan Ladd character in a part quite different to that of his lead in The Blue Dahlia (1946), which Chandler scripted on his own, using one of his own story ideas. I don’t really know Ladd that well as an actor but with Chandler’s dialogue in The Blue Dahlia he speaks in measured tones with pauses and there is a sequence in And Now Tomorrow which is similar, after Emily assists the doctor on an emergency operation they talk in the car (see above). He tells her he is “worn down to the ankles” which sounds like a Chandlerian line. At other times Ladd as Vance is quite sharp, mainly when his anger about poverty in the mill town comes to the fore. The other interesting aspect of the Ladd role in this ‘woman’s picture’ is that it is as another doctor who studies the woman who ‘lacks’ something and is then allowed to interpret what it might be. The doctor’s medical gaze replaces the erotic male gaze which is prevalent in other narratives. Sometimes by ‘solving’ the woman’s problem (often psychological rather than physical) the doctor enables her to find romance (as in Now Voyager). In this case Dr Vance becomes the beneficiary himself. See Mary Anne Doane (1987)

The tragedy of the film production is that Rachel Field died suddenly after an operation in 1942 before the script was ready and the camera rolled. I do wonder what she would have made of the adaptation. I think I should point out that the medical discourse in the film isn’t convincing and that the film doesn’t do much to help audiences’ understand hearing loss. I couldn’t find the film on any streamers but I watched a Region 2 DVD.

References

Doane, Mary Ann (1987) ‘The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address’ in Christine Gledhill (ed) Home is Where the Heart Is, London: BFI Books

LaPlace, Maria (1987) ‘Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager‘ in Gledhill (ed) op cit

The Net (UK 1953)

What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.

Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.

The model’s design is displayed in this alternative poster/lobby card

In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)

Lydia and Dr Leon enjoying viewing ‘What the Butler Saw’ on a trip away from the Project.

The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent  Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.

James Donald as Prof. Heathley in his futuristic flying suit.

I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.

The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.

Lucky Chan-sil (Chansilineun bokdo manhji, South Korea 2019)

Chan-sil and Kim-yeong, the French teacher

This lovely little film is one of two recent South Korean titles to turn up on MUBI. It’s an interesting mix of romance, fantasy and gentle humour with an underlying dramatic edge. Writer-director Kim Cho-hee is making her feature début as a director after working for several years as producer for the celebrated auteur director Hong Sang-soo. I’ve only seen one of Hong’s films and I found it slightly irritating so I was at first apprehensive about Lucky Chan-sil, but I needn’t have worried.

Moving house . . .

The film opens with a celebratory drinking session for a film crew at which the director suddenly collapses with a fatal heart attack. The future for the crew looks uncertain. The title credits are offered as simple text against a hessian background, familiar from classical Japanese films from the 1950s and especially the later colour films of Ozu Yasujiro. We realise then that we’ve been watching an opening sequence in Academy ratio. With the last title the ratio widens to 1.85:1. (I was reminded of the sequence at the start of Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It when Academy becomes CinemaScope and B&W becomes Technicolor.) We might guess that this Korean film is going to offer film references and we won’t be wrong

The landlady

Sophie and her French teacher with Chan-sil in her cleaning mode

The film’s protagonist emerges as ‘Producer Lee’ or Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-Geum). This 40 year-old finds herself without a job and few prospects after working with the same arthouse director for some time. She realises that her job as producer was one that most people she meets don’t really see as important. “But what do you actually do?” She is forced to move to a room in a house on top of the hill overlooking the city. It’s such a steep climb that she must recruit three of her younger ex-colleagues to carry her belongings. When she gets to the house with its views out over the city, we meet her landlady played by Youn Yuh-Jung, the beloved grandma in Minari (US 2020). As Chan-sil gradually begins to understand her situation she realises she needs to earn some money and ends up cleaning house for her friend, a successful but empty-headed young actress named Sophie. Her relationships with Sophie and with her landlady (who is struggling to overcome her own illiteracy because of her poor education in the 1950s) help us to understand the changes in women’s lives in Korea but also the still powerful restrictions of traditions. Chan-sil has not had a relationship for a decade. Does she need one now? She could test one out with Sophie’s French teacher perhaps. But Chan-sil is not sure. Trying to push her into looking inside herself is a surprising extra character, the ghost of ‘Hong Kong Cinema Legend’ Leslie Cheung, played by a young Korean look-alike. Cheung was a beautiful young man who took his own life aged only 46 and depressed by the celebrity gossip about his sexual identity. He has been sorely missed by everyone who admired his great range of work in Hong Kong and later mainland Chinese cinemas. Cheung’s ghost is inappropriately dressed in the singlet and boxers he wore in one of his iconic roles in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1991). He shivers in Korea with the coming of winter – he’s a very corporeal ghost.

The ghost wearing warmer attire!

I don’t want to say much more about the plot and, to be honest, there isn’t that much plot to discuss. If you are looking for a conventional romance, comedy or even psychological drama with a clear resolution, you won’t find it. But spending 95 minutes with Chan-sil was a real pleasure for me. Some reviewers seem concerned that the film might be too autobiographical and self-reflexive about cinema. I didn’t get that feeling. There is an entertaining comparison of Ozu and Christopher Nolan at one point and we learn later that Chan-sil’s love affair with cinema began with Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia-Italy-UK 1988). The final short sequence of the narrative is also a filmmaking reference, but in a more abstract sense, unless I’ve simply misread it.

All of the performances are very good and the presentation of naturalistic photography and well-chosen settings work well. Music is used sparingly but effectively. I was intrigued to read that the the lead actor had come to professional acting quite late. Overall this does seem to me a serious and sensitive portrayal of the possibilities for women in South Korean society presented as a moving personal story. I look forward to seeing more films by Kim Cho-hee.

LFF 2021 #3: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô, Japan 2021)

This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.

Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) and her ex-boyfriend Kazua (Nakajima Ayumu) discuss his recent meeting with Tsugumi

Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?

Nao (Mori Katsuki) reads a passage from his novel to Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko)

Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.

Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and Aya (Kawai Aoba) by Sendai Station

There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.

As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.

Nao with her younger lover Sasaki (Kai Shouma) in ‘Door Wide Open’

What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassevetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.

The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.

Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?