Black is a difficult film to discuss because there are several contradictions in what it presents. On the plus side this is the first film I’ve seen which presents second generation immigrant communities in Belgium – and in particular Maghrebi and West/Central African teenagers. Also a plus, the film is lively with good technical credits and strong performances mainly from non-professionals. But on the down side the film has at least one scene of sexual violence which seemed to me to be exploitative and degrading – and not necessary to show in this way. As a consequence, the film received a ’16’ certificate in Belgium and an ’18’ in the UK (though it may be that the language – in translation – was enough to make it an 18 for BBFC). This effectively excludes much of the target audience. The film is based on two popular ‘young adult’ novels in Flemish (Black/Back by Dirk Bracke) and the official film website includes an Education Pack (in French and Flemish). I wouldn’t want to use the film with 17 year-old students because of the rape scene. My second major concern is that the two groups of young people in opposing street gangs are represented quite differently.
The ‘1080s’ (named for the postcode of Molenbeek, the Brussels district at the centre of recent fears about terrorism) are petty criminals, snatching bags from cars and pedestrians. They are mainly Moroccan youths. The ‘Black Bronx’ are heavily typed as drug dealers and misogynists with few redeeming features. They are mainly Congolese and are also involved in a turf war with another similar gang, The Black Panthers. It seems an odd approach for Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the two Maghrebi filmmakers, the only North Africans in their art school. They seem to be arguing that both gangs are ferocious in defence of their identity because there is no future for them in ‘white Belgium’, but they load the most negative traits onto the Congolese.
My frustration with the film’s UK release is that it was heavily promoted via a feature article in the Guardian as an update/commentary on the two French films La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014) and a full-page ad in the Guardian G2. But the film opened in only four arthouse cinemas alongside a VOD release. There seemed to be a confusion over what kind of film it might be. The filmmakers also quote other films as reference points including City of God (Brazil 2002) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) – and their admiration for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. They make it clear that they are not interested in arthouse cinema and indeed they are now in Hollywood working on Beverly Hills Cop 4.
15 year-old Mavela is the new kid in ‘The Black Bronx’, arrested for the first time for shoplifting. In the police station she meets 16 year-old Marwan from the ‘1080s’. Despite warnings from other gang members the two meet up later and a relationship ensues. Mavela is gradually sucked into the worst extremes of her gang’s behaviour and it is clear that eventually the couple will be found out and that the two gangs will clash with Marwan and Mavela at the centre.
The bare outline above excludes various sub-plots to avoid too many spoilers. The main narrative is very familiar. It doesn’t have the subtlety of La haine nor the visual audacity and wit of Girlhood (although it has a strong music track and a camera style that shows off Brussels very well). I laughed out loud at one brief sequence of three young women dancing in the sunlight coming through the windows of a high-rise – a seeming ‘borrow’ from La haine without any narrative function. The only other La haine link I could see is Mina, the Maghrebi police officer who knows Marwan just as Samir knows the young men in La haine. Unlike the ’empowering’ young women of Girlhood, the young women in Black are treated (very badly) as sexual objects by the male gang members. (The young men in Girlhood are not angels but they are not as brutal as those depicted in Black.)
The script by the directors and by the more experienced Hans Herbots and Nele Meirhaeghe struggles to find motivations for the characters. This is particularly true of the scenes with Mavela’s mother. There is a complicated set of relationships involving mother and daughter and another gang member, Mavela’s cousin, which seems to be little more than a plot device, though there is also something about the sociology of the community in there as well. At one point we see ‘X’, the leader of the Black Bronx, watching a TV documentary seemingly about the civil wars in the Congo. Was he a child soldier in those wars? Does this explain his brutality?
The local issue that does appear – and which is articulated by the directors – is the sense of divided identities in Belgium. Since the decline of the industries of the Meuse valley in Francophone Wallonia, Flemish Belgium to the north has become the dominant and wealthier half of the country. Brussels is an island between the two language cultures. It is predominantly Francophone, yet located within the Flemish region. In the film, both Marwan and Mavela see Flemish as the ‘wrong’ language. They use it only to curse and the only Flemish-speaking characters are the white cops who the kids see as racist. What is surprising is that much of the funding comes from Flemish funds and the filmmaker’s mentors are also from the Flemish industry. Fallah himself comes from Antwerp and suggests that he experienced racism from as a teenager. Black‘s narrative generates its conflict by pushing at the conflict between the Moroccans and the Congolese – even though as the filmmakers suggest, such conflicts are relatively rare. It’s worth pointing out that in La haine, the three young men are together and opposed to the police and local Nazis. In Girlhood, the focus is entirely on African-Caribbean communities with no mention of Maghrebi youth. These two films are by white directors, wary perhaps of getting involved in inter-racial conflicts. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have more experience of the relationships between their young characters but I do wonder if they have thought through how the film will be read. They have skilfully worked the conventions of a genre movie as a calling card for Hollywood but that’s perhaps as far as it goes.
