The writer-directors of My Little Sister, Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, were able to introduce their film for the Borderlines Film Festival. They told us it was written for Nina Hoss and was made possible through a chance meeting with the actor. This is one of two Nina Hoss films in the festival and I posted on the other film The Audition (Germany 2019) from Glasgow last year. The two films are similar in some ways with Ms Hoss as an independent woman who finds herself close to someone she considers her charge, her responsibility at a time of crisis – even though this might undermine her marriage. Both films are made by women. My Little Sister was the official Swiss entry for the 2021 Oscars as ‘Best International Feature Film’.
This is a traditional European arthouse film, a drama designed primarily as a psychological study of twins from a Berlin family of actors and writers. It does however have a genre base in the form of a narrative about a potentially terminal illness. As the film opens it appears that it is the Nina Hoss character, Lisa who is facing a serious illness as she lies in a hospital bed attached to various bits of medical technology, but soon we realise that it is her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) who is seriously ill and that Lisa has been donating blood and marrow. This is one of those films that place actors in the odd position of playing roles which replicate aspects of their ‘real lives’. Sven, like Eidinger himself, is a star actor of the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble and the connection is extended through Thomas Ostermeier, the ‘real theatre’ director, who in this film plays David, the theatre director. Sven leaves hospital and visits the theatre hoping that David will take him back as Hamlet, the role he has played many times before. David is clearly wary of Sven’s condition but Sven is determined to spend his convalescence looking forward to returning to a role he knows so well.
Life in their mother’s flat in Berlin is chaotic and Kathy (Marthe Keller, the veteran German star) is not really equipped to keep house for Sven or to organise his medical appointments. Lisa decides to take him to her home in Switzerland where her two small children will be pleased to see Sven. She also has a husband Martin (Jens Albinus, also a lead actor in The Audition) who is the headteacher of an élite private school in the lakeside resort of Leysin (once known for its TB sanatoria). It is quickly apparent that Lisa’s close attachment to her sick twin (he is a few minutes older) is going to cause problems in her marriage. This is the basic plot outline. The genre base of the narrative more or less directs where the story will go but the interest is in the development of the relationships rather than the ‘action’ events.
Lisa has been a writer, including for the Schaubühne. She needs to write for Sven and she needs to write for herself and to stand up to her mother who represents the political theatre of the past. We wonder why she married Martin who is good in bed but whose ambitions for his career don’t really match what she wants for herself and her children. This is a cleverly scripted and beautifully presented film with terrific performances. I don’t really enjoy medical dramas which always make me think of my own mortality. On the other hand I could watch Nina Hoss being magnificent in virtually any kind of film. The connection between Lisa, Sven and the two children is at the centre of the film and it is this that kept me engaged throughout. I’ve said it is an arthouse film, but the narrative drive is strong, powered by the performances. The medical theme could be an ingredient in a melodrama, but in this case I feel that the melodrama possibilities are not developed and the narrative relies more on the performances. One interesting aspect of the film is that Leysin is in Vaud in the South West, part of francophone Switzerland and the school over which Martin presides is anglophone, reflecting its attraction to East Asian parents preferring the idea of an international school. Wikipedia tells me that there was indeed once an American international school in Leysin, but it is now closed. Some of the scenes in the school are interesting as Lisa is roped in by her husband to charm prospective students and their families. Lisa converses in French and then German on the phone as she walks towards the school and is then introduced in English. I should point out that all the films I have seen at the Borderlines Festival are subtitled by default.
According to the festival programme, My Little Sister has been acquired for the UK by 606 Distribution, a small independent which is “Dedicated to releasing female focused films from around the world”. I hope this means we shall see the film in UK cinemas later this year. Nina Hoss is a huge talent who is not well enough known in the UK and the more of her films that open here, the better. Similarly we don’t get many Swiss films and it is always good to see different aspects of European cinema. The US trailer below gives a good idea of the film.
There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)
Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.
Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.
The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.
I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:
The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)
The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.
