Category: Romance

Road House (US 1948)

This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.

Ida Lupino as the Queen of Road House

This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original  ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.

The four leads of Road House pose for a promo

As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.

Jefty, Susie and Pete in a deep focus composition

The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.

The narrative offers us a struggle between Jefty and Pete over Lily’s affection

The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.

‘Over-determined masculinity’ with Lily framed beneath the stag’s head

Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.

Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano:

The Souvenir (UK 2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (UK 2021)

Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.

Julie and Anthony in the Knightsbridge flat

These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.

Camerawork and mise en scène present the difficult relationship between Julie and Anthony

Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne  had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.

Anthony introduces the idea of fantasy rather than realism to Julie in this awful location. Those Union Jack ‘drapes’!

Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.

Julie and Anthony visiter her parents (she’s here with her mother played by Tilda Swinton). This could be a landscape from a Michael Powell English country scene.

At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.

The older men who are Julie’s tutors at the film school played by Steve Gough and Dick Fontaine

Julie on set in Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.

One of the long shots from Souvenir

I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.

Love After Love (Di yi lu xiang, China 2020)

Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.

Weilong (Ma Sichun) making her way to her aunt’s grand mansion at the beginning of the film

Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.

The two maids who effectively run the house (under Madame Liang’s instructions) are at first suspicious of the new arrival

We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.

Weilong and George (Nicky Peng) on the day of the garden party

Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.

‘Sir Cheng’ Chiao between his daughter Kitty and Madame Liang

Mr Situ who Madame Liang persuades to act as Weilong’s teacher in the social mores of Hong Kong’s ‘British Way’

I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.

Lo Sui-Lun, the young man who wants to study medicine and who is attractive to both Weilong and Mme Liang

I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?

Aunt and niece. Everything revolves around Mme Liang

I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.

To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.

(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)

Asako I & II (Netemo sametemo, Japan-France 2018)

Baku and Asako

Asako I & II is the second of the four features which announced Hamaguchi Ryusuke as a writer-director on the world stage after an earlier career mainly concerned with student film projects and documentaries. I watched it before a screening and discussion of Drive My Car. Already on this blog are Happy Hour (Japan 2015) which Nick Lacey reviewed and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) which I wrote about after its London Film Festival screening. I did also manage to watch a small part of Happy Hour before it disappeared from MUBI. I mention this simply because I now realise how much Hamaguchi seems to be teasing away at some of the same or similar narrative ideas across the four films.

Asako is quiet and thoughtful

Asako is a shy and retiring young woman who also happens to be very attractive in a quiet way. We first meet her going to a photographic exhibition in her home city of Osaka and becoming intrigued by a tall young man with wild hair who doesn’t appear to be her type. Nevertheless she follows him out of the exhibition and they tentatively begin a relationship. He tells her his name is ‘Baku’. Asako is clearly smitten and then she meets his friend Okazaki. It turns out that Asako’s best friend Haruyo knows Okazaki and she warns Asako (in front of the two young men) that Baku looks like ‘bad news’. I think I missed something during this meeting of the four characters. Haruyo makes a comment about Okazaki’s name and Asako later explains to Haruyo that she likes the name Baku because the kanji symbol for Baku means ‘Wheat’. These early sequences (including a clubbing scene and a motorcycle ride, both accompanied by the music of Tofubeats (the singer, producer, DJ, Kawai Yusuke)), suggest that we are watching a conventional romcom. But then Baku does his disappearing trick, going out on a simple shopping trip but never returning. All of the film so far is a pre-title credit sequence, a device Hamaguchi will extend in Drive My Car.

A little over two years later, Asako has left university and is now in Tokyo, working in a coffee shop. Close by are the offices of a sake brewing company where she delivers coffee for a meeting and, shocked, comes across a young salaryman who looks just like Baku apart from wearing a suit and sporting a more conservative haircut. This is a second ‘meet cute’ in the language of modern genre romance. But this isn’t Baku, it’s Ryohei, someone who looks just Baku. Asako will fall in love all over again. She has a new friend in Tokyo, Maya, and Ryohei has a young colleague Kushihashi. The quartet this time are more conventional and become involved in more grown-up and sophisticated activities. Maya is an aspiring actor and one intriguing scene involves a discussion of acting in a Chekhov adaptation. I won’t reveal any more of the plot details but, as you are wondering, yes, Baku does re-appear later on and Asako will make a number of startling decisions.