None of the films discussed here enter into a discourse about religion as such, nor links to ‘terrorism’ in the current context and that’s probably a good thing, especially in the case of Black. I’m glad I saw the film and I’m pleased that young Maghrebis in Belgium are able to make a genre film with high levels of skill and visual imagination (Black is actually their second film after the ‘thriller’ Image in 2014). Perhaps we’ll now see more – and more nuanced – films based in the Brussels? One aspect of Black that I would like to know more about is the locations. The Moroccan gang is in Molenbeek and this is characterised by familiar high rises. The Brussels district of Matonge is often quoted as the centre for Congolese Belgians but this is an ‘inner city area’ close to the city centre with relatively few Congolese residents. The Black Bronx are often seen arriving in the centre by train – as in La haine – implying their estate is farther out. The area in which Mavela lives has very distinct architecture which I haven’t been able to place. Anyone know where it is?
Here’s the official Black trailer (which seems very dark to me – it looked fine in the cinema). It’s available on VOD from iTunes, Virgin and Sky and in various (mostly London) cinemas over the next few weeks:
Last week, more or less by accident, I attended back-to-back screenings of India’s top box office film, Kabali (India 2016) and Hollywood’s latest revamp of the Bourne franchise, simply titled Jason Bourne (US 2016). I’d wanted to see Kabali but Jason Bourne was an ‘impulse watch’, mainly on the grounds that Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel are two of my favourite stars. I’d seen two of the previous Bourne films and three recent Rajnikanth spectaculars. The result of this current contest between the action champions of the US and India was, for this viewer, an away win for Superstar Rajni.
Let me deal with Jason Bourne first. The return of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, this time with his regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who first came to international attention as Ken Loach’s cinematographer), gave hope to fans of an action film par excellence. Vikander’s casting and that of Cassel matched earlier European casting choices. They were joined by Riz Ahmed in a Steve Jobs type role and the whole package had a very European flavour for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, the script was left to Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse and they proved to not be up to the job. In truth, Jason Bourne is four separate action sequences somewhat loosely tied together by the familiar plotline of Damon’s character Bourne trying to find out what his own father did that started this whole chase scenario in which he is pursued by corrupt CIA officials. The novelty is that this time he might expedite a further release of Edward Snowden type secret materials – and in doing so create further problems for the CIA in its link to the surveillance potential of the Riz Ahmed’s character’s new software developments.
In the first major action sequence, Bourne is on the streets of Athens during anti-austerity riots. He’s meeting his ex-CIA ‘insider’ partner played by Julia Stiles. Bourne is in ‘drab’ but she has long flowing blonde hair – easily visible to the satellite cameras of the CIA back in Washington where Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander can track the couple’s every move and release ‘The Asset’ – the assassin played by Vincent Cassel. We never learn what the Greek riot was about (are audiences expected to know the details of Greece’s economic and political problems?), but various Greek bystanders are killed in the mayhem and the action moves to Berlin where Bourne and his local contact make similarly stupid mistakes. After that it is London and then finally Las Vegas. In each case, the main confrontation is between Cassel and Damon with the CIA mission being compromised by Vikander’s realisation that something may be amiss in what they are doing – or perhaps she has her own ulterior motives?
The action is indeed spectacular but by the fourth sequence it starts to get boring, though I perked up and genuinely laughed when a Police SWAT vehicle crashes into a Las Vegas temple to the fruit machine. In technical terms, the film is very efficiently made, but the script is full of holes. Bourne has no personality and I wanted the Cassel character, who unfortunately has no redeeming features, to end up with Vikander. Perhaps the oddest aspect of Jason Bourne is the BBFC entry on the film which shows a 12A Certificate and suggests that there is ‘moderate violence’. So, children can’t be harmed by multiple deaths by sniper bullets or beatings in which people are repeatedly hit to a sickening soundtrack. But there are no sexual encounters or drugs so children won’t be affected. The hypocrisy is staggering.
