My Hindu Friend (Brazil 2015)

My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.

Diego improvises from his hospital bed, creating a camera eye view of his wife

At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.

Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.

Diego and his ‘Hindu friend’ re-enact a scene from a war film

My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.

The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).

An erotic dance to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.

Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer:

To Joy (Till glädje, Sweden 1950)

Conductor Sönderby (Victor Sjöström) with Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and Stig (Stig Olin)

This is the second film in which Ingmar Bergman directs from his own original script (following Prison, 1949) without any other writers involved. Once again the script features a flashback, this time a long flashback that follows a decisive moment and gradually leads back to it. The film’s title perhaps refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement which is being rehearsed by an orchestra in Helsingborg, as the film opens. The performance of the same piece then closes the narrative. When the flashback occurs it takes us back several years to when Stig (Stig Olin), a young man with ambitions to be a violin soloist, and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) have just joined the orchestra, she as the lone woman violinist. The orchestra is led by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), who is frustrated by the day’s rehearsal and the lack of progress.

Stig meets Marcel (Birger Malmsten), the orchestra player with the spiv moustache

As we might expect, Stig and Marta are going to get together and will eventually marry. The main part of the narrative will focus on their difficult relationship. Sönderby acts like a surrogate father to the couple, visiting them at key moments at home and providing a sounding board or a wall against which Stig can bash his ego. There are only three other significant players, Birger Malmsten, another Bergman favourite, turns up as a rather smooth member of the orchestra with a spiv’s moustache, always mocking Stig. A young woman Nelly and her much older husband Mikael also befriend Stig.

Mikael (John Ekman) consoles Stig

If this makes the film sound dull in visual terms, I hasten to confirm that it is lensed by the great Gunnar Fischer who offers a number of rich compositions. Helsingborg is on the coast of north-west Scania with Denmark a few miles across the water. Stig and Marta live by the sea at one point. There are train journeys and a wedding in the Town Hall. As well as the central importance of Beethoven’s 9th, the orchestra and Stig at various points play Mendelssohn, Mozart and Smetana.

I was tempted to write that this Bergman narrative seems more coherent than in the earlier films but I’m not sure that is the case. I have mixed feelings about the film. It is well staged and the performances are strong. I am generally against the idea that an unpleasant character means that a film cannot work with audiences, but I confess that I did find Stig intensely annoying and at times quite stupid. On the other hand we (i.e. many men) all do stupid things at times in relationships. It doesn’t help that Maj-Britt Nilsson is beautiful and seemingly sensible. How could anyone behave in that way towards her? But then we know that Bergman’s characters are going to be tortured by self-doubt and to feel that they have been abandoned. In this case, Stig is the artist who thinks he has the talent to be supremely successful, but also suffers from the self-doubt that will prevent him attaining his goals. He doesn’t seem to realise that working on his relationship with Marta will probably improve his playing.

Another Bergmanesque use of a mirror in a melodrama

To Joy is closer in feel to the realism of Port of Call, rather than the expressionism of Prison, but there are certainly some melodrama moments and the orchestra setting provides the film with music and a representation of ‘artistic performance’. Also, two significant objects are carefully positioned/foregrounded at the start of the flashback and will eventually be revealed as such. At another point, a bottle of nail varnish is tipped over and begins to soak into a table-cloth. The film is monochrome but we assume that the nail polish is red. Bergman was a Hitchcock fan. The two ‘significant objects’ act in the narrative in ways that are familiar from Hitchcock’s films and Bergman follows the Hitchcock practice of appearing in his own films. Here he is an expectant father waiting in a maternity hospital.

A composition with a ‘significant object’ foregrounded – the teddy bear Stig gives to Marta

As in all of Bergman’s films, there is plenty of evidence here that Bergman and his team have many good ideas about how to stage scenes. They can also draw on very skilled actors who appear to be keen to work on Bergman films. Whether I enjoy the films seems to depend mainly on what Bergman is trying to achieve. I think I feel that he doesn’t like people very much or that he wants to explore the demons in his character’s heads because of his own demons. I feel that as I move forwards through his filmography that I find it harder to get involved with his characters. I’m trying to understand why many of the directors I admire were inspired by Bergman early in their careers. I need to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film about him and read some more critiques.

Perhaps Bergman’s lack of interest in the sociology of his characters is my problem? We never learn anything about Stig’s background and all we know about Marta is that she has ‘grandparents’, but since this is mentioned in a family context this might refer to her own parents, i.e. the grandparents of her children. This contrasts with Stig’s relationships with both Sönderby and Mikael – older men who take the place of his father? What this film does provide, however, is babies – even though they follow previous abortions.

(Most of the images above come from dvdbeaver.com where you can find details of the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.)

Amanda (France 2018)

David (Vincent Lacoste) and Amanda (Isaure Multrier)

This enjoyable and gently moving film first appeared at Venice in 2018 and the UK is one of the last major territories to receive it. The title refers to the 7 year-old daughter of single mother Sandrine, a high school English teacher. The narrative, however, focuses on Amanda’s young uncle David, a young man in his early 20s with two jobs and and a small flat. He helps out his sister by occasionally picking up Amanda from school and joining in days out. Sandrine and David have long since ‘lost’ their own mother who left to live in London when David was a small child. This has perhaps helped to create stronger bonds between uncle and niece.