This debut feature by Farnoosh Samadi is relatively short (around 83 minutes). Ms Samadi has mostly been working on short films, writing several and also co-writing a feature with Ali Asgari. Her own film deals with two familiar social issues that have been dealt with by several Iranian directors and, for international audiences, most notably by Asghar Farhadi. The first is the highly patriarchal nature of Iranian society which allows women to do many things but still requires them to seek permission from a husband or a father. The second issue is the propensity to lie to avoid social conflict or criticism. This latter can be seen as a widespread concern about the corruption of a society – many people in Iran seem to be ‘living a lie’. It forms the basis for Farhadi’s film About Elly (Iran 2009) but is also an important element of other Iranian films. I suspect it is a form of lying most associated with the middle class who have status to lose (as well as the arrogance for some to feel that they are ‘above the law’ or, more radically, that the law is an ass and it should be challenged). This latter is much more dangerous in a state like Iran.
The basic outline of this drama presents Sara as a middle-class woman who works in a girls school where she appears to be a respected and trusted member of staff, to whom the girls might take a problem. She has a young daughter of her own and a husband, Hamed, an executive given several ‘missions’ which require him to fly to various locations on trips lasting a few days. As the narrative begins it is clear that he has not asked for leave to attend Sara’s niece’s wedding some distance away in the North of the country. He is then sent out on another ‘mission’ (the subtitles are rather basic) but he forbids Sara to go to the wedding because he doesn’t think she is competent to drive herself and their daughter. Sara has bought a dress for what is intended to be a magical wedding in a forest and her young daughter (of around five) has learned a song to sing as the bridesmaid. Of course, Sara is going to defy a husband who is being unreasonable. I’m not going to spoil what is not a particularly complex plot but fate is not kind to Sara. Her family rally round to protect her but Sara makes the mistake of constructing a lie to cover what she feels is a failing on her part. She is in a state of shock and understandably not thinking straight. Her family, principally her parents and her brother, collude with her but when Hamed returns he disproves her story quite quickly and becomes violently angry. What follows is a set of legal procedures that again are familiar from Farhadi’s films with a demonstration of the male authority which permeates the whole system. Sara’s response is to remain silent throughout, in some ways an eloquent commentary on the the inequality of the legal system. Sara then finds herself facing further problems related to her position at the school and in particular her interaction with a specific student which points to another, separate but connected social issue for women. The narrative concludes with an ending that may divide audiences.
The strongest aspect of this film is the central performance by Sahar Dolatshahi, an actor who featured in Permission (Iran 2018), another film about a woman denied permission by her husband. She also stars in an earlier, and better, film Inversion (Iran 2016) in which she plays an independent woman pressurised by her family to give up her independence. The actor playing Hamed, Pejman Jamshidi, is given little to do other than to be angry. I’ve read that he is generally known for comedy roles. I think that this film could have been an effective melodrama given the events in the narrative but the overall presentation of the film seems quite ‘functional’, apart from the spectacle of the wedding in the forest. True, it does begin with a close-up of milk boiling over on the stove and later there is a folkoric natural event that is often seen as a warning. But again, I didn’t really notice the score and rather than the ‘excess’ of a traditional melodrama, the mise en scène of the film added little. I have managed to find an interview with the director in which she explains that she has always been interested in the ‘secrets and lies’ that play such a strong role in Iranian social life. She has envisaged a trilogy of films and this is the first (which draws on the experiences of one of her friends). She does at one point admit: “Unfortunately, due to time and financial problems, I did not have the chance to rehearse with the cast and I just used my experiences from making short films. I always tried to choose my cast based on what I feel is the closest image to my film’s characters”. It is difficult to make low budget films and as well as the pressure of time, what tends to happen is that the there is not enough paid development time for the script and planning the shoot.
The title of the film requires some explanation for those readers not part of the film industry or film academia. I don’t know if the film has a different title in Farsi but I’m assuming that this English title refers to the convention of ‘not crossing the line’ – here is a brief explanation on Wikipedia. The convention is helpful in filmmaking if the intention is always to ensure that the audience knows where the characters are in relation to each other in any setting. What does it mean in the context of this film? It seems to be metaphorical in that Sara has ‘crossed a line’ and finds herself in the ‘wrong place’. But there might be a more specific reason for the title.
The social issues in this film are important and Farnoosh Samadi faces many problems as a woman trying to write and direct films in Iran. I want to support her intentions but I feel that the film feels a little undercooked for international distribution. On the other hand I’m pleased that we are still able to see films coming out of Iran and this was my second film at the Borderlines Festival – where it was included as part of the ‘F-rated’ strand. My next screening is another Iranian film but I expect a rather different experience. A contrasting Iranian film directed by a woman is Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019).
Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to review parts of the film.
The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.
What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.
Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)
The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.
I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.