Hong Kong cinema has not been very visible for me during lockdown so I was delighted to discover ‘Focus Hong Kong’ – part of the Chinese Visual Festival in the UK offering five features with some extras and a series of short films at the bargain price of £8.99 or £2.99 for a single feature. The festival started last night and films are available to stream until 15th February.
I started with this title which promised genre pleasures in the form of an absurdist crime fiction film, a mash-up of gangster film, police investigation, melodrama and romance all laced with violence and humour. My immediate point of reference seemed to be Johnnie To, the legendary director of crime films with a twist, something prompted by the presence of Louis Koo as one of the two leads, Sean Wong, a cool and ruthless gang leader. He’s up against Louis Cheung as ‘Larry Lam’, a police detective down on his luck. The film begins with the introduction of these two central characters. Wong is fleeing from a killing where the only witness appears to be a parrot and Lam is trying to avoid a loan shark from whom he has borrowed money to set up a cat sanctuary. But just in case this might suggest a whimsical tale, writer director Fung Chi-Keung soon flashes back to a jewellery robbery in which, because of police informants, the cops arrive en masse and the robbery turns violent as Wong and his gang escape with the loot. The murder suggests that the loot has gone missing and Wong is looking for it.
The police investigation is led by hard-faced Inspector Yip and Lam is joined by Charmaine a young female officer who we learn only joined the force because she was inspired by Lam’s bravery on a case a few years ago. Wong has gone into hiding and become the tenant of a landlady named Joy whose other guests are a trio of elderly folk. Lam decides that the parrot knows who the killer is, but it seems to discount Wong. It’s a clever script which I don’t intend to spoil any further. I’ll only point out that with crooks, loot, crime victims, police and informers – and a brief appearance of ‘internal affairs’ – there is every possibility of double-crossing and misrecognitions.
The parrot doesn’t appear that often but its role is important. In the Q&A the director explains that he was inspired by his own experience of living with a parrot when he was a schoolboy and the parrot inadvertently (or not!) got him into trouble. The cats don’t contribute anything that I remember and that’s a shame. Overall, however, the excitement of the shootouts and the humour of the situations work very well. There is a hint of romance and some beautiful aerial shots of the city (it’s a Scope picture). I thought the characters were well drawn within the confines of the genre and the performances were all good. If you are a Louis Koo fan you’ll certainly enjoy his performance. I’m not sure it adds up to anything more than a genre exercise but I found it very enjoyable and just the thing for a lockdown pick-me-up. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Fung Chi-Keung.
Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.
In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.
As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.
Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.
So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.
I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)
Another British picture (new to me) showing on Talking Pictures TV, this is a Francis Durbridge adaptation. Durbridge (1912-1998) was a very prolific writer of radio and TV serials as well as novels and plays. His work was widely adapted and Wikipedia lists German, Italian and French TV adaptations as well as all those in the UK. Durbridge was best known for the Paul Temple radio serials in which Temple and his wife Steve become involved in crime thrillers. They were broadcast from 1938-68 (and are now to be heard on BBC Radio 4 Extra). Durbridge was born in Hull and educated at Bradford Grammar School.
The Teckman Mystery was an adaptation of a TV serial from 1953-4. 1953 was the period when TV audiences began to grow in the UK around the time of the Coronation in 1953, but presumably there was still a sizeable potential cinema audience for an adaptation. The story was certainly contemporary. A crime novelist Phillip Chance (John Justin) is surprised to be asked by his publisher to write a biography of a test pilot, Martin Teckman (Michael Medwin) who was killed when the new jet fighter he was flying disappeared with only a fragment of the fuselage recovered. Chance is even more surprised to discover that the woman sitting next to him on the plane bringing him back to London from his writer’s retreat in France is Teckman’s sister Helen (Margaret Leighton). You’d think he would have found that suspicious! As you might expect, the plot involves a group of foreign agents who have attempted to steal the experimental fighter (a model of which in the film is similar to the Gloster Javelin which was being tested at the time – a Javelin did crash in the week before the film opened).
The most significant feature of the production may well be that the director was Wendy Toye making her début. Ms Toye was a choreographer, dancer and actor who had a successful career as a stage and TV director which lasted until the 1990s. After directing a short film which won a prize at Cannes in 1952 she made seven features and a contribution to a compendium film. Two of the films were crime narratives but most of the rest were comedies. She was only the second British woman to direct mainstream studio features after 1945. Muriel Box was the first. Both women deserve to be better known.