Asako and Ryohei in Tokyo

As the title suggests, Asako I & II, is about the question of Asako’s reactions to events, rather than the differences between Baku and Ryohei. The film was adapted by Hamaguchi and Tanaka Sachiko from Netemo Sametemo, a novel by Shibasaki Tomoka. Hamaguchi tells us he followed the book quite closely but he has made one significant addition to the narrative in the form of the Tohuku earthquake of 2011. The novel was published in 2010. Hamaguchi explains that Shibasaki’s novels deal with the everyday but that they also contain social commentaries. The 2011 event was so important it had an impact on everyone’s lives. Its introduction in the film produces some remarkable cinema and its aftermath is cleverly woven into the narrative. Hamaguchi also tells us that he partially defined the two versions of his central male character by their speech and Baku the more ‘closed’ character speaks a standard Tokyo dialect while Ryohei speaks with a Kansai (Osaka region) dialect – common to many of the characters in Shibasaki’s novels.

Asako with both her friends after Haruyo (Itô Sairi) moves to Tokyo. Maya (Yamashita Rio) is in the centre

The casting of the film sees a well-known young actor, Higashide Masahiro, as Baku/Ryohei. Although barely 30 when he made the film, Higashide had more than 40 credits to his name. Karata Erika as Asako had much less experience, mostly in TV and none of the others had quite the profile of Higashide (who Hamaguchi knew partly because the young man had appeared in a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film). As in his previous film Happy Hour, Hamaguchi used a rehearsal method inspired by Jean Renoir and the results are impressive. The film looks good as photographed by Sasaki Yasuyuki, but I’m not sure why it is presented in a 1.66 : 1 ratio – perhaps it is the French connection since that screen shape remains a choice for some French auteurs.

I enjoyed the film which I found intriguing. As Hamaguchi predicted in his press notes, I found the final section startling. I now feel (after also watching Drive My Car, post to follow) that although the four films are structurally different, I am getting a feel for Hamaguchi’s narratives and his ideas. I’m very much looking forward to what he does next. IMDb carries a teasing suggestion that he is currently planning or making  something in Paris. With Kore-eda Hirokazu now taking Netflix’s shilling, I hope we get something new from Hamaguchi. Asako I & II is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK but I don’t know of any planned UK cinema or DVD release.

All Hands on Deck (À l’abordage, France 2020)

Often with film festivals I start a screening knowing little about the film – which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to managing expectations. This is especially true of My French Film Festival because I buy a ticket that covers most of the films (there are a couple which are not available in the UK). I started All Hands on Deck with no idea of what I might be watching. Halfway through I thought the film was OK but a bit underwhelming. The last part was better and in the end I was pleased to have seen it. To my surprise I then realised that the director Guillaume Brac is now quite well-known internationally and is being touted as an Eric Rohmer-like filmmaker for contemporary cinema. This film screened at Berlin in 2020 and was released in France in 2021 to acclaim and recognition as a successful comedy. I realised that I had looked briefly at the collection of Brac’s films currently on MUBI but had not bothered to investigate further. It turns out that this year there are several titles from My French Film Festival also on MUBI.

(from left) Chérif, Edouard and Félix

The English title of the film is not very helpful and the French title refers to ‘boarding’ which is ambiguous so I’ll need to outline the plot. Félix (Eric Nantchouang) and Chérif (Salif Cissé) are two young African-French men in Paris. Félix is a carer who we first meet visiting an elderly woman and then on a night out where he meets a young woman, Alma (Asma Messaoudene), at an open air dance by the Seine. He learns that she is about to go on her summer holiday, staying in a house with her family in rural France. (The house seems to be in Die in Drôme department in South East France.) On a whim, Félix decides to take a week off and surprise her with a visit. He persuades Chérif to join him and they sign up for a car share journey to a campsite close to Alma’s holiday home. The car’s driver, Edouard (Édouard Sulpice), is disappointed to discover they are not the young women he was expecting. Edouard is a young white guy and socially awkward. He and Félix do not get on but Chérif is a calming influence. I think that ‘boarding’ actually refers to the adventures that follow at the campsite, possibly as ‘boarders’ who are in different ways ‘house guests’.

Félix with Alma

The Rohmer tag makes sense in terms of the dialogue-driven interactions between the three young men and a handful of other young people on the campsite. As well as Alma we meet her older sister and a couple of young men who are working at the site. Chérif also meets someone and it is his relationship which perhaps is the most affecting. Edouard has a few setbacks but he begins to socialise and turns out to be someone who can ‘come out of himself’. The one thing that I did feel in the latter half of the film was that this was not a film that wanted to use the genre conventions of the French summer holiday comedy. Apart from one rather over-bearing character there are no real ‘bad guys’ in the film and this was refreshing – though I did find the occasional outbursts and then fulsome apologies a little annoying.