Kabali is, by comparison a lot less slick and at times quite slowly-paced, but it wins because of warmth and wit, because it is actually ‘about’ something and because it has Rajnikanth, genuinely a superstar, mainly in South India, but also in parts of the world with a Tamil diaspora and other surprising places such as Japan. Rajnikanth is now billed as ‘Superstar’ in his film’s credits. Now 66 he has appeared in some 200 films since 1975. His superstar status depends on his affinity with the ‘common man’ in the crowd (I’m not sure about his appeal to the ‘common woman’). Whatever trouble he is in, Rajni’s character will emerge and live to fight another day, mainly because of his lightning reflexes. Kabali reminded me of one of Rajni’s earlier successes as a gang leader in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (India 1991). In the new film we meet Rajni as a man who has served 25 years in a Malaysian prison for a crime he feels he was not responsible for – and which was associated with the death of his pregnant wife. He is met at the prison gates by followers who have been waiting patiently for him – and building a school in his honour to train young Tamils in Malaysia who have ‘failed’ or lacked opportunities. But Rajni (Kabali) is a gang leader, albeit one with principles and political ambitions. Flashbacks reveal how he began as the leader of Tamil workers on rubber plantations in Malaysia, striking for better conditions. His enemies are other Tamil gangsters who resent his leadership and reject his political aims and Chinese gangsters led by Peter Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao).
In some ways Kabali is a melodrama. Kabali is ruthless when he first emerges from prison, immediately taking down some of his Tamil enemies. But he is soon distracted by memories of his wife and begins to follow up clues to what really happened 25 years ago. Flashbacks take us into a family melodrama in which we learn of miraculous recoveries. Kabali still has a wife, but he will need to travel to the ex-French colony of Pondicherry to find her. He also has a daughter who emerges in true melodrama fashion – and he has surrogate sons from the school founded in his honour. But all this family business means that Kabali’s enemies have time to organise and the film’s finale will prove whether Kabali can still be a boss in Kuala Lumpur – which offers a cityscape of tall buildings to match any American setting. As one Hindi/Bollywood critic writes, this is indeed a ‘Southern pot-boiler’ but the emotion got to me. Rajni himself remains eminently watchable. He is now playing close to his age and the wig works very well – he looks cool and stylish as a don in his sixties. He dominates the frame and speaks commandingly and he can still use a gun and make his moves.
The release of Kabali in India has been a media event in itself – even outside the South. Kabali‘s producers claimed the biggest ever opening box office for an Indian film. Box office figures in India are always dubious and especially so in Tamil Nadu. Nevertheless the film has attracted huge crowds in the South and has been dubbed into Hindi, Telugu and Malay (where several scenes have been censored) and probably other languages too. In North America, the UK and Australia we are able to see the Tamil original with English subs. One of the most interesting Hindi/Bollywood reviews of the film suggests that Hindi dubbing is very poor for Kabali and that it loses not only Rajni’s great delivery, but also the political subtext of Tamil identity in colonial and post-colonial Malayan history. (Malaysia and Singapore with their significant Tamil diaspora communities are key audiences for Rajni films.) Another article commenting on Rajni’s status as superstar claims that no film script can contain him any more and that the his films will always fail for fans who have enormous expectations. (Rajni fans treat the star like a deity, making offerings to giant cardboard cut-outs of their hero and watching the films multiple times. His fans outside Tamil Nadu will fly in and purchase tickets at inflated prices to see their hero.)
Kabali is directed by Pa. Rajnith, one of the younger feted directors of Tamil cinema. Having not seen his first two films, I’m not sure how Kabali stands up to them. He seems to do an OK job and it’s good that Superstar Rajni can work with the new generation. But surely he can’t go on playing the same kinds of roles much longer? He can certainly act and it would be good to see him take on something new – perhaps something with less action and more politics. But I doubt his enormous fanbase would agree. One thing you can say about Rajni and Kabali is that apart from the Godfather references that helped to build Superstar Rajni’s persona, Hollywood has so far not produced anything to compete with him directly.
Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.
The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.
Johnnie To is one of the most prolific – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai. The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.
The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.
The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?
To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.
The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.