I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.
In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US 1988).
In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.
The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.
I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.
Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer:
Fernando Solanas is a veteran documentarist and political activist who is now an Argentinian Senator. Along with Octavio Getino he wrote the statement that formulated the concept of Third Cinema in 1969. Fifty years later Solanos is still attempting to make films that demonstrate a different voice and a different argument in global cinema. This new film is a detailed and coherent attack on multinational agri-business and its rape of the Argentinian ecology. As a film it does have flaws but they don’t prevent the powerful message from being communicated.
I had expected a documentary using various non-conventional devices to make its argument, but formally this is quite conventional with Solanos and his crew moving around Argentina, starting in the far north around Salta. The footage that is captured is almost low-res and I wonder if some of it was pre-digital video. Even the higher-res footage seems de-saturated at times and the overall impression is of greens and greys. The strength of the film is the ways in which different aspects of the central problem are explored in detail and then brought into the overall argument.
In the beginning we see the felling of vast acreages of ‘centenarian forest’ and the burning of the stumps so that the land can be cleared for yet more soybean monoculture (Argentina is the third largest global producer of soybeans and a major exporter). The focus here is on several different but connected issues. The first of these is that the deforestation ignores the land rights of the local indigenous people the Wichí. Interviewed, one of the Wichí leaders says they have been living on the land for 200 years. As well as the large trees the bulldozers also uproot the smaller trees, one of which bears a fruit that is a major food source for the Wichí. Indigenous people seem to receive little support from local or national government in the face of actions by the large multinationals behind the deforestation. The film returns to the plight of indigenous people at the end of the film. The planting of soybeans is accompanied by heavy spraying of the crop with pesticides and fertilisers. Crops of various kinds are hybrid varieties and farmers are trapped by the large companies who are making profits, often benefiting from state-funded research into new seed varieties. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved for planting next year and farmers must buy new seed for each crop. Large bio-tech companies like Monsanto are going one-step further and genetically modifying cash crops to be able to withstand the toxins that kill insects. They have persuaded some governments that these GM seeds are produced by a unique process that can be patented so that the companies can charge even higher prices without fear of competition. (The same practice which operates in some pharmacy contexts – Monsanto is now owned by Bayer.) Monoculture also destroys jobs. Large acreages of a single crop are easily harvested by modern computer-controlled machinery. The groves of peaches that might have existed previously employed armies of pickers. Latin America has suffered heavily from the migration of the rural unemployed to already overcrowded cities.
The new monoculture has other bad consequences. The ecological change has forced out beekeepers and the crop is now at the mercy of global prices for soybeans (and the oil and flour extracted). Like all monocultures, moving away from traditional and largely organic methods requires more inputs of fertilisers and insecticides. These are all noted by Solanos and his team as well as the impact of spraying which is often carelessly done by aerial delivery that allows spray to drift over schools and villages. The documentary extends this investigation to show that the high levels of spraying (fumigados) have created a major problem of agri-toxins entering the water supply and being ingested by large groups of people. As well as visiting hospital wards, the team led by Solanas interview many local people, including teachers and parents of young children and claims are also made about the damage to various groups of workers in silos, nurseries and transportation.
Having established the range of problems with the monoculture, the alternatives are also explored – mixed farming and organic farming/horticulture – before returning to the plight of indigenous peoples. There is some comedy in these sequences which leavens the relentless presentation of the damage being done. Solanas is offered a glass of ‘chlorophyll juice’ (a smoothie of wheat grass) which he reluctantly accepts and swallows, putting on a brave face. There is also a strange contradiction in two of the statements we hear. On the one hand we are told that the agri-toxins from spraying and run-offs into the water supply are everywhere in Argentina and everyone tested has traces of them in their bloodstream and on the other we are told that Argentina has more certified organic growing land than anywhere else. Perhaps I misread the subs?