Chérif and Hélena (Ana Blagojevic) at the karaoke bar

Reading the film’s Press Pack (in a Google translation) I learned that the actors are all students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique de Paris. Brac took up a commission to make a film with the students and he began with a workshop and a simple outline from which the students had to build a character. The final script was then written by Brac and his writing partner Catherine Paillé. The most interesting questions involved the two African-French students. They were clear that they didn’t want to appear in typical roles as guys from les banlieues in Paris and they didn’t want to be in a narrative which focused on their difference/identity. Brac says he understood this but also felt that it was unrealistic and unhelpful to try to ignore their identity, especially in a tourist area in rural France. He and the students agreed that identity issues and typical characters shouldn’t be the focus of the story. I think that the film does avoid this problem but that it is indeed impossible to ignore the fact that Félix and Chérif are recognisable characters, even if they don’t behave in stereotypical ways. Personally, I found Félix a slightly annoying character and Chérif someone I would like to have met on holiday and that’s probably a win for the presentation of the characters. I can see that I should have looked more carefully at the selection of Guillaume Brac’s films that are available on MUBI and I’ll try to watch some of the others. If you come across this film it’s definitely worth a look.

L’amant (The Lover, France-UK 1992)

My French Film Festival is back online with around a dozen features available for minimum cost. There is usually at least one archive film included and this year it is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’amant in a restored print from 2014. I didn’t make any effort to see this film on release. It was hyped I think and I assumed that it would not interest me as a vapid combination of heritage film and soft porn extravaganza. In 2022 it looks controversial primarily for the casting of the central character as a young teenage girl in an illicit relationship. What surprised me most about watching it now was the split in 1992 between leading critics whom I generally respect. Some were prepared to defend the film and others trashed it. These days I try to comment on what I see, how I think a film has been put together and what it might mean. So here goes.

The girl and the Chinese man meet on the ferry

L’amant is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel with the same title by Marguerite Duras published in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt. An earlier novel drawing on her adolescent years in Indochina was published in 1950 and that was made into two films, one ‘international’ and the other a later French production in 2008 with Isabelle Huppert as the mother struggling to hold back the sea’s incursion into the land she had been fooled into acquiring. Known as The Sea Wall in English, elements of this story appear in L’amant. It is perhaps significant that Duras herself was not involved in the scripting of L’amant and that she wrote a second version of the story, published as L’amant de la Chine du Nord in 1991. The Duras connection might have been a stumbling block for some reviewers and one American reviewer claimed that L’amant was full of ‘arthouse banalities’. I’m not sure I understand that but it does say something about what happens when a French literary adaptation arrives in the US as a big budget English language film distributed by MGM.

Jean-Jacques Annaud (born 1943) is a French director who trained at IDHEC but who began his career in advertising before developing a portfolio of ‘big pictures’ mostly as English-language productions set in various spectacular locations. Claude Berri who produced L’amant was one of the major figures in French cinema as a producer, director, writer and actor. His biggest success as a director was the pair of Maurice Pagnol adaptations, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources in 1986. In industry terms, these were two names to be trusted with a big budget film shot mainly in Vietnam.