The Teckman Mystery is an ‘A’ feature with a strong cast. John Justin is actually quite good as the Durbridge type of amateur detective with enough arrogance and charm. His career never really took on the next step from his early starring role in The Thief of Baghdad (UK-US 1940) but here he does well. Margaret Leighton is top-billed as a femme fatale in what some reviewers describe as a noir. The film was photographed by the experienced Jack Hildyard and features some nice location work around London including the final section filmed around Tower Bridge and the adjacent docks. It was projected in theatres at 1.66:1 but slightly cropped on TV to allow a 16:9 TV broadcast. American reviews suggest that the plot is ‘meandering’. I didn’t feel that myself and at times it moves very quickly – but at 90 minutes it did feel a little like an 80 minute film that had been expanded. As with many of these TPTV prints, the film has been released on a Network DVD which gets a generally positive review from DVD Beaver.
This is a well-made film and if you like old-fashioned crime mysteries I can recommend it. For me the interest is in the subject matter. This was the period when British aviation was at its height and aspects of it were world-leading. The Cold War was becoming a reality and films about jet aircraft and test pilots were all the rage. The Net (UK 1953) was shown on the same day as The Teckman Mystery on Talking Pictures TV. Not long ago we had David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (UK 1952) and before that the slightly different No Highway (UK-US 1951) – a new airliner is grounded when evidence of possible faults is found. Plane travel was only beginning to feature regularly in British films. I was intrigued by the aircraft that Phillip boards for Berlin that might be an Airspeed Ambassador.
Network’s teaser (with Raymond Huntley as Phillip’s publisher) for the DVD release in 2016:
‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.
The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.
Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.
This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.
The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.
But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.
I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.
I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.
It was a strange day on Wednesday this week. We watched the last episode of The Bay on ITV only a few hours after returning from a day out in Morecambe where the ITV series was set and the final episode ended on the promenade and Stone Jetty where we had lunch. The crime serial (6×52 mins episodes) proved to be a winner for me overall, although I felt it lost its way a little around episode 3 and there were still a few loose ends flapping about at the end.
When the serial opened on UK screens it received some positive critical reviews for the first episode but then something of a backlash on social media. A common complaint was that it was just another inferior version of Broadchurch, one of the biggest crime fiction hits of recent years. It’s not difficult to see why this response might be forthcoming. Both serials feature missing children in a seaside setting with an emotionally involved police investigator. But there are major differences too. Broadchurch featured three major stars of British film and TV (Jodie Whittaker, Olivia Colman and David Tennant) as well as other well-known supporting players and in the second serial, several more notable figures. It was set in a fictitious town on a relatively unknown but beautiful part of the South Coast with London seemingly a long way away. If The Bay was more interesting for me, it was probably because of its setting.
The Bay refers to Morecambe Bay, a large geographical feature and one of the largest natural bays in Europe. The seaside resort of Morecambe is the largest settlement on the bay. As a resort, Morecambe reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century. It attracted large numbers of holidaymakers who used the direct rail route from Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire (and which we used on our trip – in far less comfort than travellers sixty years ago!). In its decline Morecambe has suffered like many other seaside resorts in Northern England and one of the social problems associated with that decline is an important element in this crime fiction drama.
The serial begins with the disappearance of 15 year-old twins Holly and Dylan. The officer who is assigned to Family Liaison duty is DS Lisa Armstrong who is not best pleased to be taken off a drugs investigation and asked to mentor DC ‘Med’ Kharim. She has a double burden to bear. In Episode 1 she does something that will compromise her position later on in the investigation and she is also a single parent for her own teenagers Abbie and Rob who go to the same school as Holly and Dylan. I’m not going to describe all the plot elements because the serial will be available on the ITV Hub and has been sold to several other TV broadcasters around the world.But I would like to comment on the production more generally.
Unlike Broadchurch, The Bay doesn’t have any major stars in the cast. That doesn’t mean that the cast is in any way inexperienced, but simply that the lead players are not so well-known that an entire episode is spent wondering what will happen to them based on their status. I don’t watch a lot of TV so perhaps some of the cast are more familiar to some viewers but I don’t think there are the same expectations of major acting tussles like Colman vs. Tennant etc. The star of The Bay is Morven Christie as Lisa Armstrong, who does indeed have a long list of TV credits and some interesting film roles. I must have seen her in Lilting (UK 2013). In The Bay she is excellent, managing, as a Scot, to produce an acceptable North of England accent. The cast overall are very good, drawn from across the North and as far afield as the North of Ireland (linked by ferry to Morecambe/Heysham). The Bay was written by Daragh Carville, the writer and playwright from Armagh who has written radio plays and films and the six episodes were directed by Lee Haven Jones and Robert Quinn, both of whom have experience of other UK crime fiction series.
One of the most important questions for me is how well do the creators of this serial make use of the locations offered by Morecambe and its environs? Morecambe’s claim to fame in film and television rests on three or four high profile narratives and associated stars. In 1960 it was the setting for Tony Richardson’s film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier and in 1975 Stephen Frears’ TV film written by Alan Bennett, Sunset Across the Bay. Bennett, the Leeds boy knew Morecambe from his childhood. Thora Hird, often Alan Bennett’s go to actor is one of Morecambe’s best known celebrity figures alongside Eric Bartholomew, a.k.a Eric Morecambe, now a statue on the Promenade and immortalised in a biopic TV film by another Morecambe fan, Victoria Wood. Finally Morecambe Bay became the site of the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004 represented in Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts (UK 2006) and Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010). The cockle-pickers died just north of Morecambe in the bay close to Hest Bank.