This film succeeds as a ‘social documentary’. It isn’t just about voiceover narration, facts and figures and talking head experts. Solanas and his crew travel to all parts and meet people and talk to them. Also important is the way the different issues are brought together. On the downside, I think some of the issues could be explained a little more clearly. I’m not sure what local audiences and other Latin American audiences will make of the film. From a European perspective and I should state, that of someone who has thirty years of practising organic horticulture, most of the issues in the film were familiar. What I learned was the detail of how indigenous people are once again marginalised and made almost invisible. The damage to eco-systems is a global problem (the palm oil plantations of South East Asia present some of the same issues) and it would seem to be that Argentina needs to strengthen regulation of agri-business practices to a considerable degree. It also makes me aware of the dangers facing the UK if we leave Europe and are pushed into trade deals without the same protection we have as part of the EU.
This documentary was followed by a discussion after its first screening at ¡Viva!. It would be interesting to know what was said. Below is a French trailer for the film and a snippet with English subs (which ends very abruptly):
This record-breaking Stephen Chow comedy was released in the UK only 10 days after its Chinese release. Sony released the film taking advantage (presumably) of the new strategy devised by Asia Releasing which gets new Chinese films into cinemas in cities with a sizeable Chinese diaspora population. Mermaid opened on 19 screens in the UK.
This release strategy is similar to that of the Bollywood distributors in the UK and Mermaid shares something with mainstream Hindi popular cinema in offering romance (with songs) and broad comedy alongside special effects and action. The massive success of the film is, however, due, I think, to jokes in the Mandarin dialogue (which I couldn’t catch) and a serious theme. This latter gave the film a Japanese feel for me.
Mermaid‘s simple plot sees an extremely wealthy businessman Xuan Liu (Deng Chao) buying an area of coastal National Park for re-development and then entering into partnership with the dangerous Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), a beautiful woman who expects Xuan’s attention but is interested mainly in money. Xuan’s plan is to use sonar devices to drive away all marine life away from ‘Green Gulf’ and then re-develop the area (or sell it for re-development at an inflated price). At a party to celebrate the new partnership, Xuan is approached by a young woman, Shan (Lin Yun) who everybody assumes is a dancer or a ‘goodtime girl’. Xuan is interested, even if only to spite Ruolan. What he doesn’t know is that Shan is a mermaid from the last surviving group of ‘merpeople’ in Green Gulf. She is the ‘honey’ in a trap designed to capture and kill Xuan and prevent the redevelopment. The rest of the plot flows from this premise. Will Xuan fall for Shan? Will she be party to his murder? Will Ruolan allow all this to happen? Will the mer community be wiped out etc.? You can guess the answers to these questions.
I enjoyed the film and the central performances. Stephen Chow has appeared himself in previous blockbusters such as Kung Fu Hustle (HK 2004) but now he is limited to producing, writing and directing. Deng Chao and Lin Yun make a good couple and Zhang Yuqi is an excellent villainess. I thought that Show Luo, the well-known Taiwanese dancer, had a very interesting role as a merman who is half octopus/half man. Chow mined this character for some good comic material.
The Japanese connection comes with both the ecological theme shared with Miyazaki’s Ponyo (Japan 2008) and the various documentaries about pollution in Japanese waters including The Cove (US 2009). I don’t know enough about critiques of pollution and narratives of ecological destruction in Chinese media to judge how unusual this is. I’m also intrigued by the strength of the anti-business message and wonder how this is being received in China. Unlike Hollywood blockbusters, this Chinese blockbusters seems to be ‘about’ something. This places it alongside other Japanese genre pictures such as the Godzilla films.
Xuan Liu is quite a bit older than Shan and some reviewers feel this is an issue for the romance narrative. I should also point out that many reviewers criticise the CGI in the film. I never notice these things – they seemed to work fine. But perhaps evaluating effects is just a skill I don’t have? It’s far more important to have a good story and interesting characters. The role of Ruolan is played ‘straight’ by Zhang Yuqi. This is the better option, I think, than playing the villain as a comically evil character. Overall Stephen Chow makes the right decisions throughout the production.