The couple’s first intimate encounter in the car

The Duras story sees a young teenage girl, known only as ‘The Girl’ who is heading back to Saigon to a large hostel for girls where she stays in order to attend a lycée in the city. She leaves behind her mother and two brothers in the town of Sa Đéc in the Mekong Delta. On the ferry she meets a wealthy and attractive ‘Chinese man’, who is also unnamed in the story. He offers her a ride in his chauffeur-driven car. There is an attraction between them and eventually over the next few weeks he will persuade her to visit his ‘bachelor room’ where they begin a physical affair. The man is close to an arranged marriage and the affair with the girl is a taboo for him as well as for the girl. But the story will not end with the girl’s eventual return to Paris as there is a brief coda. As the film begins the year is 1929 (when Duras was 15). When she gets into the car, the girl says she is 17. The man says he is 32 (which would have been Tony Leung Ka Fai’s actual age when he made the film). Annaud searched extensively in casting for the girl. Jane March had started modelling work at 15 in England. She was 17 when Annaud found her and she turned 18 at the start of the film shoot. The script included many scenes in which she would be naked and despite the use of body doubles she would later claim that Annaud had exploited her. Tony Leung was already a star in Hong Kong cinema in 1991 (a year when eleven of his films were released). Jane would have had the support of her mother (who had some Vietnamese-Chinese ancestry according to IMDb) but I don’t know if she was in Paris where the bedroom scenes were filmed or in Vietnam for the location shoot. Tony Leung’s time on set may have been limited because of his other films in production. IMDb suggests that Annaud spread rumours about ‘real’ sex on set to generate news stories. It looks like a potential case for investigation in the current circumstances. I haven’t seen anything else about the case so I can’t comment. The film was heavily cut in the US to get an R classification. In the UK it received an ’18’ rating with fewer cuts (or perhaps the submitted film was shorter). The version I watched online was a few minutes longer than the UK DVD releases. I’m not sure the cuts are that important. The early 1990s were a time when soft porn in mainstream cinema was still part of the offer. We live in a different world now where presentation of sex in the mainstream cinema is perhaps less common but much more explicit. What is presented in The Lover didn’t strike me as pornographic and I note that in France it has a certificate for ‘Tous public’. The debate about pornography v. eroticism is interesting, but I’m going to focus on other aspects.

The girl is a good student and destined to be a writer

What kind of film is it? The romance dominates the narrative but since both families are to some extent involved in the romance, this is also a form of family melodrama. It’s also a colonial melodrama, complicated by issues of race and class, though it involves a wealthy Chinese family rather than the directly colonised Vietnamese. It is also a form of ‘heritage’ picture, the French genre similar to the British idea of a heritage drama – wrapped up in nostalgia, costumes, beautiful houses etc. Finally it’s a literary adaptation and specifically a narrative associated with Marguerite Duras, a then still living figure associated with high culture. That’s a complicated mixture, largely ignored by most critics and reviewers. Berri and Annaud insisted on shooting in Vietnam, despite the cost of importing equipment and facilities. There is some use of matte work I think? Special effects work is not my forte and I’m not sure about how it’s done but there are several uses of long shots/aerial shots of the Mekong with steamships from France that maintain the colonial communities, otherwise Indochina is represented by street scenes, a dancehall, the Chinese district (Cholon), the lycée and the boarding house and towards the end of the film, a Chinese wedding. Vietnamese characters feature only as servants, stall-holders, waiters etc.

Walking through Cholon

The colonial melodrama is to a certain extent stifled or deflected by the main focus on the French-Chinese couple. Tony Leung gives a sensitive performance. His character puts up with the casual racism displayed by the girl and he doesn’t really become enraged until he meets the family and particularly her older brother. That anger is transferred to a rough sex scene with the girl but she in turn uses it as part of her fantasy exploring how it must feel for prostitutes. The sexual relationship between man and girl is intelligently explored and involves the possibility of love, the strength of tradition and the exploration of adolescence. My disappointment with the film is more concerned with the missed opportunity to deal with the colonial imagination of the girl and her family (which is seriously affected by the economic position of the mother and the events which make up the main narrative in The Sea Wall). We do learn something about the Chinese family, though only really via the dialogue. The Chinese man explains how the family migrated from China, selling their property and business to the Japanese in Manchuria. The historical background of this narrative seems to look forward to the collapse of the French influence in the region twenty years later and the complicated Chinese-Vietnamese relationships during the same period.

The couple visit the abadoned land the mother couldn’t protect from the sea

Overall, I did enjoy the film and I don’t think it deserves the critical mauling it got in both the US and UK, especially using the charge of ‘bad acting’ – I thought that both March with her brief background experience in modelling and Leung with his already celebrated career triumphs in Hong Kong were very good. I realise that when the film came out my knowledge of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema was still fairly limited but I hope I might have recognised the performance skills of ‘Big Tony’ (to distinguish him from Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who is probably better known in the US/UK because of his work in arthouse and major international productions). I was impressed by Big Tony’s English accent. I suppose, however, that it is a little odd to see a relationship between a young French girl and a Chinese man in Indochina conducted in British English and perhaps it does distance the relationship from its French colonial setting? The film was scripted by Annaud’s regular collaborator Gérard Brach. The music is by Gabriel Yared and the cinematography by Robert Fraisse. And I almost forgot that there is narration by Jeanne Moreau, presenting the the thoughts of the novelist, i.e. ‘the girl’ thinking back as the older woman in her Parisian writer’s room. Voiceover narration is always divisive for critics but it worked for me. Here’s a short clip from the film, when the couple meet and share the car ride to Saigon.