Spoiler warning: It’s impossible to discuss the film without revealing the major disruptive incident in the narrative, so don’t read on if you want to approach the film cold – but please come back after you’ve seen it!

David with Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) – a happy scene in her kitchen. But is she a little precarious in front of that open window?

Having established the daily routines of this trio and introducing the possibility of a romance for David with the arrival in Paris of Léna, a musician and piano teacher from the Dordogne, co-writer and director Mikhaël Hers then introduces tragedy when Sandrine goes to an early evening picnic in the park after arranging a sitter for Amanda. David is late as usual because of his job meeting new tenants for his seemingly dubious landlord boss. As he cycles to meet Sandrine, Hers brilliantly introduces a sense of something uncanny, something not quite right – the streets suddenly become deserted and the traffic melts away. In the park, David comes across the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Sandrine is dead and Léna is injured.

Stacy Martin as Léna

As several reviewers have pointed out, Hers doesn’t attempt to recreate the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016. Instead he focuses on the impact on David and how he must struggle not only with loss but also with his role in the future for Amanda and possibly for Léna. It takes time for David to realise the predicament he faces. He does have an aunt, his mother’s sister lives not far away, and she is supportive but not perhaps the long-term guardian for Amanda. David is a ‘man-child’ and now he must grow up. Should he finally try to find his mother in London? He had vowed not to but he had agreed to go with Sandrine and Amanda to to watch the tennis at Wimbledon in the June. And what of Léna who he has just got to know?

The script, co-written with Maud Ameline, works well to convey the process of grieving and coming to terms with both loss and the need to keep going and look forward. The performances are very good, especially by Vincent Lacoste as David and Isaure Multrier as Amanda. He is already an experienced actor with a strong presence. I was convinced I’d seen him before, but I don’t recognise any titles in his filmography. He has a screen presence that somehow seems familiar. Isaure Multrier had not acted professionally in a feature before yet she gives a naturalistic performance which, to repeat an old cliché, demonstrates how much better most child performers in Europe are compared to those in Hollywood. Stacy Martin and Ophélia Kolb have less to do as Léna and Sandrine but they are very well cast and make the most of their opportunities. The real surprise for me was Great Scacchi as David’s mother in London. At first I didn’t recognise her, but her vitality and spirit soon identified her. Perhaps she will now be the ‘go to’ English actor who can speak fluent French, allowing her to take over from Charlotte Rampling or Kristin Scott-Thomas? Having said that, I found her French easier to follow so perhaps it was important that the script introduced her as teaching French in London?

Doesn’t need a caption?

I would agree with several other reviewers that one of the strengths of the film is the cinematography by Sébastien Buchmann and location scouting. In the Press Pack, Hers is asked about this:

In your film, Paris is very luminous but never touristy . . .

That was important to me. I wanted to avoid any neighborhood too closely associated with a particular social group. I wanted to film cross-cultural Paris, regular Paris, daily Paris—a city everyone can relate to. It’s fabulous to weave fictional characters into the fabric of reality, to immerse that tiny bubble of fiction in an environment that just gets on with daily life. I would have liked to go even further but, unfortunately, it’s increasingly difficult to film in Paris and blend in with the crowd. 

I think Hers is successful in doing this and Amanda becomes one of those films that capture a form of street life in Paris very well, much like some of the early New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Rohmer. The Press Pack also includes a discussion about melodrama and Hers says that he felt that he pushed it towards “the cusp of melodrama”:

There is this prism of a tragedy that is both personal and collective. I wanted to make a film that is restrained while also taking risks and trying to make it as shareable as possible.

Many commentators have clearly been very moved by the film. Emotional responses to films are personal and though I was certainly engaged and moved by the events and the portrayal of the characters, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as some. A little distance is by no means a bad thing in thinking about how someone might deal with the tragedy that faces David, especially given his circumstances. Everything in this film worked for me except perhaps the closing scenes at the tennis match. But then I don’t judge a film on how it ends but rather on what it explores and uncovers over 90 minutes. I would recommend Amanda as a film to see – if you can find it (it’s a Curzon release so should be online). I should also mention the music by Anton Sanko – and do stay for the Jarvis Cocker song over the final credits.

So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang, China 2019)

Workers at the factory and the ‘One-child family’ poster

So Long, My Son was one of the ‘must see’ films of 2019 and I’m so glad I was able to catch it before it disappeared from cinemas. The last section of the film broke me completely as the long and complex melodrama narrative moved into its final resolution. This is a narrative of 185 minutes that at times moves at a stately pace but it gripped me throughout. At a time when the ‘long-form narrative’ is lauded on TV and streaming it’s important to state that this kind of experience is only possible on a big screen. I was lucky to see it at the Duke’s Cinema in Lancaster.