Thanks to my local contact, I’m fairly sure that all the scenes in the serial were shot in the Morecambe area except for one in the closed outdoor swimming pool across the bay in Grange-over-Sands and another in a marina or fishing dock (my guess is Whitehaven or Glasson?). My impression is that the production tends to focus on the seafront and the few streets behind the promenade. There isn’t as much made of the beach and the bay as I thought might be the case and nothing of the hinterland of suburban housing which stretches inland and eventually merges with Lancaster.
The serial narrative is very complex. In terms of narrative structure it presents two families, both, in different ways, with mothers struggling through the teenage years of their children, both aided (or not) by their own mothers. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll say simply that the eventual family melodrama that becomes the dominant mode of the serial is melded with a crime fiction narrative mainly by the presence of drug dealing in the town and the access to Morecambe by sea is important. Morecambe as far as I am aware doesn’t have a fishing industry or a dock as such although it is a popular spot for amateur sea anglers. The only commercial fishery is across the bay at Flookburgh so for The Bay, a Morecambe-based fishing boat in the Irish Sea is an invention. The story does make sense though as an example of the ‘County Lines’ drugs operations whereby Manchester drugs gangs can bring drugs into a town like Morecambe and find/coerce locals into dealing.
As I’ve indicated there are some loose ends in the narrative and that might mean a sequel is a possibility. (It could also mean that I couldn’t make sense of the narrative in a single viewing or that there are mistakes in the script.) I think I would be up for another go. One last comment might be about the casting. The police force in this film seems diverse to a greater extent than might be expected in North Lancashire. I’m all in favour of diversity of gender and race in both the police and in TV drama but I wonder if it is also an indicator of how both the police and the presence of ‘organised’ crime represent urban Manchester reaching out to the ‘periphery’ of the North Lancashire coast? Morecambe is arguably a candidate for ‘left behind’ status in the current Brexit mess that has paralysed UK political action.
This odd film is one of the MUBI selections from the My French Film Festival. It’s odd because on the surface it appears to be a typical polar/crime thriller but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like a genre film. It may be because it is an adaptation of an Israeli novel by Dror Mishani and the adaptation is directed by Erick Zonca as only the third film he has completed since his international arthouse hit The Dreamlife of Angels (La vie rêvée des anges, 1998). The lead player of that film, Élodie Bouchez, is the fourth lead in this new film – in a secondary role behind three very established French stars.
The most immediately recognisable of the three stars is Sandrine Kiberlain as Solange, a depressed mother in her late 40s with a young teenage daughter who has learning difficulties. Her older child, Dany is a high school student who has gone missing and her husband, a merchant seaman, is away on a trip. When the boy’s disappearance is reported to the police it becomes a case for Commander Visconti played against type by an almost unrecognisable Vincent Cassel and seemingly lurking around every corner is a neighbour and Dany’s sometime tutor Yann Belaille played by Roman Duris – also looking very different. What follows is a drama featuring these three powerful actors.
The settings of the film are also unusual. Visconti is based in a police station in the city but the boy’s family live in an apartment block by a wood, presumably in an outer suburb and at times this felt like the setting for a Nordic Noir. If your recent experience of French policing on TV is the wonderful serial Engrenages (Spiral) you may also be a little baffled by the police operations this film. How does Visconti keep his job? This narrative is only marginally interested in police procedures. Visconti is an alcoholic living alone and battling with his son who appears to be operating a semi-pro drugs business from his high school. The Commander is dishevelled with greasy unruly hair and a thick beard. His appearance and demeanour suggest that he is permanently suffering from hangovers and his interrogation of witnesses in their homes often includes a request for whisky. Part way through the narrative he is taken off the case and replaced by a colleague with a more conventional approach. But this doesn’t appear to prevent Visconti carrying on his investigation.
Visconti becomes interested, perhaps too interested, in the creepy neighbour/teacher. Romain Duris is similarly disguised by a thick bushy beard (though this one is carefully groomed) and large spectacles. What does he know? What is he up to now? Most of the time this narrative is a mystery. Dany can’t be found. Is he still alive? In one sense Zonca seems to be teasing us with possible red herrings but perhaps he is most interested in the three central characters, each of whom has secrets. The case of Dany’s disappearance is eventually solved – or at least there is a confession, but not a clear resolution that ties up all the loose ends.
I’m not sure what to make of this film. As someone very interested in this kind of procedural/rogue cop etc. crime fiction, I found it very interesting, especially because of the three leads. But I do wonder whether a general audience, either of genre cinema or arthouse cinema, will enjoy the film.