The current cinema ecology in China is such that though domestic titles have thrashed Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, the numbers of high profile Chinese specialised films – those likely to succeed on the international arthouse circuit – appear to have been squeezed. So Long, My Son is an exception, winning acting prizes for its leads at Berlin and recognised at many other festivals. Director and co-writer Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the so-called Sixth Generation directors, born in 1966 and graduating from Beijing Film Academy in 1989. He grew up in South West China during the Cultural Revolution and his best known and most successful films have been inspired by his own experience and those of similar families in which the parents’ lives were disrupted in the 1960s and 1970s. After his breakthrough feature Beijing Bicycle (China-Taiwan-France 2001), he made a loose trilogy of films exploring the consequences of sending Eastern families to the South West: Shanghai Dreams (2004), 11 Flowers (China-France 2011) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I feel lucky to have seen all four titles in the UK, although only the first two got a general release. It’s important to stress Wang’s background in placing So Long, My Son into context. This new title is said to be the first of a new trilogy of ‘Homeland’ films in which Wang explores what happened to families in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution from 1978 through the ‘Four Modernisations’ under Deng Xiaoping and onwards through the huge changes in Chinese social history up to the current period of ‘consumer-led communism’ (or however you may wish to describe it). With the focus on families it isn’t surprising that the one child per family policy is central to the narrative.

The six adults at New Year celebrations: (from left) Moli, Yaojun behind Meiyu, Liyun, Haiyan and Mingming. Xinjian is in custody.

Outline

(This description does contain a spoiler. It’s really impossible to offer a synopsis without it.)

This is the story of two closely connected families who live ‘cheek by jowl’ in a factory housing block on the outskirts of Beijing in the 1980s. Yaojun is a skilled fitter and his wife Liyun is a factory inspector of various processes. Their neighbours are Yingming who works in accounts and his wife Haiyan, the factory’s leader on family planning and the implementation of the one-child policy. Yingming’s younger sister Moli at one point becomes Yaojun’s apprentice fitter but later moves into much better paid jobs. There is also another couple, Xinjian and Meiyu – but I couldn’t work out if they were related in any way to the two central families. The intertwined relationships and what happens to them over nearly 40 years pivot around an incident in the 1980s. Xingxing and Hao, the schoolboy sons of the two central families are playing by the local reservoir on their way home from school. Xingxing, the son of Yaojun and Liyun is drowned. The parents are devastated and eventually they move south to the coast of Fujian Province where they are isolated as Mandarin speakers with their neighbours using other Chinese dialects. (Others from the factory move to Hainan, further south). They try to adopt a child. They have limited contact with their old workmates but in the final section of the narrative they return to Beijing and various issues are resolved, some in perhaps surprising ways (but conventionally for a family melodrama?).

A perfect composition. Liyun is threatened by Haiyan who is ‘following orders’ that she knows will be painful for her friend.

Commentary

What might be a relatively straightforward linear narrative is presented through a series of flashbacks. Movement backwards and forwards through the history of the families is not signalled by captions giving places and times. The only time when the year, ‘1986’, is mentioned is when a factory announcement is made. The film begins with the boys at the reservoir arguing about whether they should play in the water – but this isn’t the beginning of the story and the consequences of their decision are not shown until later. The storytelling is challenging. Apart from the ageing of the adult actors, the timeline of events is difficult to follow and I wonder how younger audiences with little knowledge of Chinese society and politics in the 1980s will piece the events together. You do need to understand the ‘one-child policy’ which was instituted in 1979 and not officially ended until 2015. The policy was rigorously enforced via contraception and abortion and fines or rewards for sticking to the policy. It is said that up to 400 million births were prevented but the social cost was very high. The other major policy shift was towards a consumer-led economy and the forced redundancy and movement of displaced workers and their families.

Yaojun and Liyun in Fujian

The script was co-written by Wang and Ah Mei (best known for working on Zhang Yimou’s Under The Hawthorn Tree, 2010) and it won the script prize at the Chinese Golden Rooster Awards. The cinematography by Kim Hyunseok from South Korea is terrific, beautifully-composed shots with great depth are hand-held and the effect is mesmerising especially in the opening shot of the reservoir with the boys in the foreground. I must also mention the use of songs, both recorded and sung by the factory workers. Decadent Western pop music (Boney M!) plus his hairstyle and flares are enough to see Xinjian arrested for immoral behaviour. A Chinese song using the tune of Auld Lang Syne is repeated at various points in community celebrations. The Chinese title of the film seems to refer to the song’s lyrics – ‘Dijiutianchang’ translates roughly as ‘enduring, eternal (of friendship or hate)’ which is actually a better title for the film. Equally important, the song reminds Yaojun and Liyun of the time when they were first together in the late 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was ending.

Perhaps because the narrative events needed time to be sorted out and meanings digested, I was never bothered by the slow pace, in fact I was riveted to the screen. My only distraction was provided by my tears in the final section. We tend to think about China in terms of state initiatives and mass movements but the best Chinese films tell their stories through the lives of ordinary people. The film is still around in some cinemas. In West Yorkshire it is showing at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on January 12. Don’t miss it if you have the chance to go.